By Ross Markman
The first thing Walter Bryan did upon returning from a vacation to Minnesota several years ago was unpack but not his clothes.
Bryan was more concerned with remembering the trip and putting those memories on paper.
So he unpacked his art supplies.
"He was investigating most anything and drew a little bit there," said Lillian Sebey, who, along with her husband, Paul, cares for Bryan. "We were in Minnesota for 2 weeks. He did the cabin and everything in detail, right down to the ground floor. His memory for stuff like that is just super."
Bryan, 50, is autistic. For the last seven years, he's lived with the Sebeys in their home nestled in the Bear Paw Mountains, a home also shared by two other adults under the Sebeys' care, as well as their 10-year-old adopted son, Dominic.
Bryan's artwork, a mix of painting and pencil etchings, will be on display March 15-22 at a Great Falls exhibit hosted by Citizen Advocacy of Cascade County Inc., a nonprofit organization funded by the United Way and private donations. The ninth annual Walter Bryan & Friends Art Show will be held at the Great Falls Times Square and is free to the public.
"He's a very unique individual. You say, Walter, draw me that church, and it's done,'" said Lorraine Jacobs, executive director of the advocacy group.
Bryan's art, however, didn't always depict church scenes and rural Montana landscapes. When he was a young boy, some of his work would contain images like devils and fire-breathing dragons, Jacobs said she was told by the Alt family, Bryan's caretakers at the time.
"I guess he was just trying to express his feelings," Jacobs said.
Bryan lived in Great Falls with the Alts for 25 years, according to Arthur Alt, whose parents adopted 18 mentally challenged boys and men over the years. Arthur is their only biological child.
Prior to moving in with the Alts, Bryan was a resident at the state facility for the mentally handicapped in Boulder. Autism is a developmental disorder usually characterized by an inability to interact with others.
"When (Bryan) first came from Boulder, he drew stick figures," Alt said. "My parents encouraged him and took him to art classes to help develop his talent."
Alt said his mother, Bonnie, was at the forefront of the fight for deinstitutionalization in Montana. Bonnie Alt is a former president of the National Association for the Developmentally Disabled, Alt said.
"Of all the 18 that came through our house, Walter was one of my favorites. His independence is the one personality trait I really found attractive. And I liked the fact that he wouldn't take crap from people," Alt said.
As for where Bryan was born or the location of his parents, Sebey said that's unknown. She's researched his past, but found nothing, she said.
"It's OK. He's now a member of our family," she added.
When Bryan joined the Sebeys in 1995, he wasn't friendly or sociable or even approachable, Sebey said.
"When he first came here, if you tried to touch him, he'd get real upset, and scream and holler at you. I just think that was part of how he was at that time," she said.
Bryan is now not only friendly, Sebey said, he's downright "lovey."
"He was never like that before," she said. "Now, he'll remember you from one time to the next. He's a real nice guy."
That's not to say there aren't exceptions.
"He still gets like that every once in a while when he gets angry," Sebey said. "But when he first came to us, he liked to be all by himself doing things. Now he wants to be around people."
Most days, especially during inclement weather, Bryan can be found with a pencil and sketch pad in hand. Art, Sebey said, comes easy and fast to Bryan.
"He can't do heads and faces, but for old barns and that kind of stuff, he just does an excellent job. We can go anywhere. When we go home, he can draw that place in detail. He's just a very good artist," she said.
Steve Papich, assistant director of Citizen Advocacy of Cascade County, agreed.
"His work is really great. He has a lot to offer and shouldn't be overlooked," said Papich, who's known Bryan for more than a decade.
Those attending the exhibit will have a chance to see and buy 16 works by the artist, who signs each piece with a smiley face and the words, "Walter Bryan, a very good artist."
Although autism doesn't mask his talent, it does prevent Bryan from speaking clearly, Sebey said. He communicates mainly through sign language and gestures and his art.
"He likes to be in his own little world, so I don't think he'd ever want to teach anyone to do artwork," Sebey said.
She paused a few seconds.
"That's his thing," she said.