When Homer artist Teresa Aldridge created a simple drawing of her house and left it at the local group home where she works, she reignited another artist’s creative spark, culminating in a two-year collaboration and art exhibit, “Our Town.”
“A resident at the group home asked what my house looks like so I created a little drawing on craft paper to show her,” Aldridge shared. “I left it on the table when I went home, and when I returned the next day, it had been colored in.”
Asking around, she discovered that the person who added his personal touch to her drawing was Erik Behnke, an artist experiencing Down syndrome and autism, and a resident at the home. Well known in the community for his vibrant drawings of Alaska wildlife and scenes, Behnke’s work has been exhibited around Alaska and the nation since 1998. A formerly prolific artist, Behnke had stopped creating art at the age of 35, an attribute his mother Linda Thompson shared is common among artist savants.
And so, with this simple connection of black ink meets color marker, Aldridge and Behnke began collaborating — Aldridge drawing geometric shapes, houses, barns and buildings on butcher paper and Behnke coloring them.
“It was really great to share this experience with Erik,” she shared. “We started out working together just for fun, but then people began noticing what we were doing and the reaction was really positive and encouraging.”
When Behnke’s mother saw the drawings, she was so impressed with them that she purchased professional art paper and refilled all 350 of her son’s art pens that had been tucked away, unused for the past 10 years. With professional supplies at their disposal, Aldridge set out to create more professional drawings. She also turned it into a group home project.
“The residents and I would drive around town, looking for what to draw,” she shared. “That was 2021, and it was a super safe and fun project that got us out into the community, cruising our town.”
For the past two years, the two have been creating their whimsical drawings. Aldridge learned to draw really fast in order to keep up with Behnke, and was inspired to change how she draws.
“I watched Erik coloring one section at a time and I adapted how I draw based on how he likes to color and now he does some of the drawing too,” she shared. “I might draw the outside of a building and a door, and then Erik will draw a window. It’s an exciting process, seeing which of us draws what and while we may share the drawing, Erik does all the coloring.”
Witnessing Behnke reconnect with his creativity, Aldridge shared that she felt her own creativity flourish as well.
“Because of the way Erik colors, I feel personal freedom to not pick my drawings apart,” she said. “I allow both of us full creative license and this has morphed and changed over time.”
The two spend at least an hour a day together creating art, and other residents often join in. Sometimes, Behnke will draw and color on his own, for up to eight hours a day.
For Behnke’s mother, seeing her son return to his art brings a great deal of joy.
“Seeing his creativity reignited and how their personalities get along so well is really beautiful,” Thompson shared. “I started my business Brown Bear Products to help parents like me that didn’t have hope for a better future than what the world tells us for our kids. Seeing Erik re-engage in something he’s so good at is wonderful.”
Of the more than one hundred drawings that the pair has created of Homer’s iconic buildings, 11 originals and prints of 17 images are on display through the end of the year at Fireweed Gallery. “Our Town” showcases Bunnell Street Arts Center, Finn’s Pizza, Wagon Wheel, Salty Dawg Saloon, buildings on piers, the houseboat home on the Spit, a cabin in the mountains, a barn and windmill, and more, all whimsical, in fun, vibrant colors.
“Our Town” is Aldridge’s first art exhibit and Behnke’s first collaboration.
A self-taught artist who enjoys drawing, painting, playing guitar and writing music, Aldridge moved from Colorado to Homer in 2011. Raised in a creative family, her mother’s side of the family adept in visual arts and her father’s side, musical. One of her siblings has developmental disabilities and the others have mental health issues.
“My family uses music and art to remain connected and face life’s challenges,” she said.
Aldridge studied graphic design and took photography classes, but wanted to work in the health care field to learn how to advocate for people with disabilities. A care provider at a Homer group home for disabled people in the community, she melds her passion for creativity with her desire to help, inspiring an environment that encourages others to explore their own creativity.
While “Our Town” is Aldridge’s first exhibit, Behnke produced thousands of pieces of work between the ages of 20 and 35, many of which have been sold as originals and prints, and others that have never been seen, stored in his mom’s garage. Behnke’s art has been displayed in galleries around Alaska and the nation, including Boston, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, New York, New York City, Washington, D.C., Denver, Spokane, and Kansas City.
Born at Lake Clarke to parents who were trappers at the time, and his mom later a bush/rural teacher, Behnke has spent his life immersed in small town rural Alaska life. From his late teens until the age of 35 when he stopped creating work, Behnke had been developing his art skills, from tracing anything he could get his hands on, to drawing from photographs in books and magazines, to creating his own drawings using pen, felt tip marker and water colors, drawing black lines and then coloring them in, his interpretations of whatever he was looking at.
Today, at 45 years old and after a 10-year hiatus, Behnke has re-embraced his creativity, thanks to his connection with Aldridge and his mom’s enthusiastic support. Aldridge shared that collaborating with Behnke has brought her a lot of joy.
“Seeing the look on Erik’s face,” she said. “I watch him work and I feel so much excitement, just this indescribable sense of awe.”
When asked if he is happy to be making art again, Behnke simply glanced up at Aldridge, pointed his finger her way, and grinned.
“Our Town” is on display at Fireweed Gallery through December.