'My autism made me an artist but I wanted a family' – BBC

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January 16th, 2023


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At two years of age, David Downes began to draw. It would be another few years before he learned to talk, and another 30 until his autism diagnosis.
"I could draw before I could communicate. Looking back it was obvious but there wasn't as much awareness back then," says the 51-year-old landscape artist, who lives in Manningtree, Essex.
David has a photographic memory, which he puts down to his neurodivergent brain. He can recall the places he has visited in brilliant detail and paint them from his recollections.
"I'm lucky to have this capacity to visualise and also to get obsessive about stuff. As a child I started drawing churches, trees, flocks of birds and road junctions because they were the things I was fascinated by."
But his autistic traits haven't always helped David in life.
He felt different from his friends growing up in Brome, Suffolk. He was bullied at high school and found comfort in keeping an illustrated diary. His head teacher did not believe he had produced the drawings – so his artistic talent was not recognised.
It was his mother, who recently passed away and who David describes as his inspiration, who encouraged him to go to art school.
He found exams difficult because he struggled to retain information and did not get the grades to get into Norwich Art School, which was seen as the best in the area, so he went to one in Ipswich.
"My work was really hit and miss. I was very bad at copying, I could draw it out of my head much easier than if it was in front of me."
David went on to study illustration at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and then at Brighton University, where he did a postgraduate diploma in illustration.
"Socially I was still struggling to make friends and I was trying to fit in. People actually want to be different at art school. But I was so different that it was annoying. I was always a little bit on the outside. I was desperate to find a girlfriend but it never happened," he says.
David still did not have an autism diagnosis, but suspected he was on the spectrum.
He decided to document his struggles in a visual autobiography and used it to gain a place at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London, which he describes as "like winning the World Cup".
After graduating, David was unsure which path to take – as an illustrator or a fine artist. "You come out of the Royal College and you just presume you're going to make it. I felt like I was more of a fine artist, but I tended to do work that was quite illustrative."
It was not long until he won his first major contract, a commission by the BBC to record the corporation's most important architecture at the turn of the century and he became the BBC's artist in residence for two years.
David was eventually diagnosed with autism at the age of 32 and he spoke to a counsellor, who helped him get a part-time job in an art shop.
"I was struggling to run a business and make a living from my art and I needed some kind of understanding of what was going on," he says.
His professional life started going well again, and in 2012 he was commissioned by The Savoy Hotel to create a piece depicting the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, which still sits in the entrance of the world famous hotel.
David got involved with the National Autistic Society and became vice president, regularly speaking and painting live at fundraising events for the charity.
But at the same time, he was struggling with relationships. He could not find a partner, despite throwing himself into internet dating, and felt his dreams of being a father were over.
David started seeing a hypnotherapist while in his early forties and paid him in drawings.
"He would hypnotise me and say 'David you're a really great artist, you're unique, you're different. You're going to meet someone who is going to understand your issues'."
David went on to meet his partner Rachel in a pub in Stoke Newington in London. The couple lived in California for three years, which he says opened his mind to doing different types of work.
"It was a challenge living there and having to almost start again as an artist, after being well known in London, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone," he says.
They decided to move back to England, to Manningtree, and Rachel fell pregnant with their daughter Talia, who is now two.
During Covid, David felt inspired to document the pandemic, which he says helped him cope with the stress of it, and he started doing much more imaginary and surreal work.
"My best work has always been autobiographical or describing the times that we live in," he says.
David recently opened a gallery in Manningtree, which had always been a dream of his, but he "never thought it would come true".
"To have the opportunity to display my work and have chats with people, it's incredible. I feel like it has also given me more of an identity as an artist," he says.
David is now turning his attention to the cost of living crisis and wants to create some pieces documenting it in the new year.
"Before my mum died, she said to me 'your father and I never thought you'd meet someone and be a father," he says.
"I'm proud of everything I've achieved in the art world but having a family is the most important thing of all."
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