By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Autumn de Forest remembers the first time she painted.
She was 5 years old and watching her father stain wood in the garage.
“I said, ‘Can I mess around?’ And I just picked up a brush and started,” said Autumn, who is now just 14 years old.
“It was so fun. I wasn’t trying to make a masterpiece. I was just expressing myself. My father was surprised, and I didn’t understand why. He said it looked like a Rothko [a reference to artist Mark Rothko].”
A prodigy on a global scale, Autumn has been surprising and shocking the art world for several years with her skill and vision as an artist.
She already has sold more than $1 million worth of her works, has made at least a hundred television appearances, including “The Today Show,” and has been the subject of numerous articles in the art media.
On Sunday, Autumn will achieve another first at an amazingly young age. Her first exhibition in an art museum will open that day at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown.
Titled “Autumn de Forest: The Tradition Continues,” the exhibition will run through June 26.
On Saturday, the public is invited to the museum at 524 Wick Ave. for an artist demonstration to witness the young artist’s creative process.
There also will be a public reception with Autumn on Sunday from 1 to 2 p.m. Parents and children are encouraged to attend both events.
Louis A. Zona, executive director of the Butler, is fascinated by the young artist.
“Before we agreed to the show, we wanted to see her work, and we were immediately won over by how sophisticated they are for a young person,” he said.
Zona noted that Autumn is versed in many styles, although she has had no formal art training.
“She is exploring all possibilities, teaching herself techniques by studying artists of the past,” he said. “She is incredibly mature. Her abstractions are very rich. Her approach to Impressionistic art is really appealing. She is a prodigy.”
Zona likened the mystery of her innate ability to other masters.
“How do you account for a young Mozart, who walks up to a piano and begins playing, or Leonardo da Vinci drawing like the Old Masters, or Picasso as a small boy drawing bullfighters?”
Autumn has trained herself by studying art history books. She is obviously influenced, so far, by Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe and Picasso.
“It’s commonplace for a young artist to find themselves by exploring what’s been done previously,” said Zona, who added that he’s not sure if training is necessary in Autumn’s case.
“Picasso’s father took him to Barcelona to enter an academy, and they told him, ‘What can we do for your son?’ I’d like to think [Autumn] is going to be one of the great artists one day. Right now, it is fascinating.”
Autumn sold her first piece at age 7 for more than $1,000, and grossed more than $100,000 the following year at her first auction.
But she is not only gifted with exceptionally rare art talent as a child; she also shows tremendous maturity in handling the attention. Autumn is constantly in the spotlight, speaking before large audiences, and handles it in a gracious and thoughtful manner.
“I always try to learn about the media experience, but fine art is most important,” she said during a phone interview from her home in Las Vegas. “In terms of public speaking, I’ve never been nervous. I’m always excited to take part in this opportunity.”
Autumn said she started painting in an abstract style.
“I actually didn’t use many brushes at first,” she said. “I’d use kitchen utensils, and plant leaves, for different effects. The more I did it, the more I realized it’s what I want to do the rest of my life.”
Her parents recognized her ability and began taking her to bookstores to learn more about art.
“I bought a Dali book when I was 6, and that was the real opening into the art world and its history for me,” she said. “I remember flipping through it and seeing how incredible his surreal works were and being fascinated. After that, I studied a lot of art books and learned their technique and style.”
Autumn says she is in a bit of a “pop” phase now, but don’t expect her to stay there.
“One of the promises I’ve made is I never want to be a one-trick pony,” she said. “I love all different kinds of art. Doing one style would be boring, and not very open. I love studying and experimenting with new styles. I am finding out who I am as an artist.”
The upcoming exhibition at the Butler is a “huge honor,” said Autumn.
Her schedule includes more honors.
“In upcoming months, I will be working with the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, going to underprivileged schools and teaching about the arts,” she said.
Autumn recently became the youngest member of this foundation, which includes Yo Yo Ma, Elton John, Misty Copeland and others.
She is proving to be a very appropriate model for inspiring other children in the arts.
“[The committee] is about giving kids an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said. “Their circumstances at this moment will not predict their future. We’re showing them ways to create.”