A Brilliant Mind Reflected in Visual Autobiography


Despite the stigma often surrounding people with developmental disabilities, John Houston, a resident artist at Santa Barbara Art Works, located in Santa Barbara's downtown arts district, has a photographic memory, and a tenacious desire to share his work with others. “I want to show you my drawings!”, replied John, an individual served by UCP WORK, Inc., a service provider that offers integrated employment services for adults with disabilities residing in the Tri-Counties. John attends art classes at the agency’s art studio twice a week, while also participating in the many programs offered at UCP WORK, Inc., such as volunteering in the community, life-skills training, and outings to the city’s libraries and museums.

Santa Barbara Art Works resident artist John Houston

John is a storyteller and his artwork is a visual autobiography of experiences from his life. His imagination, acute memory, and explanation of the names, titles, and places he’s visited over six decades, is astounding to listen to. Like the famous Salvador Dali, John’s drawings illustrate an interesting juxtaposition of his subject matter in the way in which someone he knew from his childhood, might appear in a drawing with a person he met yesterday, and likely in a place he visited last year. His paintings show objects often looked over by people who don’t stop to notice. When asked the reason for his style of work, John responded simply, “I draw people and places I know…I want people to know my stories.”

According to Santa Barbara Art Works' Studio Manager, Jacob Allio, “Some of our artists arrive at the program having never created art before, yet they all have the desire to learn. John came with experience, is fast with his work, and unlike the other students, rarely needs assistance in coming up with his own projects.” Santa Barbara Art Works’ mission is to foster independence and attend to the individualized strengths of its artists. They offer choices in group art instruction, 1:1 studio training, as well as, portfolio and exhibition preparation.

John Houston in his studio with five acrylic paintings behind him

John moved to Santa Barbara in 1972, and was a former resident of Camarillo State Hospital (Developmental Center). Upon moving to Santa Barbara, John was referred to the somewhat new, WORK, Inc., a progressive vocational training and adult day program, founded by the Kiwanis of Santa Barbara in 1968. John remembers in detail how he assembled circuit breakers and skateboard parts at WORK, Inc., which was facilitated in the current Casa Blanca Restaurant building on the corner of State and Gutierrez Street. He has always found a deep passion for drawing and painting, and reading books focused on art history. Due to the demand for more quality programs for individuals with disabilities, the staff at WORK, Inc. have always provided support so that John could strengthen his art skills.