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Philly artist who 'just happens to be autistic' is gaining praise for his massive building sculptures

Philadelphia Inquirer By Stephanie Farr, Philly.com

a person standing posing for the camera: Kambel Smith (left) stands with his brother, Kantai, and father, Lonnie, at their home in Germantown.

Kambel Smith (left) stands with his brother, Kantai, and father, Lonnie, at their home in Germantown.
© TIM TAI/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

As Lonnie Smith was fixing a vent in his home about 20 years ago, his son Kambel's drawings - crumpled and perfect - came tumbling out.

The drawings Kambel had hidden in the vent told the story of a superhero character he named Survivor. But more important for Lonnie - who had struggled for so long to understand his autistic son - they told Kambel's story too.

Based on those sketches, Lonnie began telling a story to Kambel and his younger brother, Kantai, who is also autistic, about how autism is a superpower, not a disorder. That story, The Autisarian, is one the single dad and his sons still tell one another to this day.

Encouraged by the story and by his father, Kambel began exploring his artistic talents. Without ever taking an art class, by age 15, Kambel was oil painting landscapes. And when the money for paints and canvases ran out, he began making intricate, large-scale sculptures of Philadelphia buildings from foam and cardboard he found in the trash.

"I just show who I am," Kambel, now 32, said of his work.

For nearly a decade, Lonnie tried to get his son's art noticed with small shows at local libraries and senior centers. But nobody came.

Still, Kambel continued to create. His sculptures began to fill the house he shares with his dad and brother, leaving little room for anything else.

"There's no furniture, but there is art," Lonnie said of his home.

Last September, Kambel was on his front lawn in Germantown spray-painting his massive, seven-piece model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art when his neighbor Barbara Gettes walked by with her daughter. As she admired Kambel's work, Lonnie came out and shared his son's story.

"He said he's really been wanting to get Kambel's artwork out there for a long time," Gettes said. "I said I had a great network of creative people, maybe somebody will know something."

Gettes posted photos of Kambel and his work on Facebook and was able to connect him with curator and gallerist Chris Byrne, cofounder of the Dallas Art Fair and owner of the Elaine de Kooning House in East Hampton, N.Y.

Byrne, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, traveled to Philadelphia to see Kambel's sculptures in person.

The materials Kambel uses and the scale of his sculptures "made my jaw drop," Byrne said.

Kambel's sculptures were displayed at the Elaine de Kooning House last year and on Jan. 17, Byrne exhibited Kambel's sculptures at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. There, they gained the attention of Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic for the New York Times, and Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York Magazine who called Kambel's work "magnificent."

The American Folk Art Museum even acquired Kambel's sculpture of the Divine Lorraine Hotel for its gallery, and the West Collection, housed at the financial services firm SEI in Oaks, purchased Kambel's sculptures of City Hall and the PSFS Building.

Though Kambel is a man of few words, he said having the attention of the art world has made him feel good.

"It's really inspiring," he said. "Keep me going. Keep moving forward."

Lonnie hopes his son's art will supersede any pretenses people have about his autism.

"He's an artist," Lonnie said. "He just happens to be autistic."

Today, Kambel spends much of his waking life creating sculptures of historical buildings - a process he said takes anywhere from one to three months. He's drawn to structures because of their shapes and bases his creations only on pictures he finds through Google. Kambel does not draft the buildings ahead of time - he does it all freehand.

Kambel's sculptures have moved beyond Philadelphia architecture. Most recently, he was hard at work on several Georgia buildings, including the Flatiron Building in Atlanta.

On a bitter Friday afternoon, after barely getting the Flatiron Building through his front door, Kambel put on his headphones and listened to French future house DJ Tchami and sister indie-rock trio HAIM as he spray-painted his cardboard sculpture on his front lawn.

Passing cars slowed to gawk, but he paid no mind.

Byrne, who has watched Kambel work, likened his focus to that of an athlete "in the zone."

"He's just operating on a different level than everyone else," Byrne said.

Now Kambel, his father, and his brother, Kantai, 24, want to inspire others with autism through their Autisarian Network, which was birthed out of the ongoing story Lonnie and his sons created.

"An Autisarian is a person who has a superhuman ability left by the so-called disorder, autism," Lonnie said.

The family has created graphic novels about the superhero science-fiction story and Kantai, whose gift is computer and video game coding, has created a computer-animated movie.

Lonnie said the most important thing other parents of autistic children can do is try to uncover their child's hidden talent.

"Find the gift because I think all of them have it," he said.

As for Kambel's gift, Lonnie doesn't know where it's going next, but he can't wait to see.

"You're not just born with the ability he has just to be here," Lonnie said of his son. "That's for a reason and I think he's starting to show that reason now."

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