An ancient romantic notion — no matter where we are in the world, we are all looking at the same night sky. The billion-year old stars; the feminine, nurturing, empryean halo of light around the moon. There are constellations unique to each hemisphere though, with certain exploding balls of hydrogen and helium seen only, depending on the season and visibility, in the southern hemisphere, the northern hemisphere.
Nicolas Lyford-Pike can paint both. From memory. Not from studying astronomy textbooks or dutifully visiting planetariums — but simply from looking up at the night sky.
Born in Brazil and raised in Indiana, by the time Nicolas was two he "would sit on the balcony [in Brazil] and stare at the sky and we didn't know what he was doing but he was probably memorizing this," says Pilar Lyford-Pike, Nicolas' mother, gesturing towards a large painting marked carefully with tiny golden constellations, all labeled in Latin. "The southern hemisphere ... and we've checked, it's very accurate. We have done it years past, years forward."
Nicolas' mind craves order. The 33-year old is profoundly deaf and autistic; Pilar says that because Nicolas cannot control emotions, he controls movements. Sitting at a long work table at the back of local artist and arts champion Susan Irish's Fabulon Center for Art and Education, Nicolas paints wheels and hub cabs, following a specific pattern he and Irish discussed.
Irish, who met the Lyford-Pikes soon after the family moved to Johns Island two years ago, has learned to read Nicolas, picking up the signing alphabet, symbols, as best she can. "He's very patient with me," laughs Irish. "I know all of my colors now."
To form a bond with someone who does not speak your language forces each party to slow down, get creative, find common ground. "I love the whole idea of symbol as meaning," says Irish. "Nicolas makes up his own signs about things. He goes so fast! We have our own code."
Part of Nicolas' hub cap series will be in Fabulon's upcoming "Not Your Typical Love Story" show, now in its third year. In advance of pink and red and heart drenched Valentine's Day, the exhibit is like a deep shoulder shrug heavy sigh at the end of a 12-hour day. A quiet, brilliant relief.
From a young age, Nicolas' need for order manifested as a fascination with moving parts, a deep and fervent love of inner workings. Perhaps inherited from his engineer father, Edward, Nicolas would peruse books of car parts, carefully cutting out entire models, but mostly just the wheels. Pilar holds up one of Edward's old books on BMWs — every other page is filled with perfectly circular holes. "Nicolas would cut them and put them on top of a disc, and made them move, like a car," says Pilar. "There were little wheels everywhere!"
Nicolas re-creates all of the wheels from memory, identifying them correctly with the name of the designer, marking the exact dimensions, exact diameter. Pilar asks Nicolas the names of the wheels featured in his piece for "Not Your Typical Love Story." She signs, and speaks, "What's the name of the first one?" Nicolas' hands move quickly, deftly. Susan and Pilar translate: from the left, the first wheel, Lone Star, then Nitro, then a series of numbers and letters, each name derived not out of thin air, but from the actual name of the designer. Halfway through his explanation, Pilar slows him down, turns his hands around. "He's not a pure deaf," says Pilar. "He signs to himself."
Pilar, a native Spanish speaker, must read Nicolas' words in English, and backwards. It's another ostensible hurdle in the Lyford-Pike's world. But Pilar is unfazed, and Nicolas seems gleefully amused. "He has such a great sense of humor," says Irish. "When you have to tell someone the same thing over and over, you say it's green." Nicolas isn't speaking, but if he could, he'd probably throw a "duh" at his mom.
While painting seems to be his nirvana, Pilar says she wasn't sure at first that what he was doing was art, per se. "I thought what he did was normal. I'm not an artist. I thought it was cool what he was doing, without understanding."
It was not until Nicolas was paired with a paraplegic artist when the family was living in Columbus, IN, that Pilar started to see that this was Nicolas' calling. The artist had to paint with brushes in his teeth; the two worked together for seven years, with Nicolas unable to speak to the man, and the man unable to sign to Nicolas. "Nicolas had to look at him with his eyes to know what he wanted to do; it was fascinating to see them working together," says Pilar. "That's when we said OK this is what he's going to be, an artist."
Irish, an artist and gallerist and teacher, knew Nicolas had a knack. "It's brilliant to me," she says. "It's stripped down to the base words, it's like jazz." She points to brightly colored, detailed discs mirroring the Charleston Gate series: "That's a sand dollar, that's a crab, and once you know what it is you can't help but see it, it's so graphic and specific."
As much as Pilar and Irish rely on Nicolas' graphics, they also communicate with written notes; perfectly lettered lines decorate the white paper covering the work table. Each note is dated, a concrete record of Nicolas' thoughts, desires. "I love the way he speaks about things," says Irish. "He tells me in writing that I am the spiritual successor to the art studio he went to before."
When others leave messages for Nicolas on the paper — everyone who comes through the gallery loves him, Irish and Pilar explain — he will trace over their sloppy As, their illegible Gs. A gesture not meant to correct or chastise, but, rather, a token of love, of connection. A shared story.