Meghan Burnside’s The Sacred Heart of Jesus was recently displayed at Edmonton City Hall. Photo by Ramon Gonzalez

Autistic Edmonton artist finds a voice with her work

By  Ramon Gonzalez, Canadian Catholic News
  • March 18, 2012

EDMONTON - Meghan Burnside has been painting proficiently for seven years — about as long as she has been able to speak more than a few words.

The 27-year-old Edmonton artist is autistic and for the first 18 years of her life barely uttered a word. But last month one of her paintings — The Sacred Heart of Jesus — went on display at City Hall after she won first prize in a competition sponsored by Grant MacEwan University.

The eight-by-four-foot artwork has since moved into an art gallery.

The painting features a large heart with a crown of thorns around it bleeding into a chalice. Behind the heart is a large, white host.

It took Burnside more than two years to complete the piece, finishing it in 2009. It was displayed inside St. Thomas More Church, the family’s parish, for several months.

“I had to do a great deal of research for this painting,” she said. “I had to get everything right. I looked on the Internet and I looked at all kinds of different hearts — from cow hearts to human hearts to heart surgery.”

The young artist even cut up a chicken breast to determine how muscle fibres feel. As a result, “the process of painting was very intimate because in my mind I could feel the texture of the heart.”

The flames coming out of the heart are symbolic of Jesus’ love, “which encompasses everything, every aspect of our lives,” she said.

A graduate of the arts program at Grant MacEwan, Burnside was one of many alumni invited to participate in the contest. She submitted three of her best pieces, including The Heart, as she calls it. She was nervous entering the competition because when she studied at Grant MacEwan “religious art wasn’t accepted very well. It wasn’t considered fine art.”

But viewers liked it. Her mother Jane said people would come into the hall, look at all the art and then would stand in front of her daughter’s painting, admiring it and discussing its striking features.

Burnside said she was inspired to paint The Sacred Heart of Jesus because she has a personal relationship with Jesus and Mary. Besides, some people suggested she tackle that kind of theme.

As a toddler, Burnside rarely spoke, although her mother and father, Kevin, constantly talked to her. She always had a pencil and paper to play with and she loved to draw. The Burnsides prayed their little girl would be better.

As Burnside grew, her sketches became more defined. In high school, she began painting as a means to communicate.

“I took it from there. I found that I could teach myself art.”

Burnside graduated from high school in 2003.

“But we didn’t know what she would do after high school because she didn’t ever say anything to us,” her mother recalled.

That changed at age 19 when Burnside, clearly upset, spoke up and said she wanted to be an artist. She first did a painting of Mary and then painted her favourite coat, which she later sold.

Burnside enrolled at Grant MacEwan and completed the art program in 2008. Now that she has a name in the Edmonton art scene, Burnside plans to become an art instructor for the disabled.

(Western Catholic Reporter)

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