The Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival is a famously merry celebration of art and creation. It invites all the most creative members of Marin County to come out together and gaze upon each other’s artistic endeavors with pleasure.
And, in an impactful community collaboration, this year’s Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival will include a “Special Presentation Grove,” where art created by Marin’s neurodivergent citizens will be on display and available for purchase.
“We’re really excited,” said Naima Dean, board member of the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival. “The festival is coming together nicely, and it’s going to be a beautiful day and a beautiful event with art from all kinds of backgrounds. This really is what it’s all about—breaking down barriers, building bridges, creating connections and sharing beauty.”
This Fall Arts Festival is not only a fixture of Mill Valley’s cultural claim to fame, but has acted as an epicenter of entertainment and artistic appreciation since 1957—which, for context, was the same year that the first satellite, Sputnik, was launched into orbit and also marks the peak of Elvis Presley’s musical career.
Although the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival turns 66 this year, it’s safe to say that it has stayed true to its mission of celebrating and providing an open and accepting platform for artistic appreciation, education and understanding through the universal language of art.
“Art is a very important form of communication for many people in the autism community,” said Deirdre Sheerin, director of Oak Hill School. “Through many different forms of art, our students tell us things about their thoughts and emotions that may be challenging to express verbally. Expression through art becomes communication.”
And few in the community could benefit more from being given a platform that allows one’s art to speak for itself than the neurodivergent citizens of Marin. In a world designed for those with more “typical” neural processing patterns and pathways, it is unfortunately not unusual to see a lack of lighthearted inclusion available for those who are noticeably non-neurotypical.
“If you’re part of a community, then you have to be out there making change,” Dean said. “In that capacity, my advocation for people of color in the community grew and expanded because that mentality naturally extends to other minority groups such the LGBTQ+ community or to neurologically diverse folks—to me, that was important to include [in the festival.]”
The groups participating in this, the first-ever specially curated exhibition of neurodivergent artists in the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival, are Autistry Makers, Art Without Boundaries, Helix School, Oak Hill School and Project Awareness and Special Sports (PAASS). Each of these groups, schools and programs aims to support the individual needs of their autistic and otherwise neurodivergent members.
“To be honest, an event like this where we’re being invited to participate, and the fact that more and more people are reaching out to me…all this outreach has such an impact on our lives,” said the founder of PAASS, Janet Miller. “I am rejuvenated by the positivity this brings to so many families, and how it provides an opportunity for everybody to be out there doing what they want to do, just supporting each other with no boundaries.”
The impact of this inclusive exhibition is even more essential with the added context of nonverbal autism (i.e. when an autistic individual either cannot or chooses not to verbally express themselves). One such artist and a participant in the Special Presentation Grove is James Lee, also known as Jamesey.
Jamesey is a young nonverbal autistic artist who has had his impactful abstract artwork shown not only in the upcoming Fall Arts Festival, but in San Francisco’s de Young Museum as well. He was also recognized as an emerging young artist by the Kennedy Center. Jamesey’s work is available for purchase, and all profits go toward supporting those with disabilities and autism.
Another young artist who will have his art featured in the festival is Geffen, a 13-year-old student from Helix School. Geffen is not only an artistic talent, but also a charming young man who has taken it upon himself to become the right-hand volunteer in his school’s art department. And it is clear to see that Geffen’s generous artistic guidance is appreciated by his peers, who were eager to praise him and his work in their excitement for his upcoming exhibition.
“For an outsider looking in, it started small with him just helping out around the classroom, setting up and so on,” explained Simone Incendy, Geffen’s mentor at Helix School. “But now, Geffen automatically just helps everyone in class—it doesn’t matter which student it is or what their level of comprehension is, and watching him help everyone is one of my favorite things. If I do nothing else other than have played a part in [his growth at Helix], then I’m happy.”
When asked why he likes to create art, Geffen’s response was simple: “I like it because I like it.”
“I’ve been drawing my whole life,” Geffen continued. “A lot of my inspiration in drawing is from a sports anime called Blue Lock…I don’t really enjoy sports, but I really like the detailed stuff…where I just look at a [comic] panel and copy it.”
Those interested in seeing, appreciating and possibly purchasing the artwork of Jamesey, Geffen and the other talented neurodivergent artists whose works will be on display in the Special Presentation Grove need only attend the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival.
“[Attendees] are going to experience a little bit more insight into the beautiful minds of these individuals through the incredibly diverse artwork,” said Miller. “There will be a lot of different perspectives, and I think it’s very reflective of community and being able to share the talent these individuals have. And, to that point, all of those who are selling their work want the profits to be donated back to nonprofits, which is just beautiful because in all of this, they still want to give back.”
The 66th annual Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival will take place in Old Mill Park from 10am to 5pm on Saturday, Sept. 23 and Sunday, Sept. 24. Tickets are available for purchase online. Children, students and teachers are invited to attend the festival for free (provided they bring along an ID). Those who bike to the festival will receive a discount as well.
For more information about the Special Presentation Grove at this year’s Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival, visit the website at mvfaf.org/featured.
The impact of this inclusive exhibition is even more essential with the added context of nonverbal autism (i.e. when an autistic individual either cannot or chooses not to verbally express themselves).