Anchorage Daily News

Sunday, November 7, 1999

Down but not out
Disabled artist translates his view of the world into eye-catching artwork

Daily News reporter

News Photo

HOMER - Linda Thompson remembers a doctor's advice the day she delivered Erik Behnke, her first born: "Your son is a Mongoloid. He should be institutionalized."

Thompson and her husband were shocked. "We looked at each other and said, 'Let's get out of here.' " They rejected the diagnosis that Erik, born with Down syndrome, was severely retarded.

"I didn't know what it meant," said Steve Behnke, Erik's father. "I was numb."

Down syndrome is a genetic condition caused by an extra chromosome. It was named in 1866 after the British physician who described it, John Langdon Down. Down syndrome can include mild to severe retardation, broad facial features, and heart, vision and respiratory problems.

Despite the diagnosis, Thompson and Behnke vowed to raise their son as they would any other child, refusing to look at him as different.

It's been a long road full of bumps and curves. But 22 years later, Erik has transcended some of his limitations and has emerged as a promising artist. His work is displayed in galleries, bookshops and gift stores around the state. He's creating material for the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games. And the Disney Corp. is interested in selling his drawings.

All of this happened practically overnight.

No one realized Erik had any talent until 1997, when he was finishing his last year of high school in Kenny Lake, a small community north of Glenallen. With graduation looming, his mother was desperately searching for a livelihood that would sustain Erik over the long term. She wanted something more than what the experts recommended, a job to satisfy his preference for precision and order and provide some income.

"Testing showed that folding laundry at the Pioneers' Home would be a good job for him," Thompson said. But the prospect of her son folding sheets and towels for a lifetime depressed her. She longed for a brighter future for him.

Thompson knew one of Erik's favorite activities, besides cross-country skiing and watching videos, was tracing. For years, he would lay tracing paper over coloring books and magazine pictures, outlining shapes and images, especially of animals.

"We didn't buy tracing paper like a normal family," Thompson said with a laugh, pulling rolls of it out from under Erik's bed. "We bought it in gobs."

Thompson was curious about Erik's penchant for tracing, so she decided to try an experiment. She asked a teaching assistant at Kenny Lake school, Linda Rutledge, to help her figure out whether Erik might be able to draw instead of trace.

They pulled together some pens and paper and went to the library to scope out books with animal pictures. Then they took away Erik's tracing paper and told him to look at a picture and just draw.

"By the second day, I was in awe," Rutledge said.

What she witnessed was a young man painstakingly but confidently creating unique images of animals. The drawings depicted wildlife in a rudimentary but provocative style. The legs, beaks, muzzles and other body parts weren't like those of animals in "real life." They emerged on paper in Erik's own abstract style, which gallery owners describe as whimsical and childlike, compelling and compassionate.

"Erik's work touches the heart," said Diane Louise, owner of Aurora Fine Art Gallery in downtown Anchorage.

Once he got started, the floodgates opened. Erik kept drawing, for hours at a time. Thompson knew she saw promise but wasn't sure the drawings were good enough to be considered art. For 20 years, she had heard Erik described as limited. It was hard to overcome such a curtailed description of his potential.

With guidance from his mother and Rutledge, Erik's early work began to blossom. The drawings grew more precise, and he developed a style of creating backgrounds that mimic stained glass or batik. Using fine-tipped colored markers, Erik divides the background into irregular blocks and then fills them in with tightly woven brush strokes resembling lizard skin.

While Erik started to draw, Thompson and Rutledge cobbled together a portfolio. In his spare time, when Erik wasn't drawing, chopping firewood or hauling water to his mother's cabin, he sold ice cream to pay for his art supplies.

Portfolio in hand, Thompson and Rutledge approached the local library, which agreed to display some of Erik's work. They showed the drawings to local artists to see what they thought.

"They just went nuts," Rutledge said.

