Little Iris Halmshaw loves to paint. She does so with intense focus and concentration. The results are abstract and impressionistic: there is something of Monet’s Water Lilies in her serene, aqueous style.
Iris’s work is creating a buzz in the art world. A private collector has just bought two of her original works for £1,500 each. Prints are being snapped up for as much as £295. A solo exhibition in London, and subsequent auction, are planned.All of which would be gratifying for any emerging young talent. But Iris is just three years old.
What makes her achievement even more extraordinary, however, is the fact she is autistic. She cannot speak, other children unnerve and distress her, the unpredictability of the world fills her with fear and panic.
But art has soothed and calmed her — a source of delight and a therapy. ‘When Iris was diagnosed with autism, the key was to find something she loved to do,’ says her mum, Arabella Carter-Johnson. ‘I’d taken her to a playgroup, but it had been disastrous.
‘There was one particularly noisy toy train that made her very distressed. She’d have a meltdown, an uncontrolled tantrum, any time a child played with it. ‘She’d bite into the plastic spoon she always carries in her left hand until her head shook. She’d cling to me like a limpet, throw her body towards the door and hit me if we didn’t leave. ‘At home, she became withdrawn. She would bite her lip until it bled.’
Arabella, 32, who runs her own wedding photography business, sought ways to still the chaos in her daughter’s mind and make play constructive and happy. ‘I recreated a play-school at home. The whole place became a fun house. We got a range of sensory toys, which Iris loved.
‘We put a paddling pool in my home office and filled it with plastic balls and installed a trampoline in the sitting room. Play, fun and laughter were the goal, and I wanted to teach Iris to interact with me, instead of being immersed entirely in her own world.’
She stumbled on art almost by accident. ‘One day I drew some stick men and Iris found them really funny. My mum bought an easel and we got the paint out. Iris made one brush stroke and the paint dribbled down to the bottom of the page. She was furious and burst into tears.
‘But I figured out the problem: it wasn’t the paint, it was the fact she couldn’t control it. So I put a sheet of paper on a table instead of the easel and straightaway she filled the whole page. She seemed to know intuitively what to do.’
Iris has all the focus of a seasoned artist. Her mother describes how she paints a little bit, before standing back, considering, planning her next brush stroke. She paints with a range of tools — sponges, stamps, brushes, even a plastic fork.
‘She’d readily paint for five hours a day. But I have to persuade her to practise other things as well, such as puzzles or doing up buttons.’
On the day I visit Iris, Arabella and her husband Peter-Jon Halmshaw, 43, at their home near Market Harborough, Leicestershire, Iris — sweet-faced with watchful, dark eyes that never quite meet your gaze — is in a tranquil and happy mood.
It is a quirk of her autism that she insists on carrying something in her left hand — at the moment it is a pink plastic spoon — at all times and she does not like wearing clothes.
She has been cajoled into leggings, but is naked from the waist up. When she paints she normally refuses to wear a top. Her parents never put pressure on her to paint — but take their cues from her. Today, she decides not to perform just for my benefit. Instead, she watches Tom And Jerry cartoons and chuckles at the jokes.
But I have seen her painting on YouTube and it is a revelation. The quiet deliberation she applies to the task is extraordinary in a child so young. Occasionally as she paints, she lets out a squeal of pleasure.
Such signs of contentment delight her mum and dad, who say Iris understands perfectly how thrilled they are with her paintings. ‘She realises she’s doing something that is receiving praise, and knows it’s good enough to be put on people’s walls,’ says Peter-Jon, who works in finance.
Her achievement is prodigious, particularly when you consider the child she used to be. Soon after she was born, in September 2009 — the couple’s first and only child — they noticed she was different. She failed to respond when they called her name. They wondered, at first, if she was deaf.
But there were other disquieting signs. ‘She hated going to baby groups, to the extent she would shake with fear when she was around other children,’ says Arabella. ‘And although she hugged me, she pushed everyone else away, including her dad and grandparents.’
These traits were allied to other peculiarities; among them, an inability to make eye contact, or to play with toys. However, Iris possessed an uncanny visual memory; an ability to scan a room and note the place of every object. If they were moved, she found it unnerving.
All this prompted her parents to seek a diagnosis, and in December 2011, she was assessed as severely autistic. ‘I could see how much she struggled with all the tests they put her through,’ says Arabella. ‘There was a mini child’s kitchen, and instead of playing with it, she just inspected it. She was only interested in how it worked.
‘But when the diagnosis came, I just thought: “We’ve got to help her,” so you turn to the internet and start researching. And the doctor had told us: “Try anything as long as it is safe for your child.”’
So that’s what the couple did. Their home, in a quiet village with views beyond the garden of rolling countryside, became both Iris’s playground and studio. The kitchen is filled with boxes of her artist’s utensils and paints stand in cartons. A sheet of paper is spread on a low table in readiness.
Arabella called the first picture her daughter painted Patience, because she persuaded Iris to come back to it after it had dried and apply more layers of paint to it. ‘I was so proud and pleased with what she’d achieved, I put the picture on Facebook,’ she recalls. The posting caught the attention of one of Arabella’s former clients.
‘A bride whose wedding I’d photographed emailed and asked: “Do you think I could buy one?” We hadn’t even considered selling Iris’s paintings, but we got a print framed and let her have it for cost price.’ Since that small beginning, word has spread. A colleague of Arabella’s bought Patience. ‘She said she’d really treasure it and she bought the original,’ says Arabella. Then another work, Journey, was sold.
A former school friend of Arabella’s invited Iris to contribute a picture to an exhibition for emerging new artists in London. And a print of Patience fetched £830 at a charity auction, with the money going to the Special Yoga Centre which offers physical therapy to children with special needs. In the past four months Iris has produced 35 works: some have taken just hours; others as long as a week-and-a-half. Since Arabella set up a website about Iris, more than 100,000 people in 130 countries have seen the paintings. Enquiries have flooded in from collectors asking to buy Iris’s work. They could have sold all the originals several times over.
Instead, they have opted to sell prints and save the originals for an exhibition in November — for which they are seeking a sponsor — followed by an auction of the originals. Proceeds will help fund the costly therapy Iris has three times a week.
They also aim to raise awareness of autism, a lifelong disability that affects around 100,000 children in the UK. They hope Iris will continue to enjoy painting, although they know she may tire of it one day. For now, the chances of this happening seem remote. ‘She enjoys it so much, and that makes us massively happy,’ says Arabella.
‘Since she started to paint, her mood has lifted; her communication has improved; she is saying more and more words and she has started to enjoy making eye contact.’ From Iris’s play room comes a low hum of contentment, which erupts from time to time into giggles. She knows she is the focus of our discussion and there is no doubt at all that Iris the Artist is delighted.