Some people — including a few of her relatives — have said that Dana Anderson is useless, that she will never contribute anything to society.
Those people are wrong.
The 25-year-old woman was born with Down syndrome and autism, but that isn’t stopping her from giving back. It took a while for Dana to find her passion since she doesn’t talk or write, but when she did start creating, she quickly made waves in the art community. In fact, she sold more than $8,000 worth of paintings at her first art show and donated all that money to a local nonprofit.
Her mother, Janet Anderson, said Dana uses painting as a way to express herself — something she’s always struggled with. Not only does Dana use painting as her voice, she’s an overnight star in the art world.
“You can’t help that people are always going to assume that (Dana does) wonderful paintings for someone who has disabilities, but that’s not true,” Janet said. “Dana does wonderful paintings, period.”
Growing up, Dana was only allowed to take art classes until fifth grade. Students with special needs don’t take electives in Huntsville City Schools, so Dana’s education was mostly focused on life skills. That works for a lot of students, but it kept Dana from realizing her gift of painting.
When Inside Out Studio opened in Huntsville in 2016, it offered a place for adults with special needs to explore their artistic side. A few weeks in to her once-a-week studio time, Dana started to blossom. She has tried other activities — Miracle League baseball and the dance program at Merrimack Hall — but found the noises and crowds overwhelming. Her time in the studio with only an art assistant helping her suits her personality much better.
“She works on a painting for maybe 10 minutes, and it turns out to be this marvelous painting,” Janet said.
Janet, who studied art in college, didn’t even recognize Dana’s skill at first. She does a lot of her paintings sideways, so it wasn’t until Janet took a cell phone picture of one of Dana’s paintings and set her phone down, accidentally seeing the image sideways, that she figured out what was going on.
“You look it and think, ‘Okay, these are really cool choices of colors that she uses,’ and then you turn it a direction and suddenly go, ‘Oh my Lord, this is an amazing landscape,’ ” Janet said.
She paints with tongue-sticking-out concentration, focused solely on the canvas and what she’s trying to convey. The only part Dana doesn’t do is squirting the paint out of the tube. Janet said Dana loves slapstick comedy — think Jerry Lewis or the Three Stooges — and would have paint all over her if it meant making someone else laugh.
“If it was up to Dana with the squeezing of the bottle, all those paints would be squeezed into the top of her head,” Janet said.
When Janet realized Dana’s talent, she started entering her in galleries and shows, immediately gaining accolades from art critics nationwide. One artist who had previously worked with Andy Warhol even wanted to purchase one of Dana’s paintings.
“We’ve had a lot of art critics tell me some of her stuff is museum worthy,” Janet said.
In the year Dana has been painting, she’s already had several shows, including one in Philadelphia and one at the Huntsville Botanical Garden. Dana is the first person with multiple disabilities to have her own exhibit in the state of Alabama.
“It’s a huge step for the special needs population to have somebody elevated to the level of any other professional artist that’s being considered and chosen to have their own exhibit,” Janet said.
Still, those terms — Down syndrome, challenged, autistic and even artist — don’t define her. Dana Anderson is a happy person who loves to make others smile, loves Disney, puzzles, music and Legos. She loves anyone and everyone — except, understandably, large groups of small, screaming children. We’re right there with you on that, Dana.
“This is the first time she’s proud of things that she’s doing,” Janet said.
We’re proud of you too, Dana.
Dana’s exhibit runs through April 30 at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.
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