Gregory Blackstock (1946-2023) worked for decades at menial jobs, and then suddenly, in his 50s, gained international acclaim for his extraordinary artwork. Born with a prodigious memory for subtle variations, as well as music, dates, languages, and movie dialogue, he was only recognized late in life as an autistic savant. While growing up, Blackstock’s inability to communicate well, read social signals and react appropriately was misunderstood and he was dubbed mentally retarded. He was sent to boarding schools for children with disabilities and worked as a janitor. Then for 25 years he was a pot washer at the Washington Athletic Club, all the while making drawings at home. In 2004, with the help of his cousin Dorothy Frisch (b. 1952), Blackstock had his first art show at Seattle’s Garde Rail Gallery. His career skyrocketed from there, to exhibitions of "outsider" art in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Austria, Great Britain, France, and Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Collection de l’Art Brut holds more than a dozen of the artist’s drawings. Blackstock’s images have been reproduced on cards, puzzles, and on haute couture clothing by Comme des Garçons. His book Blackstock’s Collections was published in 2006, and an animated film by Drew Christie, The Great World of Gregory Blackstock, premiered on PBS in 2021. Blackstock died at a care facility in Lacey in 2023. Since 2012 his work has been represented by the Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle.
"In a World of His Own"
Born in Seattle on January 9, 1946, Gregory Blackstock was the second son of Carl M. Blackstock (1913-1973) and Dorothy Lyons Blackstock (1914-1999). Carl was a Naval officer during World War II who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and served as captain of a patrol torpedo (PT) boat in the Battle of Midway. He married Dorothy Lyons, a portrait painter and graduate of Whitman College, in 1942 at Honolulu. After Carl’s military service, the couple returned to Seattle, where Carl and his brother Ray C. "Bud" Blackstock (1916-1999) inherited the Blackstock Lumber Company, founded by their father in 1912. Carl didn’t show much interest in the company and eventually the two brothers set up a second business on the property, the Pneumatic Drill Company, which Carl nominally ran. His older son, Carl L. "Rusty" Blackstock (1943-2008), would follow in his footsteps, content to live on the family business but disinclined to work.
Soon after Greg was born, his developmental differences became apparent. While still an infant, he didn’t respond normally to stimulus. As a toddler, he didn’t speak and would focus obsessively on motion, such as water swirling down the toilet bowl or freight trains clattering by. In the summer of 1949, the Blackstock family moved to the Windermere neighborhood, in northeast Seattle near Lake Washington, and neighbors noted Greg's unusual behavior. "He was in a world of his own and fixated on things he couldn’t get out of his mind," a lifelong friend, Jennifer Johnson recalled. "In those days they didn’t have any knowledge of autism and everybody [with Greg’s symptoms] ... was just declared to be mentally retarded. That was the term everyone used and that was considered the more enlightened term in those days" (Farr interview.)
Dorothy Blackstock tried to keep life as normal as possible for Greg and enrolled him at Graham Nursery School in Lake Forest Park. In 1950, a Seattle Times photographer captured a photo of 4-year old Greg in a little porkpie hat, with his brother Rusty and a group of friends, all gathered around the Easter Bunny at an outdoor event. By that time, Greg had discovered many passionate interests. "I especially adored fireworks shooting, rollerskating, launching helicopters and balsa-wood aircraft, square dancing, monster freight trains, outboard motorboat races, airplanes, ferryboat trips, Petosa accordions and music" (Blackstock letter). Greg’s father, an avid steelhead fisherman and speedboat racer, also played the accordion, an instrument that entranced Greg. He loved playing records. He memorized music and movie dialogues effortlessly.
Greg attended Helen Bush Kindergarten, and then Green Lake Elementary and Latona Elementary, but his exceptional abilities and odd behavior were difficult to accommodate. By the time he was 10, public school was no longer an option. The family doctor had diagnosed Greg with paranoid schizophrenia, a broadly used term at the time, and he was prone to outbursts and obsessive behavior. His parents, struggling with their own relationship, decided to send Greg to Devereux Ranch School (now Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health), a boarding school for people with behavioral and cognitive problems near Santa Barbara, California. Not long after that, Carl and Dorothy Blackstock separated, but both remained involved in caring for the boys.
A Traumatic Move
For Greg, who was unusually dependent on routine and familiarity, the move to California was traumatic. He was homesick and deeply unhappy, but soon found activities he liked at the school. In a letter home, his therapist praised Greg’s artistic abilities, noting that he had painted a beautifully articulated mosquito and, surprisingly, could transcribe music from memory. She also mentioned "his unusually large and somewhat startling vocabulary" (staff letter). Even though Greg chafed against rules and discipline at Devereux, he made lasting friendships with some of his teachers.
