Volume 1. No. 2
ART ... A POSITIVE NECESSITY OF LIFE
October 15, 2013
By Dr Dinah Murray
This paper could be seen as a case study with a follow-up eighteen years
on. But it is about a named person and, then and now, is written as co-
participant observational narrative. Ferenc Virag is the autistic artist
whose work and whose friendship with me are at its centre; we have
known each other for two decades now. I describe a process in which we
are both learning from each other and caring about each other, building
a relationship based on common interests and mutual trust. The
hierarchisation entailed in the process of psychological research is
incompatible with friendship; so this cannot be a typical ‘case study’
without harming us both. The usual anonymisation is incompatible with
Ferenc’s recognition as an artist.
The story I tell here uses a lengthy excerpt from, “An Autistic Friendship”
(1995) along with more recent events and creations to show the artistic
and technical development of autistic artist, Ferenc Virag, and the
continuing development of the friendship between him and me.
In the early years I made dated notes, since then I cannot be so sure
about what happened when – but I did acquire a series of digital
cameras, used to take the illustrations that follow. It is notable that
certain threads have persisted in his art, which I highlight in the story
In July 1994 an event is described in which I pose myself as the normal
contrast to Ferenc’s autistic self. What I did notice at the time but chose
not to mention back then, was his obvious incredulity at the idea that I
was normal. It took a while to sink in, that one good reason why he and
I get on is our shared autistic natures.
The original paper was written to emphasise how this very obviously
autistic young man repeatedly contradicted assumptions about autism,
being communicative, sensitive to my needs in the context of our
friendship and my willingness to share and potentiate his interests, and
above all, exploratory and creative when given the chance. All
additions to the original are in italics.
Art ... a positive necessity of life
By Dr Dinah Murray
Extract from 1995 paper starts here:
I found someone whose interests I share in Ferenc. We both like nature, light, refraction and reflection, find
beauty in them. We both like controlling material: making things, melting things,
making sparks fly; we both relish the potential of computer graphics. When he is frustrated Ferenc
sometimes injures himself quite badly, biting his thumb till it bleeds, gashing his forehead, etc.
He files his teeth, eats insects, and tests batteries with his tongue. He is an elective bilingual mute, recently
[ie 1995] assessed as understanding up to four-word utterances. Though he will not speak he uses a wide
range of Makaton signs, only some of which I understand.
Most of this paper is devoted to an anecdotal account of my relationship with him. I make no attempt to
disguise his identity, because he is an artist - an animation virtuoso - and because he has given his consent
to the publication of the anecdotes below.
For the last three years [ie. since 1992], plus, I've been a fairly regular companion to Ferenc, sharing his
interests, abetting them wherever possible, commenting on his actions in an encouraging sort of way, and
paying them close attention. It is very evident that he likes all this - and he has become much more attuned
to my concerns, much more interested in communicating with me as the years have passed. I believe a
particular feature of our relationship has been substantially responsible for this: I have always behaved
cotropicatfy towards him. Cotropicality is relating to a person by letting their interests guide yours, in
speech and deed.
9/92: It is one of our regular Friday afternoons. Ferenc is being made to complete a project before
having his free time with me. It is all done but the writing of his name, which he really does not want to do.
He looks across at me, meets my eyes for a moment, and pushes paper and pencil across the table to me. I
say, "I'm sorry, Ferenc, but I think I might get in trouble with Jo if I do it for you" (which was true).
Immediately he takes the paper back and gets on with writing his name. Several times since then I've had
to explain to him that I'll get in trouble of some kind or other if I go along with his wishes: he nearly
always cooperates without further ado.
92/93 There is a photo up in the school hall of Ferenc being given a prize at the Chelsea Flower show for
work in a local community garden. He takes me to the hall to show it to me.
5/93 I was joining Ferenc's class for an outing. Teaching staff were awaited, and late. The children had
nothing to do, so a helper organised them all into doing something most of them quite enjoy, ie making
some music with the odd instrument chosen from a crate. As so often, Ferenc is standing right back in a
hope-not-to be-noticed stance, his head slightly down, his limbs huddled. The helper rounds him up, he
bites his thumb furiously and goes over as he's been told, and sits down. He looks across at me, gazing at
him with I suppose a look of intense fellow feeling, since that was how I felt, and he smiles my first smile
from him. And I smile back while he holds my gaze for a moment longer. The helper urges him to pick up
an instrument and he picks a triangle without fuss, and - urged again - gives it a blow and stops. I say to
him, "Maybe you can enjoy yourself?" and with a touch of a smile again, he starts to play. Early 94 Ferenc
is using a soldering iron. He is waiting for a drop of solder to fall from its tip, but he is holding the iron
horizontal. I say "If your reduce the surface area..."and before I can complete the sentence, Ferenc has
tilted the iron to a vertical.
94. Ferenc proves to have a real flair for computer animation; we decide to record his work by dumping
every screen he creates - including every movement of the cursor - straight on to video cassette. The first
time, we succesfully make two copies, one for him, one for us. Communications between him and Mike - my
colleague whose contribution to this project has been central" - are excellent from the start, since Mike is
concerned only to help him understand and control what's going o n.
The second time, the technology isn't quite sorted: there is only one recording (when this time we had
meant to make three - as we succesfully do next).. I say, "Oh, Ferenc, would it be all right if I took this
home with me and gave it back to you on Monday morning?" (the day after the morrow). He shakes his
head vigorously. Feeling very vexed, I grit my teeth and leave the room. Meanwhile, as I learn later, Mike
goes up to Ferenc, who is holding the succesful cassette, and eyeballs him with, "Ferenc, you know Dinah
really really wants it too...". The next moment, Ferenc finds me in the kitchen, clutching the cassette to him,
he leans towards me, and makes an obviously strenuous attempt to extend the cassette in my direction. I
say, "Oh, is it all right then, if I take it home...?" He shakes his head as vigorously as ever. I shrug, and tell
him nevermind - resigned to never seeing it again.
