WHITEFISH, Mont. — The walls of Jersey Boy’s Pizza in Whitefish hold bright paintings and sketches of bald figures with gritted teeth, floating heads and skeleton-like men. The lines are bold and show no hesitation. The characters are tough and ready to fight.
“The bad guys are interesting,” artist Tyee Pancheri said.
He gave a partial smile as he looked at his work then shrugged and looked toward his sister, Mandee Johnson.
“It’s like his alter-ego, because he’s the loveliest man I know,” Johnson said.
The people and things in Pancheri’s daily path typically take a harsher reality on the pages of his sketchbook. Looking at the figures in each piece on display, it’s not a jump to recognize some of his favorite things: action figures — the villains — heavy metal music, Pabst Blue Ribbon and cigars.
But people probably wouldn’t recognize that the creator, 35, has Down syndrome. They probably wouldn’t guess that he loves mowing the lawn each week and riding his bike to work at the Kalispell food pantry four days a week — a routine he’s kept for the last decade.
“Tyee has a calm, easy-going presence,” Johnson, 38, said. “He knows when someone needs a hug or had a bad day. But he can be shy.”
Or as Pancheri puts it, “I’m not really a people person.”
“Yeah, you can be pretty quiet around others. But your art has a little more chaos,” Johnson added.
“That’s true,” he agreed with a grin.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that means Pancheri has an extra chromosome. The syndrome can cause delayed development, but it has different symptoms with each person who lives with it.
Johnson said for her brother, the syndrome has led to some speech difficulties, which she said might contribute to how shy he can be. Though, she added, being reserved is just part of his personality.
“But art doesn’t need words,” said Souheir Rawlings, an art instructor in Kalispell.
Rawlings works with people who struggle to communicate, for whatever reason. She helps them do it through art.
She said her students may have disabilities, but the only thing that’s apparent in their work is “their tremendous abilities.”
“Tyee, well he’s magnificent, he’s definitely got his own style,” Rawlings said. “The people he creates, they seem strong and resilient and maybe a bit brave and heroic. Maybe it helps him feel that way in a world that’s not always compassionate.”
Maybe, she said, he finds power in those images.
The art displayed in Whitefish is a combination of Johnson and Pancheri. The people were created by Pancheri, the color provided by Johnson.
On a recent afternoon, Pancheri and his sister sat at their kitchen table which doubles as their studio. Pancheri turned the pages of one of his sketchbooks, looking for his favorite characters.
“He’s going through a floating head phase,” Johnson said as her brother rolled his eyes at her. “I kind of miss the bodies, Tyee. I miss the big monkey arms you would draw.”
Johnson said when Pancheri was a child, he would sit with his legs folded on the living room floor, bent over papers with a crayon in his hand. When he felt overstimulated, the rhythm of moving his hand back and forth on the sheet and watching the lines appear helped him check out of whatever felt overwhelming.
Then, eventually, his pictures carried the faces and character of the dozens of action figures he collected. Over time, he created his own characters.
“His work is obviously what’s in his mind and in his world, it’s a glimmer into him,” Johnson said.
About four years ago, Johnson began adding color to her brother’s sketches. She started by tracing his work, “it felt safer that way.” Then, she and Pancheri began playing with colors.
Sometimes it’s just the two of them, sitting at the kitchen table adding to Pancheri’s work. Sometimes friends and other family members join along.
Pancheri’s character with spiky hair became a redhead with blue skin. A man with a surprised look on his face and a cigar hanging out of his mouth turned orange, and the shapes Pancheri had drawn behind the character each took a different color: red, green, yellow, purple and blue.
They also gave names to the pieces. They titled a man standing next to a 10-legged spider hanging from the ceiling “Spider Man.”
For the last two years, Pancheri has taken classes with Rawlings at her studio Art and Soul, where she acts as an expressive arts consultant and educator. Since then, Johnson said her brother returns home with his own color-filled art.
“I think, for him, (art is) an opportunity to be something else, to be big and powerful,” Johnson said. “And I understand that.”
When the siblings’ art first went up at Jersey Boys Pizza, Johnson said she and her brother met with friends for a slice of pizza and a round of beer.
They looked around the room at the finished project from years spent at the kitchen table adding to each other’s work.
“He was giddy,” Johnson said. “So was I. I wanted people to see it, to see him and his different abilities.”
“I look at them as everything,” Pancheri added, pointing to his characters. “And my routine, I need my routine.”
“Yeah,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Really we’re just kind of boring, routine people that like to make art.”
Johnson said she didn’t know what they would do next — try to get his work in some more local locations or send it along to places where people with disabilities display their art in a larger format.
She said when they’re asked whether the art is for sale and for how much, they don’t really have an answer.
“I could probably part with some of them if I knew they would be loved,” Johnson said looking toward her brother.
“Yeah,” Pancheri agreed, nodding his head with a smile.
Information from: Daily Inter Lake, http://www.dailyinterlake.com