On his own, Greg spent a lot of time studying books on reptiles, insects, trees, flowers, and birds – and memorized many of them. The school taught weaving, a craft Greg could become utterly absorbed in, even working during rest hours. He could then go burn off his energy in sports. His skill at swimming and diving impressed his teachers, as did his archery and golfing. And he could run. One of Greg’s proudest achievements was winning six blue ribbons in track and field events in 1959.
Devereux also offered opportunities for Greg, at 13, to spend social time with girls at dances and parties. Unfortunately, that led to Greg getting a serious crush on a 17-year-old girl. School administrators mentioned the problem in letters to Greg’s parents but apparently were unsuccessful in solving it. Greg later wrote that he was fascinated "with a combination of ugliness and beauty in her language, feature and behavior" and that she "was apparently impossible to avoid in wanting her steady for companionship the way I pestered her at Devereux for over a year ... It was my major embarrassment due to autism" (letter to Frisch, 2009).
That may have been why in January 1960, Greg’s parents transferred him to Holly Acres Training School in Applegate, California. Founded in 1950 to care for mentally retarded children, the school at first was seen as an asset to the town. But troubles began to emerge in 1955 when an 11-year-old boy died there after being scalded in a hot bath. By 1957, Holly Acres was being advertised as a school for older teens with behavioral problems. That year an 18-year-old died after jumping from a moving tractor. Virginia Thall (1906?-1986), a founder of the school, had not completed high school and had no teaching experience when she began. She and her second husband managed Holly Acres and its extensive acreage more as a farm, with students providing labor. They cleared land, planted trees, and raised sheep, goats, and pigs. A few months after Greg arrived a 17-year-old boy drowned on an outing.
Greg never forgot the harsh discipline at Holly Acres. "They were very cruel," Greg’s cousin Dorothy Frisch said. "They would wash his mouth out with soap; they would swat him with wet towels ... and maybe worse" (Farr interview). Letters home from Mrs. Thall were odd and disconcerting. "Your son Greg is really coming along just fine. You won’t know him. He has lost the cultured look." School administrators certainly gave him plenty of hard outdoor work, such as cutting down sumac trees and "a Garden Theraphy (sic) Class" (Thall letter). But when they restricted Greg from going for a long-planned Easter vacation with his beloved Aunt Jessie and Uncle Milt in Los Angeles – that to Greg was the worst. "I felt I’ve been badly abused in having to learn things the hard and impossible way," he would later write about his experiences at Holly Acres, which he called a "bitter humiliation" (Frisch letter). At some point, Aunt Jessie learned something unacceptable about Greg’s treatment and told his mother to get him out of there.
After five long years, Greg was allowed to move back home with his mother and was enrolled in Pacific Prevocational School, a Seattle school district institution that provided handicapped teenagers with job-oriented training. The teachers were kind. After his boarding school experiences, living at home and attending Pacific Prevocational felt like heaven to Greg. While there, he appeared on the Pinbusters television show and brought home a bowling trophy, which he later noted "was undoubtedly the very finest athletic history I’ve ever had in which I will absolutely never forget – even in the future” (Blackstock’s Collections). This was the kind of public approval he craved, an acknowledgment that he was special and a way to make his parents proud. Some 40 years later, Greg listed the many people who had praised him for his big win and to whom he had shown his trophy.
Living at home with his mother and brother, with his father nearby, brought other exciting events for Greg. In the summer of 1963, his father presented him with his very own accordion and gave Greg lessons. It was a complicated instrument and one that could produce a satisfyingly raucous sound that he adored. Playing accordion would remain a high point of his life and the Petosa Accordion shop, with its kind and helpful staff, one of his favorite places. Greg also began his first job around that time, delivering the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to two routes in his Windermere neighborhood. "He was fantastic," recalled Greg’s next-door neighbor and lifelong friend, Jack Luker (Farr interview). With Greg’s extraordinary memory and attention to detail, he easily remembered all the names, occupations, and addresses of his customers, and their preferences – who liked the paper tucked inside the screen door and who wanted it placed carefully on the doormat.
A Glimpse into the Future
At age 18, Greg enrolled at Edison Technical School (now Seattle Central Community College) and studied tailoring. He excelled at it, but it wasn’t a field he wanted to pursue. His true passion showed in 1966, when The Seattle Times printed one of his drawings, titled The Great Caped Crusaders. An image of Batman surrounded by words representing loud noises – Crash! Blam! Whap! Bonk! Smack! Thud! Boom! – it was a glimpse into the future of Greg’s artwork, showing his fondness for loud noises and variations on a theme, in words and images. His mother, a portrait painter, had sent the drawing to the Times to encourage Greg. Seeing it in the paper, he was ecstatic. Later, he would credit his mother for his interest in art, saying, "I guess I take after my mother, don’t I?" (Farr interview).