Word spread through the community, and before long, Erik, the special-needs child, was being referred to as gifted. Within months, seven galleries around the state were selling his art.

Aurora Fine Art was the first. Louise remembers being taken aback when she first saw the drawings. She said she had never seen anyone look at the world the way Erik does. She considers the way he "webs the backgrounds" to be very sophisticated.

She told Thompson, "I want to be the first gallery to introduce Erik Behnke to the world."

Louise advised Thompson not to sell Erik's originals. This was a departure for Louise, as galleries often buy both the originals and the reproduction rights.

"I felt it was important for Erik to retain ownership of his artwork," Louise said, as a nest egg. "There may be a time in his life when his mother may not be able to take care of him."

Thompson said Erik's prints sold for $25 last year. Now most galleries sell them for $40. They're available on the Internet for the same price. Thompson said an Anchorage gallery owner offered $1,000 for one of Erik's originals, a hockey player he drew for the Special Olympics. After the 2001 Winter Games, Thompson expects the drawing will be worth up to $10,000.


Erik's entry into the professional art world has followed a circuitous and unlikely route. Beyond his disabilities, Erik has beaten the odds in other ways. His roots are firmly planted in Bush Alaska, a long way from art schools and the galleries of SoHo.

And Erik faced challenges on the home front. The loving family he was born into crumbled along the way.

After Erik's birth, his parents flew him home to a log cabin near Lake Clark in Southwest Alaska. Thompson and Steve Behnke ran a trap line, hunted and fished. Behnke did carpentry and had a contract with the National Park Service to research subsistence. The couple spent most of their time putting up fish and caring for their son and dog team. Thompson said Erik spent much of his first three years wrapped in a sleeping bag, strapped in a box atop a dog sled.

It was quintessential Alaska. An idyllic and romantic time.

"We'd finish each other's sentences," Thompson said. "We knew what each other was thinking without even saying anything."

But it didn't last.

Life was difficult. Thompson, raised in sunny California, hand-washed diapers at 50 below. She sliced her hand open while splitting wood. Money was scarce. After a few years, they packed it in and headed for civilization. They chose Dillingham, a fishing community on the shore of Bristol Bay. When Erik was 5, the family moved again, to Juneau, so Behnke could accept a job heading the state's subsistence division.

By then, the couple were considering another pregnancy. It was a decision Thompson didn't take lightly. She had heard it can take years for a parent to fully accept a disabled child.

"They call it a period of mourning," Thompson said. But by 1982, she was ready to try again.

Thompson bore twins, a boy and a girl. The girl, Danielle, was born with severe health problems and died two days later. The boy, Chris, was healthy except for a hearing impairment.

The stress of having three children born with some form of disability took its toll. Two years after the twins were born, the marriage fell apart. Steve Behnke stayed in Juneau, remarried and later fathered a daughter. Thompson bundled up Erik and his brother Chris and returned to life in the Bush. She raised them alone, roaming from one village to another as an itinerant teacher. By the time Erik finished his teens, he had lived in Saint Marys, Kaltag, Port Alsworth, South Naknek, Nondalton, Juneau, Palmer, Kenny Lake and finally Homer. Thompson says she is done with moving. She likes being on the road system and is happy in Homer, which she calls the Banana Belt for its mild climate, by Alaska standards.

Thompson picked the coastal town for its established art community. It also provides better support services for people with Down syndrome. Thompson said she also feels Homer is a safer place for Erik to live. Before they moved there last July, Thompson had a scare that made her realize she needed to leave the Bush.

One day in the dead of winter, when they were living in isolated Kenny Lake, a teacher's aide dropped Erik off at home, set him up with a snack and left. Thompson was to arrive home a short time later. She was delayed and Erik didn't know where she was, so he walked out the door in subzero temperatures and started a long walk, "hunting for his mom," Thompson said with a shudder.

A friend later found him and called Thompson. The fact that her son could have frozen to death was a wake-up call.

