ELKTON — J.P. Henry likes photographing patterns, like rows of school buses parked on a lot or boats at a marina. He also likes capturing trees, clouds, water, animals, the intersecting lines of bridge structures — and sometimes even people, according to his mother, Jane Ward.
Henry, who is 37 years old, is autistic and tends to be the most verbal with family and other people he is close to. But from 5 to 8 p.m. July 5 at the Cecil County Arts Council, Henry will be sharing his art with the public during the opening reception for his and Ward’s joint photography exhibition, “Visual Embrace.”
Though Henry has shown a few pieces at the gallery on Elkton’s Main Street in the past, Ward said this is her son’s first art show dedicated to his photos — a feat which she is especially proud of. And while the exhibition will also feature some of Ward’s photograph’s to complement her Henry’s pieces, she said her son is the real star of the show.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about him … When you have children, you have big events. They graduate from high school, they graduate from college, they get married, they give you grandchildren. This is my big life event for him.”
For years, Ward produced horse shows on the farm she lives on, using an adjacent farm property for parking. Henry helped with shows by getting the horses’ numbers and ribbons ready.
But when the adjacent farm was sold two years ago, Ward lost the big parking lot and the horse shows ended. That’s when Ward decided to channel her son’s creativity into something else: photography.
“I got him started on the idea of taking pictures because I was looking for something for him that could be something that we continually do and continually share,” she said. “Using a cellphone, it’s kind of an instant gratification thing. He would get to see it right away and then we could discuss it.”
It started out slow with Ward gently encouraging Henry to take photos. Henry enjoyed photography, but it often took a suggestion from Ward to prompt him to actually photograph something.
But while the pair were in Alaska in 2017, Henry took a photo on his own for the first time. That photo will be in the show along with numerous other pieces.
Since then, photography has become something that Henry and Ward get to enjoy together.
“We would have little contests like ‘Okay, you take a picture and I’ll take a picture and we can’t be more than 100 feet from the car and let’s see who gets the neatest photograph,’” Ward said.
According to Ward, the two of them will often be driving when Henry sees something he wants to photograph and insists that his mom pull over or turn around.
When Henry was just starting out, Ward said they focused on the positives of the photos, overlooking some of the mistakes like a head or foot being left out of a photo. But now that he’s been at it for a couple years, Ward said she and her son go through the photos with a more critical eye.
“Now he’s really getting very goal-oriented in how the picture has to look,” she said.
With all of the photos being taken on a cellphone, Ward said Henry has experimented with some of the features the phone offers like zooming, cropping and changing colors.
Photography has also opened Henry up to interacting with people more, something that he wasn’t as comfortable doing previously due to where he is on the autism spectrum.
At first, when he wanted to include someone in a photo, Henry wouldn’t make eye contact and would speak very softly. After people not understanding what he was saying, Henry would often turn to Ward to ask the subject for permission to be in the photo, but she always insisted that he be the one to ask.
“That was very hard for him in the beginning,” she said.
Over time, Henry has been able to ask people to be in his photos with greater ease.
As part of being on the autism spectrum, Henry is also a selective auditory savant, meaning he can repeat things he hears word for word — as long as it’s something that he likes, hence the “selective” part, according to Ward.
“Ever since he was a little child, he would watch VHS tapes and TV shows and things,” she said. “If it was something that he liked, he could hear it one time and then he would repeat it verbatim the whole show.”
Ward remembers her son watching wildlife shows when he was younger, like Marty Stouffer’s Wild America, and repeating parts of the show.
“We would be in a room and somebody might say the word ‘actually,’ and in the background I’d hear him say ‘Actually the brown bears of North America…’ Then we couldn’t get him to stop,” she said. “There would be a word that would prompt something and then off he would go and he would recite the whole darn show.”
Those observation skills have proved to be an asset as Henry homes in on different subjects he wants to photograph.
Ward said her son is looking forward to his first-ever art show around his work, particularly getting to design a music playlist, menu and other aspects of the show.
“He keeps telling me how excited he is,” she said. “He’s gone to other shows where they’ve had food on the table and they’ve had somebody playing music and all that … I’ve not seen this much attention to detail about something like this in a long time with him. I would say he’s more than excited. He’s over the moon.”