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At 15, Las Vegas painter already has sold work worth millions

Autumn de Forest’s signature includes a heart hovering over the second “U” of her first name.

Considering that she turned 15 a few weeks ago, that’s not much of a surprise.

The surprise is where that distinctively girlish signature appears: on paintings that, collectively, have sold for millions of dollars.

But maybe it’s not so surprising. After all, Autumn has been a working artist for most of her young life.

The first public showing of her work took place in 2009 at Boulder City’s annual Art in the Park, where she won an award a year after she first picked up a brush, at age 5.

Since then, Autumn’s paintings — and Autumn herself — have traveled the globe.

Last year, she visited Rome to accept the International Giuseppe Sciacca Award for Painting and Art — and presented a painting, titled “Resurrection,” to Pope Francis.

This year, at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, museum officials extended Autumn’s solo exhibit from two months to almost four because of its popularity.

Last week, she had an auction scheduled with private clients at a Denver gallery.

And, at the end of the month, Autumn is heading to Miami Art Week for Red Dot, a juried show featuring the works of more than 500 contemporary artists.

Next weekend, however, Autumn is staying home — for her first Las Vegas exhibition at the Gallery of Music & Art in the Forum Shops at Caesars.

She’ll appear at the gallery next weekend, but her paintings will be a permanent feature at the gallery, according to director Barry Jacobson.

‘DEFINITELY AN EXTROVERT’

Alongside some of Autumn’s paintings is a video monitor featuring footage of her working on canvases taller than she is.

You can still see that little girl in the enthusiastic, articulate — more accurately, downright chatty — teen of today.

“I’m definitely an extrovert,” she says. “To the point of embarrassment.”

Hovering over a table placed in the back of the gallery — which has been expanded to include studio space — Autumn wields bottles of brightly colored acrylic paint, then picks up a metal rod to push fluorescent red, pink and yellow streaks across a sheet of canvas, conjuring a striated sunset.

That’s “one of the great benefits of living in Las Vegas: some absolutely gorgeous sunsets and sunrises,” she says.

The gallery is “really my first home for my works here in Las Vegas,” and having a studio means she can present workshops similar to the ones she’s led, from New York to California, as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

“It’s such an incredible opportunity,” Autumn says of the committee’s Turnaround Arts program, which counts cellist Yo-Yo Ma, actress Reese Witherspoon and other “older but influential people” among its members.

The kids in the program “don’t look upon those people as a peer; I’m their age,” she says.

And when she helps them create self-portraits she uses a technique she calls “Face Values,” with photographs projected onto blank canvases. “It’s something very personal to them,” Autumn says, likening the works to “a beacon of hope.”

Autumn “inspires other kids to follow their dreams, and express themselves through the arts,” Kathy Fletcher, Turnaround Arts’ national director, says in an email interview. “She is a great peer role model — embodying the ideals of the confidence, joy and success that students can achieve through the arts.”

In the future, the Gallery of Music & Art plans to host similar studio workshops with Autumn and organizations such as Opportunity Village and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“It’s an environment for her to teach people and show there’s much more to art than buying expensive paintings,” Jacobson says.

Or as Autumn puts it, “what I tell kids is, whatever you love — painting, writing, sports — just don’t focus on how good you are, focus on how much you love it.”

That’s what Autumn has done since the day she “skipped out in the garage,” where her dad, Doug, was staining some wood — and Autumn picked up a paintbrush.

“I wasn’t concerned with making a huge masterpiece,” she says. Her dad “looked so surprised. He said it looked like a Rothko.”


 

DALI, POLLOCK, WARHOL

Autumn had no idea who Mark Rothko was — then. Now, the renowned abstract expressionist is “one of my favorite artists.”

After that initial effort, “the more I painted, the more I wanted to learn about the art world,” she says, noting that she was “just captivated” by her first glimpse of surrealist Salvador Dali’s work. (Her acrylic painting “Dripping Hearts,” with multiple 3-D pink hearts popping out of a gray landscape, was inspired by the melting clocks of Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory.”)

