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Arts & Culture

Down Syndrome Artist’s Depiction Of The Ten Commandments On Display At Yale

A series of pictures depicting the Ten Commandments is on display at Yale Divinity School. The works were drawn by Bruce Gillespie, a celebrated artist with Down syndrome.

For  Gillespie, making art is practically a necessity. For most of his life -- he's in his 60's now -- any spare moment has been spent with his trusty felt-tip markers and sketch pad.

Retired special education teacher Sam Goldenberg has mentored Gillespie for years. He first met the artist when Gillespie was in his early twenties.

“I was teaching in Danbury at the Danbury Regional Center at the time,” said Goldenberg. “What I found was that every chance he got, he would go off into the kitchen, find some paper and pen and he'd be drawing and stuff like that. That was his love - any second he wasn't working he'd be drawing.”

This was in the early 1970's, when programs and services for people with Down syndrome were few and far between. In fact, Goldenberg says when Gillespie was born in the early 1950's, the doctors suggested he be institutionalized. Bruce's parents had other ideas.

Sam Goldenberg recognized Gillespie's talent and passion for drawing, and set about fostering that talent. The two worked well together. Goldenberg the mentor would suggest themes for Gillespie, and the artist would get to work. And he said this is the how Gillespie created the Ten Commandments.

“All he needs is the guide. Like for the Commandments, which we have here. I give him a guide. ‘Do you know Moses? Do you know the commandments?'  Bruce knew he goes up to the mountain and receives the Ten Commandments. So as soon as he has it in his head, he’s fine. And then you can't do anything, then you just let him be.”

Credit Carlos Mejia / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Sam Goldenberg stand in front of one of Bruce Gillespie's drawing for "The Ten Commandments".

The dozen drawings in The Ten Commandments are colorful and expressive, reminiscent of folk or outsider art. Take for instance the first drawing in the exhibit - Moses, grinning from ear to ear, carrying the stone tablets down the mountain. But instead of words on the tablets – Bruce Gillespie draws musical notes.

“That's amazing. It's amazing,” said Goldenberg, “you’d think that you would do the first initial of a word, or write a word. No, he's not going to do that, he's going to put musical notes in because it's music to his ears.”

For each of the 10 pictures that focus on the commandments themselves, Gillespie sets the scene with the help of a young family - a father, a mother and a little baby. Every scene takes place as if looking through a window. Surrounding the window, Gillespie chose two themes - for some commandments he drew lightning bolts set against a dark night; for the others, he drew two angels on either side of the window. Goldenberg explained there's a reason for that.

“The ones that have the angels, it's like ‘do something good’ like ‘honor your mother and father’. When you get to another scene, like ‘you should not murder’ or ‘you should not steal’, those are the lightning bolts. He's trying to say in his own way, ‘don't do this’. It's pretty fascinating.”

Credit Carlos Mejia / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Bruce Gillespie's drawing of the commandment "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy".

Goldenberg said explaining the meaning of some of the commandments proved to be a challenge. While Gillespie understood right away commandments such as “you shall not kill’, or “you shall not steal”, commandments like "you shall not commit adultery" were tougher for Goldenberg to interpret.

“I had to explain it differently,” said Goldenberg. “He wouldn't know that word. I had to put it to him like ‘say the father is with the mother and the baby, and the father decides to go and be with another woman.’ He didn't like that at all.”

Despite the complex nature of that commandment, Gillespie nails it. In drawing the father has a sinister smile as he walks away with a new woman. The mother and baby sit on the ground and cry.

Bruce Gillespie created the 10 commandments back in the mid 1970's, but his prominence as a Down syndrome artist is more recent. Not long after Gillespie drew the Ten Commandments his family moved out of state. Goldenberg lost touch with the artist for some 30 years, but kept Gillespie's artwork safe, recognizing their beauty and value. Then, surprisingly in 2012, Bruce Gillespie returned to the state, and got reacquainted with Goldenberg. Since his return, Gillespie has had three major exhibitions of his work. In 2017, the National Down Syndrome Society named him their "Artist of the Year".

The Ten Commandments is on display at the Yale Divinity School through mid-June.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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