The Story of a Dyslexic Artist

Like so many dyslexic children, I also struggled in school with reading. Unfortunately, it was in a time before dyslexia was well known or widely understood. Being dyslexic goes hand in hand with being creative. 

So it was no surprise when art and comics helped save the day.

Overcoming obstacles

When I was in elementary school growing up in Croatian Yugoslavia, there was no such thing as dyslexia, you were just considered a dumb and lazy student. It was in 1st grade when it became obvious that there was something different about me. I understood numbers and arithmetic. Other subjects were fine too and I had no problem answering questions out loud. When I looked down at a page in front of me, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Reading words and understanding letters became my biggest struggle.

I realized that I saw different letters the same – d, b, g, p – these aren’t actually all the same letters as I had thought, but rather different letters. Each one has its own sounds, its own name even. Other kids could tell them apart, but my brain mixed them all up. To me, it was simply an uncomfortable difficulty having to learn each letter. It made reading impossible.

My homeroom teacher would force me to read aloud in front of the class. I hated it. She even had a long measuring stick for administering punishment to any students who, “weren’t trying hard enough.” I had so many problems with reading that and every night my mother was trying to help me with homework. Nothing worked.

Comic books to the rescue

By the end of 1st grade my father said that enough was enough and gave me comic strips to read over summer vacation. His logic was that if I had trouble with plain text, then having pictures might help. I started with Bringing Up Father (also known as Jiggs and Maggie) by George McManus. A little bit of text and plenty of pictures, I found the comic extremely funny. It wasn’t too difficult and by the end of summer I had fallen in love with comics.

Bringing up Father by George McManus

After a time I got my first real book to read – Šegrt Hlapić (also known as Apprentice Lapitch – or The Brave Adventures of the Little Shoemaker) by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić. It started out simple – just three sentences per day. I despised the idea of reading something without pictures, but three sentences a day wasn’t impossible so I’d do my best to get through it. Then after two weeks, those three sentences turned to five. Fine, this was still doable, too. Eventually, I made it all the way to reading a whole paragraph. At this point I was rolling my eyes but there’d always be a reward at the end. My parents would take me to the movies, or to get ice cream so I’d do the reading.

Šegrt Hlapić by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić

At some point, I think around the third chapter, the book actually became interesting. I stopped counting sentences and paragraphs and just kept reading. Even today I remember how much I struggled at a snail’s pace to get through those first few chapters. Reading was torture and of course as a child I’d rather be outside playing. I thought there was no chance I’d ever finish the whole book.

I don’t remember exactly how, but eventually it became possible. Of course, there were still mistakes, I’d often skip letters or stumble over new words – I’ll do it even today sometimes – but it wasn’t as difficult as before. I didn’t have to force myself. It finally all clicked when I realized I could imagine and visualize the words in my head. After that moment, I was enchanted by books. I especially loved adventure novels like Winnetou and Tarzan. Soon, I was reading two or three books a week!

Learning to love reading

This continued throughout my remaining school years. Of course, I loved comics the most, especially Prince Valiant by Hal Foster and Asterix and Obelix by Albery Uderzo. Later in high school, I was reading Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt and The Vagabond of Limbo by Godard and Ribera. It was still slow for me to read plain text, so I helped myself in my studying by creating mental maps. I realized I had excellent visual memory, so I learned to memorize my notes and textbooks as if they were pictures. This was much simpler than just learning plain text. During exams, I’d remember how my notes looked and I could easily remember the answers I had studied. High school went well for me. All of my notebooks were covered top to bottom in doodles and drawings, which helped me concentrate and better memorize everything.

The comics of my childhood

I always felt fine about my dyslexia, because back then nobody knew what it was. I learned to read my own way and that was the end of it. Yes, I made plenty of mistakes, like switching around letters, but I learned to visualize words in their entirety. When I saw the word bear I’d imagine the big, furry, four-legged animal. I wasn’t overburdening myself, other than knowing that I should probably double check new words. Were they really the way I had visualized them, or did I maybe make a mistake? Either way, it didn’t cause me any issues in my day to day life.