"I knew my days in Kenny Lake were numbered," Thompson said.

The move to Homer has paid off. Thompson has landed a job as a special-education teacher at the public high school. And Erik is being embraced by the local art community.

"I really admire him," Homer photographer Norma Dudiak said. "I wish I had that talent." She and about 25 other artists recently voted unanimously to include Erik's work at Ptarmigan Arts, a cooperative gallery in Homer.

With the help of his mother, Erik has created more than 300 original drawings using white linen paper, black pens and colored markers. Thompson reproduces them as prints and notecards. Customers are snapping them up.

Karin Marks, owner of Art Shop Gallery in Homer, said people are drawn to Erik's art because of its eye-catching design and bold colors. She described it as a simple but sophisticated style.

Marks said after visitors to her gallery view Erik's art, then read his bio and realize he's a young man with Down syndrome, they're often surprised and touched.

"They're even more charmed when they know about his situation," Marks said. But regardless of his disability, gallery owners say, his work would sell anyway.

"He's a great local artist," Marks said.


Thompson has started a company for Erik, called Brown Bear Productions, that reproduces and markets his work. At this point, the company consists of two people: Erik and Thompson. But judging by the speed at which things are happening for this mother and son, Thompson may need help soon to handle orders for his work.

As it is, Thompson spends four hours a night, after she gets home from teaching school, answering e-mail about Erik and getting his art ready to be shipped out. It's a busy but exciting time.

Erik has created the official poster for the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games, to be held in Anchorage. The poster, which will be featured around the world, depicts drawings of sporting events held at the winter games. The images include a speed skater, an Alpine skier and a snowboarder. It's a departure from Erik's usual drawings of animals. Earlier he created images for Christmas cards put out by the Special Olympics.

"The more work we give him, the better he gets," said Ben Stevens, president of the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Alaska. "I think it's really going to take off."

Erik is creating art for a cookbook and pictures to be printed on fabric, and the Disney Corp. has approached Thompson about selling his art at Epcot Center in Florida.

Erik's progress has prompted Thompson to try her hand at art. Inside the family's comfortable duplex overlooking Kachemak Bay, on the floor next to Erik's art table, sit three drawings Thompson recently created. Like Erik, she chose Alaska wildlife as her subject. They are rendered in colored marker in a style similar to her son's but more realistic.

"I've never taken an art class," Thompson said. "He inspired me."

Erik spends from five to 10 hours a day at his drawing table or sprawled on the floor, where he prefers to color backgrounds. Hunched over a page, he is clearly enthralled by what he creates. His gaze embodies concentration.

Erik is what doctors describe as a "selective mute." He speaks extremely softly. He seems to enjoy talking about his favorite videos more than his art. Asked whether he enjoys creating his drawings, Erik answered in a voice barely above a whisper: "Oh, yes. I like drawing animals."

He laughs easily, sometimes at his own jokes. His father said some of Erik's favorite things are dogs and walks on the beach. The two spend summers together in Juneau.

Down syndrome doesn't enhance or diminish a person's artistic abilities, said state disabilities specialist Terry Hoke. If you've got talent, you've got talent, Hoke said, just like people in the general population.

What has changed, he said, is society's expectations of people with disabilities. It used to be that children born with Down syndrome were warehoused in institutions. Now there are Hollywood actors and workers in a number of professions who have the disorder, Hoke said.

Thompson said Erik doesn't realize the world of possibilities his art has opened for him.

Jeanne Sunder, owner of Old Post Office Gallery in Glenallen, has seen major changes in Erik since she met him two years ago, and she credits his art for opening up a new side of him.

"He used to avoid people, not look them in the eye," Sunder said. "But after people started recognizing his talent and encouraging him, this young man started to come out of himself. He talks to people. He feels good about himself."

* Reporter Paula Dobbyn can be reached at or 257-4317. Erik Behnke's work can be viewed at

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