After he finished his schooling at Edison, Greg got a job as a janitor and Mrs. Blackstock helped establish him in a basement studio condominium not far from Green Lake. He got around town on his bike or took the bus – he had all the bus routes memorized – and he also liked to walk long distances. Once he walked from his job near Sea-Tac Airport to his mother’s house in northeast Seattle. Another time he rode the bus to Northgate, then walked home, just for the exercise. In 1975, after several different janitorial jobs, he was hired as a pot washer at the Washington Athletic Club, where he remained an eccentric and beloved employee for the next 25 years.
One day while Greg was on his break, he walked over to the nearby Bartell’s drugstore and was waiting in a checkout line. A street person came in and started harassing people in the line. He cut in front of Greg and continued to taunt him. Greg would later phone his old friend Jack Luker to tell him about the incident, explaining that he didn’t know what to do, so "I hit him" (Luker interview). The guy dropped to the floor, knocked out with a single punch. The police were called; Greg was kept there for questioning. But everybody at the store, all the employees and shoppers stood up for him and said he had done the right thing. The police let him go. "He is amazingly strong from carrying those heavy pots and pans around for 25 years," a chef at the club once noted, "but he is also very gentle, very nice, and absolutely always respectful" (Seattle PI).
Working, Drawing, Playing the Accordion
Washing pots was the drudgery that paid the bills, but drawing and playing the accordion were what sustained Greg. For years he had been drawing variants of things that intrigued him – crows, accordions, drums, hydroplanes, fighter planes, etc. – and stashing them under his bed. He liked to categorize and catalog; that was how his mind worked. He often did research at Seattle Public Library, where many patient and good-natured librarians got to know him. And while working at the Washington Athletic Club, Greg began to receive modest recognition for his art. For many years the WAC newsletter, WingSpan, featured a page called "Blackstock’s Corner" with a reproduction of one of his drawings. People at work noticed other exceptional abilities as well. Greg easily picked up languages spoken by his coworkers, including German and Tagalog, which included a fair amount of colorful cursing. On his own, mostly from listening to records, he could speak bits of Czech, Dutch, Mandarin, Japanese, and Russian, mimicking the accents perfectly. He loved to recite movie dialogue, imitating the voices and sound effects, and could name all the actors who voiced the characters in his beloved Walt Disney classics.
In his free time Greg could often be spotted outside sporting events or theaters busking with his accordion. He had a large repertoire and played with enthusiasm, often singing along. It was noted that he could play John Phillip Sousa’s "The Stars and Stripes Forever" while gleefully whistling the piccolo part. If he was outside the opera house, he’d switch to something more appropriate, such as excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. For him the joy was in the music – and the appreciation of his fans. Greg often traveled on his own, too, taking photographs of things that intrigued him, especially amusement park rides and anything he spotted in orderly arrangements. He was proud to have visited some 30 of the United States, occasionally staying with friends but more often going just to see the sights.
Even with Greg living independently, his mother worried about his ability to get by without her help. He had little sense of money and needed guidance with many day-to-day problems. She encouraged Greg’s younger cousin Dorothy Frisch – who had lived at the Blackstock house for a few months while doing a practicum in social work at the VA hospital – to consider taking on the role of overseer. It was an idea Frisch "resisted very, very strongly for quite a long time" (The Great World). Why would she want to take responsibility for a relative who had a condition that was poorly understood and who could be very challenging to deal with? At the time, Frisch was a partner in the restaurant Saleh al Lago near Green Lake and found it stressful enough just having her unusual cousin regularly stop in for dinner. "You are trying to get a restaurant off the ground, fine dining, and there is somebody in the corner growling like the rabid dog in [the movie] Old Yeller – it’s just hard" (Farr interview).
But little by little Frisch – whose B.A. was in social work and psychology – found herself being pulled into Greg’s orbit. It’s true she often found him exasperating, but she seemed to know how to talk to him and get the desired results. When Greg’s mother died in 1999, and with his older brother frequently unavailable, Cousin Dorothy was often the person Greg turned to for help. Greg's mother had also arranged with Mary Galvin, a chaplain at Bridge Ministries in Kirkland, to set up a Friendship Circle for Greg, with members who included his childhood neighbors Johnson and Luker, whom he counted among his closest friends. Four times a year the group would host gatherings for Greg, serve refreshments, and provide an opportunity for him to play his accordion, do his movie imitations, and get help with any problems he was having.
