River Oaks District Donates Art Gallery to Students with Autism



An unexpected tenant has temporarily moved into the River Oaks District, the mixed-use commercial development between Afton Oaks and Uptown Park. In the bright, light space across from the Toulouse Café and Bar, there are now wall-to-wall picture frames stacked with precious artwork from some of Houston’s youngest creatives.

Until September 12, the fruits of the KnowAutism Foundation’s “As I Am” artistic program are on display. It’s a natural fit, given the gallery-style layout. The 3,289 square foot high ceilings, studio lights and sliding glass partitions feature paintings by 250 autistic students from 12 schools and nonprofits in the Houston area.

“Some are autistic, some have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). But we like to call them children of all abilities,” says Tammy Nguyen, Founder of KnowAutism.

She tinkered with the ephemeral gallery in 16 days. When River Oaks District offered her the space for six weeks, she had to move quickly.

Nguyen founded KnowAutism in 2013 after her son, Reagan, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 5. She was looking for activities that would grab her attention, besides the usual iPad games or DVDs, when she found Mike Kirby of The Sculpture Shop.

“I tried a lot of different things, and one of those things was art,” Nguyen says. “Reagan loved Play-Doh and we took him to the next level by giving him private art lessons. Turns out Reagan enjoys drawing even more than working with clay.

His son’s favorite subjects were Disney characters. Reagan sat for hours recreating the scenes he saw on screen. He used pencils, markers, paint, and chalk to draw still images from “The Lego Movie” or Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

“This child’s memory is like a camera,” she said.

Art has also become a means of communication in the Nguyen house. “It’s an outlet, but also a way to see what they think and what they think. When I don’t know what he’s talking about, I ask him to draw it instead of writing it.


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In most years, KnowAutism provides financial assistance to families of children with special needs for diagnostic tests, therapeutic treatments, special interest programs and disaster relief. Nguyen estimates that there have been 800 grant recipients in the past five years.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the city and, like many Houstonians, its beneficiaries were stranded at home. So KnowAutism’s board of directors thought about some ideas on how they could help.

The management of the association offered art kits. More than 40 boxes containing brushes, paint and a canvas were distributed in May 2020; 29 photos of finished works of art returned – the “As I Am” program was born.

The following spring, Tammy was ready to raise the bar. A date has been set for May 2021 for the first “As I Am” art festival at Fish Plaza outside the Wortham Theater Center in the city center. She booked DJs, waders, balloon artists and food trucks.

But rainy weather deterred crowds on D-Day, and the works of 200 young people were seen by very few.

“There was still a void in my heart, I felt like art was not seen,” says Nguyen. “We had all this art that I kept, so I thought, ‘Let me see if I can find a place that can display the art a little longer. “

This is where the District of River Oaks came in. Thanks to Nguyen’s existing relationship with Christian Dior, another tenant she is a client of, she says the District of River Oaks has offered KnowAutism free vacant space. , including electricity and $ 5,000 for additional charges.

Art on display is not for sale, although charitable donations are accepted. What KnowAutism aims to sell instead is hope – and maybe a bit of brand awareness.

The first thing visitors see upon entering the gallery is the work of professional artists living with autism, such as Houston native Grant Manier.

“He has a book, he makes a living,” says Nguyen. “It shows the kids what they can do. And parents can see where their children can be when they have reached their potential.

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