From Jackson Pollock’s drip-paint abstracts to Andy Warhol’s pop art portraits, Autumn’s influences emerge from her canvases.

When she painted a bouffant-coiffed Barbie doll in the style of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, Autumn thought, “‘If he can do this with Marilyn Monroe, I can do this with Barbie,’” her mother, Katherine, says.

“I really enjoy working in different styles,” Autumn says. “To change is wonderful. If there was no change, everything would be the same.”

As with “any younger artist, she’s searching” for her own style, says Louis Zona, the Butler Institute’s executive director. “Even Picasso, who was a child prodigy, was searching for his unique way of making a statement.”

In Autumn’s case, “one minute shes painting a horse out of metallic paint. The next, it’s an abstract, or a landscape or a (view) of downtown Las Vegas,” Zona says in a telephone interview. “It’s an emotional approach.”

But one that’s “so impressive,” he adds, noting that “the magic of a young person painting like an adult” captivated Butler Institute visitors. “There’s just something special about very honest work that’s also very sophisticated.”

Zona was impressed by Autumn’s awareness of art history.

“For basically a child to carry on a conversation about abstract expressionism or Picasso’s Cubism — at her age, I was collecting baseball cards,” he says. At one event, the two discussed “Venetian art and I thought, ‘Holy cow — I teach a university class and none of my students’ ” would be so familiar with the subject.

ARTIST PARENTS

After Autumn’s first effort (the one that reminded her father of Rothko), “I did more and more,” she says. “The first piece was a little smaller,” but she thought, “why should I just limit myself?”

Her “parents were so supportive,” she adds — as they demonstrated when she asked for art supplies. She expected crayons; her mom “came back with huge canvases and great quality paint.”

They also gave her permission to “start a mess,” Autumn says. “Thank goodness.” (She now has 10 years of paint layers at her home studio to prove it.)

Of course, both Doug and Katherine de Forest were predisposed to foster their only child’s creativity. He’s a musician and composer; she’s a former actor and model.

Not only were they “fortunate enough to have the means to be supportive and not worry about the relatively insignificant aspects of messing up the house,” Doug says, “our greatest fear, really was that she’d grow up to be a doctor or lawyer.”

Although “we thought it was a fluke in the beginning,” Katherine says, “it was like capturing lightning in a bottle.”

Or, as Doug notes, “the market kind of found us.”

After Autumn made her Art in the Park debut, the word got out “and somehow it got to the Discovery Channel,” he says, followed by NBC’s “Today Show,” PBS, the syndicated “Inside Edition” and more, all by age 9.

Autumn estimates she has painted almost 2,000 canvases. That translates to “probably $7 million worth” of paintings, Katherine estimates. (The money goes into a trust.)

Although Autumn wasn’t aware of it when she first picked up a paintbrush, she’s not the first member of the de Forest family with an artistic bent. Her great-great-uncle Robert Weeks de Forest served as the president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1913 to 1931. And her great-great-uncle Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932) was a member of the Hudson River School, according to Doug, whose sister and aunt also are artists.

“It was probably years after I first started painting that I learned about my past family and art history,” Autumn says.

‘LITTLE GIRL, BIG WORLD’

Autumn is a student at Odyssey Charter School, which she attends one day a week (Wednesday improv class is a favorite). “The rest is online.”

And while “a lot of my friends know I love to paint,” she doesn’t tell them that she travels internationally in connection with painting.

“It does not freak me out — it’s just kind of been exciting,” Autumn says of her experiences. OK, maybe she does freak out just a bit when she remembers that one of her paintings is in the Vatican collection, “being alongside Michelangelo and da Vinci.”

In the gallery studio at the Forum Shops, Autumn’s still working on her latest canvas, filling in a figure with darker red paint.

“It’s me,” she explains. “I’m looking at a painting of me looking at a painting,” a painting inspired by “a dream of me.”

Part of an ongoing series Autumn calls “Little Girl, Big World,” the newly created image represents “me looking at the world,” along with “me looking at my own artwork. It’s almost like looking into a mirror.”

Read more stories from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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