As Greg got older, working at the WAC began to wear him down, especially "the way things were run close to my retirement – too martinet-like and too stern, you know what I mean?" (The Seattle Times). When he turned 55 and hit the 25-year mark, Greg retired, hopeful that his modest union pension and small nest egg would be enough for him to get by on. Unfortunately, on his mother’s advice, he had entrusted his retirement funds to a Kirkland financial advisor, Rhonda Breard, who was later convicted of stealing her clients’ money rather than investing it. Greg lost nearly $200,000, his entire inheritance and savings. At that point Frisch stepped in and took charge: "He would have just plain run out of money – and he could so easily be homeless" (The Great World).
A Monumental Breakthrough
On the suggestion of an artist friend, Frisch sent reproductions of some of Greg’s drawings to the Garde Rail Gallery in Seattle, which specialized in work by "outsider" artists, a term used to describe creative people who have not had academic training and live outside the mainstream. When gallery owner Karen Light-Piña saw Greg’s work, she recognized his unique vision and promptly arranged a show. That first exhibition in 2004 was a smash success that changed the trajectory of Greg’s life. He began earning money for his artwork – something he had never imagined. Even better, people recognized his special abilities and treated him with respect and admiration. Was he happy? "Oh yeah, relieved," Greg said later. "I'm famous" (The Seattle Times).
Frisch was relieved too. Yet, along with Greg’s success came additional duties for her. She soon found herself managing Blackstock’s busy career. A book was in the works and with the publication of Blackstock’s Collections by Princeton Architectural Press in 2006, calls began coming into the gallery from people around the world wanting to buy Blackstock drawings. Arrangements were made for some drawings to be reproduced on cards and puzzles and then on clothing by the fashion house Comme des Garçons.
In 2008 Frisch accompanied Greg to New York for his inclusion in an Autism Awareness Day exhibition at the United Nations and to visit Comme des Garçons. In 2010, Greg was chosen to create the poster for Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot arts festival. The following year he and Frisch flew to Switzerland for his one-person exhibition at the storied Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. Frisch was the one who had to field calls from television, radio, and newspaper reporters requesting interviews and be there to help interpret. Greg’s autism made it difficult for him to understand some questions or know how to respond. Once, though, when asked what autism meant, he summed it up neatly – and defined his biggest problem. "It means I’m not the greatest communicator in the world is what it is," (The Seattle Times).
Frisch found her unexpected role as publicist and manager for an autistic savant at times exhilarating. She was amazed in Switzerland when a cab driver recognized Greg and was thrilled to be driving them! It was exciting to be feted at fancy restaurants and receptions and see Greg’s drawings on the walls of museums. But traveling with Greg was continually challenging. His deep gravelly voice was loud and disruptive at airports and on airplanes, and his behavior, focused on his own objectives, could be inconsiderate. He was prone to making inappropriate remarks, loudly, and was stubbornly opposed to normal precautions with money or safety. The hardest part was the constant push/pull, Frisch said, "that he needed so much and relied on me so much" (Farr interview).
After years of stress and hardship, Greg was enjoying his newfound success, but Frisch’s concerns for his care hadn’t abated. Although he knew how to cook and had a repertoire of his own unconventional recipes (such as Cream of Mustard Soup, quick version), his eating habits were far from ideal. He often ate in restaurants and would order extravagantly. His apartment was crammed bottom to top with mementos, artworks, photographs, and instruments he collected, as well as all kinds of obsessive purchases. Frisch spotted shopping bags filled with candy and snacks in his closets. He bought dozens and dozens of t-shirts and then had them custom embroidered "Gregory Blackstock, Seattle artist," with no concept of how expensive that was. In his upper 60s, Greg’s hearing was poor, his arthritis pained him, and he was beginning to need more oversight than Frisch could provide – and what if something happened to her? She started slowly pushing for Greg to move into an assisted-living facility, where his meals would be provided and his coming and going could be monitored. Change can be especially challenging for people with autism, and although he wasn’t happy about the idea, he eventually made the move in 2015.
Greg adapted to his new apartment in Northgate, but in 2020, with Covid restrictions in place, he languished without his usual activities and his health began to deteriorate. Frisch had moved to Olympia to be closer to her sisters and arranged for Greg to be transferred to a care facility nearby. After suffering a stroke and a long stint in hospice, Greg died January 10, 2023, a day after his 77th birthday. His body was buried in a family plot at Evergreen Washelli in Seattle and his brain donated for autism research. "His tissue will fuel research all over the world for decades to come," Frisch said. "Not only does Greg live in our memories, his DNA and his drawings live on ..." (Farr interview).