Understanding dyslexia

Normally, dyslexic children will compensate by having another part of their brain be stronger. For me, it was visual comprehension. Early on I realized I had a form of photographic memory and that I can use it to help me study in school. Once I learned to do that, school became quite easy. Having strengthened visual comprehension means I notice visual details others might normally miss. If the color of tiles compliments the color of grout that’s used, for example. These kinds of details can really bother me if they’re off.

My inclination towards visual art began even before I started going to school. From the age of three I loved drawing. I’d spend hours and hours each day with paper, pencils, and paints. From that age I knew I’d be an artist when I grew up. Art was my world and being artistic was always a part of me.

How it often looks inside my studio

Peoples brains are elastic, so someone with dyslexia can adjust the way they learn or work and still function completely normally. It’s a matter of adapting information in a way that people with dyslexia and similar learning disabilities can process it. For example, specially designed fonts or letters that are made so dyslexics can more easily read – something I didn’t have the luxury of as a child. I think it’s completely fine if you have dyslexia or a learning disability. Just because someone’s brain works differently doesn’t mean it has to define them in a negative way. The goal should be to turn it into an advantage and for our lives to be the best they can.

The first time I actually learned what dyslexia is was when my own daughter entered the first grade. She was diagnosed with both dyslexia and dyscalculia (basically math dyslexia). When the logopede explained her condition I realized it was the same thing that affected me as a child.

Nowadays, dyslexia doesn’t affect me in any negative way. In fact, I think it gives me an advantage because I can capture visual content immediately, since it has become natural for me. This, along with my artistic talent, is a valuable skill in today’s digital media environment. Thanks to the internet, smart phones, and all the technology we now have the world has become incredibly focused on how things are visual. Of course, not all dyslexics have an affinity towards visual content. Some are more inclined towards sound and can become incredible musicians or poets. I find it all incredibly interesting how our brains can work in completely different ways. How things that are considered disabilities can actually be considered abilities, if you take the time and care to nurture them that way.

Dyslexic children can overcome any challenge

Ultimately, I believe we should be open and positive towards people who have dyslexia or other traditional-learning disabilities. I say it this way because society considers it “wrong” because most of our institutions are not equipped to properly help those children adjust and learn as they go through school. There’s no reason to mystify or create a negative connotation around being dyslexic.

While there has been incredible progress since I was a child towards helping dyslexic children get the proper attention they need in school, it’s still lacking in many aspects. In my home country of Croatia, for example, there are still problems. School teachers are not all trained to help dyslexic children and often the school system doesn’t implement logopedic methodology. Ideally, every elementary school would have it’s own logopede to help both children and to teach parents. Not every parent thinks to try giving their child comics to read. I was lucky to have a father who himself loved comics and thought it could help. My circumstances ended up being quite fortunate in a time period when even the word dyslexia was not commonly known.

Most parents want to help their kids when they become diagnosed with a learning disability. It’s best to seek professional advice from a logopede, but of course as a parent it’s important to stay open to try different methods. For some kids comics with lots of pictures might help. For other kids it might be something completely different, like music or even video games. I think as parents it’s vital not to negatively criticize children’s resistance towards reading, since the vast majority of kids will get better at it as they grow older. Some will become avid readers, some will not, and that’s ok since it depends highly on our natural preferences, too.

Inspirational dyslexic artists

There's increasing evidence suggesting that dyslexia is associated with remarkably artistic creativity. Studies involving art academy students have reported significantly more signs of dyslexia among them than in non-art university students. That means that the dyslexic brain is stronger on the right side and that is exactly what a good artist needs!

With dyslexia you adapt a different form of thinking, that thinking is what made some of the most talented and innovative artists we know of. Male artists such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol or even Jackson Pollock  who were some of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. 

Dyslexia breeds creativity in all forms of art. Female artists such as Cher or Florence Welch are amazing examples of dyslexic musicians.  Or maybe the most famous female dyslexic who won her battles against letters; Agatha Christie. Dyslexia couldn't stop from becoming one of the best selling writers of all time.

Finally, my message to all dyslexic children would be, “you’re amazing and everything will fall into place.”

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