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Autistic Seattle man becomes celebrated artist (and quits dishwasher job)

Seattle artist Gregory Blackstock hasn’t had things easy.

For starters, he's autistic. For years he worked as a dishwasher at the Washington Athletic Club.

But then his artistic career took off. Now he’s coming full circle, with a special reception at the club, honoring his work.

When Blackstock comes in the door of the private club in downtown Seattle, he’s on familiar ground. He worked here for 25 years as a dishwasher and remembers everyone – even their addresses and phone numbers.

“It’s been almost 16 years since I retired from the club and I’m three-quarters of a year past 70 now with my age!” he says.

Blackstock’s conversation style can be unpredictable – heavy on details and dialog from his favorite old movies, like “Lady and the Tramp.” It's also peppered with the many foreign languages he speaks.

Since his retirement, he’s made art full-time. His reputation has grown. But it was a surprise to find out his former employer had arranged an exhibition of his work.

The club’s vice president Melissa Borders recently invited him to take a look at the club's staircase, where several of his framed pieces are now on display.

“Oh wow!” he said at the sight of his work on the walls. “I never knew there’d be some hanging!”

They’re courtesy of the Greg Kucera gallery, which represents him.

Blackstock draws animals, objects, buildings – always in a series, row after row of them. They look somewhat official – like old-fashioned reference charts.

But they’re hand-drawn and have sly, humorous titles like, “The Pumpkins: Striking Edibles.” For that particular drawing, he visited a local plant nursery.

“I went to Sky Nursery in Shoreline and I made study and research over there too, on how to draw pumpkins,” he said.

And there’s his latest work, completed that morning, titled, “Our nation’s busiest and largest train stations.’”

Blackstock’s work is sometimes described as “outsider” art, because he’s self-taught. For years he had to balance his drawing with his other job in the club's hot, noisy dishroom. Blackstock didn’t relish the job, but on this visit he’s happy to see old colleagues, like Eric Floyd, now the executive chef.

When he enters the kitchen, Blackstock promptly observes, “I couldn’t wait to leave, either!”

“I know, I remember,” Floyd tells him.

Floyd says one thing he remembers about meeting Blackstock years ago was the size of his biceps.

“His arms were just gigantic because he was just going and going and going," Floyd says, from lifting and scrubbing heavy pots and pans.

Floyd says he always saw Blackstock’s drawings featured in the employee newsletter and posted on the walls.

“For the longest time, we had a little thing in the back of the kitchen – which we don’t have anymore because they remodeled it – of all his art."

Now his large-scale drawings sell for thousands of dollars.

Blackstock’s cousin Dorothey Frisch said the club’s employee newsletter helped launch his artistic career. Her neighbor saw the newsletter and suggested that Frisch contact a gallery about Blackstock’s art.

She sent photos to Garde Rail Gallery, which was based in Seattle at the time. Her letter was initially lost behind a filing cabinet, but once they opened it, they contacted her immediately.

“They met Greg about a week later, and he just brought out rolls and rolls and rolls of drawings, they’re very, very large drawings, and he just threw them on the bed and they started going through them and they were almost in tears, they were so excited,” Frisch said.

And the rest is history? Well, almost.

In 2010, Blackstock made the news for another reason. He was one of the victims of a corrupt financial advisor named Rhonda Breard, who stole nearly $200,000 from his inheritance and savings.

It was a huge financial setback. But Blackstock has supporters from all over the community – from Seattle librarians, who help him find the images he needs, to the Seattle Art Museum, which sells images of his work in the gift shop. And Frisch, who oversees the logistics that make his success possible.

“He has collectors from around the world that really love his art. And the most important thing is that he now considers himself an artist and finds great joy in that,” she said.

Blackstock says he must draw every day, because he has so many ideas in his head. Chances are good that at the Washington Athletic Club, as people celebrate his work, he’ll be off to one side, happily creating.

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