Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 3, 2021

Manno helps others with autism find their artistic side

Autistic artist Ally Manno with her painting, “Midnight Reef.” The work is on display and for sale at Hart Gallery. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

As Ally Manno moves the tip of a pencil across a white canvas, she creates a patchwork of shapes with curved and meandering edges.

The collage that eventually forms doesn’t resemble anything distinguishable. Instead, it appears to be an expression of what Manno saw or felt in the moment, much like the way a river seems to bend and turn at random as it explores a mountain range or forest.

Only water does not have a will of its own. Instead, it’s subject to the external forces that guide its path.

In the same way, Manno says there are times when something outside herself seems to be sketching the images that materialize on her canvas.

“My art is sometimes about what my pencil feels like drawing,” she explains. “As I sketch out the initial focal points, it’s more about how the pencil feels on the canvas.”

Her sketch complete, Manno turns to a class of pupils to provide instructions.

The dozen or so aspiring artists are seated at long tables that form an open square around her. Although they come from various local communities, they have one thing in common: Each of them has some form or degree of autism.

Many are adolescents with parents, while others are young adults who also have family members with them or are there on their own.

Their shared experience has brought them to the Hunter Museum of American Art on a Saturday morning to put paint to canvases – and to learn from Manno, who’s also on the spectrum.

Manno, 28, was diagnosed with what is now called autism spectrum disorder at the age of 3. Although she cringes at the thought of her life being cast in a glowing light, it bears mentioning that she’s overcoming not only the challenges of autism but also mental illness and living on her own 600 miles from her hometown of Fairfax, Virginia.

Still, Manno insists, “inspiration porn is not a good look.”

Manno would rather talk about how she began painting at 15 after losing the confidence she needed to continue drawing cartoons.

“I turned to painting abstract shapes because it was something I could do,” she explains. “Almost anyone could do the types of things I do in my paintings.”

Manno picks up her smartphone and taps on a photograph of a piece she did for a younger sister. Various hues of purple dominate the canvas.

“I did this as a challenge piece,” she says. “I wanted to use only purple triangles. Purple is my favorite color.”

A work Manno created for an older sister also features simple lines and shapes, as well as diamonds, circles and other small details. The effect resembles a mosaic or piece of jewelry.

Manno says looking for deeper rhyme or reason in these images would be futile.

“My art doesn’t have a purpose beyond being aesthetically pleasing to me. It’s like how you would arrange furniture in your house to look good,” she expounds. “Basically, how do I arrange the colors and shapes in a way I like?”

With a third tap, Manno loads a photograph of an untitled orange monochrome work consisting of a row of triangles pointing at a procession of thick, wavy lines. If someone said they saw a lake of fire in the construct, Manno would not disabuse them of the notion, even if that was not her intent.

“If people want to construe a deeper meaning from my work, then they could certainly see different shapes as being representative of something that speaks to them,” she allows. “Any way anyone wants to interpret my paintings is both completely wrong and completely correct at the same time.”

Manno says painting helps her to manage stress, although a current project is causing more stress than it’s relieving.

“I bought a paint pen that unfortunately does not match the color on my canvas,” she grumbles. “I bought it because I couldn’t create all the details I want to include using paint and a paintbrush.”

Although Manno’s pencil often has a mind of its own, she says she began painting as a way of exerting control in ways she couldn’t elsewhere.

In an attempt to maintain agency over her life, Manno tries to adhere to a strict schedule that consists of a morning routine, a regular shift at the downtown YMCA and exercise, but she says she has trouble following this regimented path through each day.

Likewise, Manno says, she has trouble painting within the lines her pencil draws.

“That’s very annoying,” she admits. “But I keep trying.”

After growing up in Fairfax, Manno moved to Chattanooga to take advantage of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Mosaic program, which supports the needs of students on the autism spectrum.

She also found help at the Chattanooga Autism Center. This network of support, as well as the presence of family living nearby, convinced her to stay in the city after she graduated.

Manno made her first foray into instruction at Siskin’s Early Learning Center, where she served as a teacher’s aid. She says she enjoyed working with the preschoolers as they experimented with Play-Doh and drew pictures.

“I liked watching what the kids would come up with because it’s all about the process,” she says. “That’s what I want people in my class to understand – that painting is about the process.”

The Chattanooga Autism Center connected Manno with Athena Buxton, the education coordinator at Hunter Museum. Buxton liked Manno’s work and suggested she teach a class.

“She told me I’m a good teacher and also one of the easiest artists to work with because I come prepared,” Manno says. “I gave them a list of everything I needed and sketched out what I wanted to draw beforehand.”

Manno says teaching is meaningful to her, regardless of whether or not her students are on the spectrum.

“It means a lot to me when someone finds joy in learning to paint because it shows I’m gifted at what I do.”

Several works by Manno are on display at Hart Gallery, where they can be purchased. Manno will receive 60% of the proceeds, while the gallery will receive 30% and 10% will go to Chattanooga Autism Center – Manno’s nonprofit of choice.