Next time, we succesfully (largely thanks to the help of Stuart Powell) set up a pair of recordings direct
from the computer, plus an outside camcorder filming Ferenc himself, and our interactions with him. At the
end of the session, when I offer him his cassette, he refuses it, indicating that it is mine. I am very touched,
as I have been when earlier he has pushed across the table towards me, the last four Ferrero Rochers (until
then I'd had just one).
7/94 We are travelling in my car together, a forty mile journey. Just as we are getting out of London a
traffic jam forms, he bites his thumb, S grind my teeth and cuss. There's worse to come: at the next junction
tape is stretched across the road, everyone is sent either left or right with no guidance and no
explanation. Once again, we cuss in our different ways. I explain, as we crawl along with half the other
lost cars, that we'll just have to take the next turning going the right way, and I show him the map and the
road we've had to leave, with our destination clearly visible on it. From then on (without reading the map)
until we rejoin the road, Ferenc is totally confident about direction, even when I'm hesitating, and is
eagerly nudging me and pointing out impending junctions. With a little thumb-biting from him and a little
tooth-gnashing from me, we both manage to keep our cool and get there in the end.
7/94 We are walking across a long lawn together; a cat steps out to join us, I stroke it for a moment,
Ferenc reaches down and feels its tail briefly; we walk on accompanied by the cat. Unusually ! break the
silence with a thought I've often had, "Ferenc," I say, "I often think that ordinary people, people like me,
are more like dogs, while people like you, people with autism, are more like cats" then I turn towards him
and ask him if he knows what I mean. He nods firmly, then looks for a moment hesitant - suggesting to me
that perhaps he felt he understood the cat analogy himself (they own a cat) but wasn't sure about other
people and dogs.
8/94 Ferenc and ! and my dog have joined a bunch of ramblers for a camping trip along Hadrian's Wall.
There are no chairs and for thirty-six hours he won't sit down. Eventually solicitous persuasion by a number
of people gets him going purposefully off to get the large wooden box which offers much the most
luxurious seat in camp. He finds a space beside the fire and sits down with the rest of us. On previous
nights his fascination with the fire - especially his desires to melt plastic in it, and to make sparks fly - has
caused some tension. Ruth has cleverly twigged that if he is allowed to find a safe place to do it, he will
be happy for hours on end striking glowing brands so they shoot sparks out into the blackness.
Tonight he is trying to compromise with the plastic-melting, and has enclosed tiny scraps in foil before
putting them in the fire. Unfortunately even with this much care, they smell as they melt, and Ferenc finds
himself being shouted at. After cricking his head furiously sideways (as though he could shake the din out,
like water in the ear) he jabs a finger up his nose, producing a terrfic instant gush of blood. At once the
mood of opprobrium directed at him is transformed into sympathetic concern.
He and I go mushrooming, him having found a container for the purpose unprompted. When it is full, we
hurry back, as we get closer, he pulls ahead, almost breaking into a run, and (again unprompted) he
proffers them to the others.
For two nights he hardly lies down, gets no sleep. He won't enter the tent set up for him, he won't lie down
in the one he's agreed to share with two others. On the third night we get him to help set up a tent close to
mine and to lay out his sleeping bag in it. At around One am. Rain starts to fall, everyone heads for their
tents. Ferenc stands between his and mine, immobile. I beg him to bend down and get in, I show him that
it's nice in there, I point out that ifs raining harder and harder, I urge him to just bend his knees, to let me
take his shoes off, to think how tired he is. He is adamant. I say, "Ferenc, I'm exhausted, and I can't lie
down until you do". He takes his shoes off and lies down. We are at an English Heritaged Roman site. In
some fine gravel with a narrow plank he has picked up, Ferenc very carefully inscribes a pattern,
frequently standing back to look at the effect, and touching it up here and there. I admire what he has
done, and say so. Later on, back at the camp site, he and I have walked down to take a look at the sunset
view across the distant hills and clouds. He taps me in his urgent way, and makes a sweeping pointing
gesture at this wonderful sight; I say, "Yes, it's amazing - light and shade." Then I add, "Hey, Ferenc, you
know the picture you made earlier in the gravel?" he assents, "I thought that was all about light and
shade?" and he gives me a most decisive nod.
2012 & 2000 - 2010 Both these are hand-made by Ferenc (including the bricks); he is holding the light
penetrated shape on the left; he thrust the camera close in to the house ‘module’ (see more below) to show
its shady inside.
10/ 94 Due to events beyond our control, it's our first Friday together for several weeks. I usually arrive in
the school by soon after 1.15, today it's nearer half past before I dash breathlessly through the school
gates. Sheilah and Bojena both let me know how impatiently I've been awaited. They'd pointed out to
Ferenc that if he wanted to make sure I was coming, if he would just be willing to use speech, he could
phone my home and check. He has, apparently, seriously considered this possibility. By the time I've learnt
all this I'm in the Leavers' Room and he's on his feet, grinning all over his face, and out the door with me
following him, going to the technology room. There he single-mindedly ignores everything but the (very
safe, well-designed) electrical equipment on which he has been experimenting in my company since last
One of the most interesting things we've discovered together has been how to make a glowing 'element'
which stays satisfactorily hot without tripping the safety mechanismand cutting out the current. Different
lengths and types of wire have been explored along with variations of voltage, quite systematically.
Another interesting thing we both enjoy is the way sparks fly when currents clash. One week when we are
exploring these attributes, Ferenc lights up a whole sequence of tiny light bulbs with a circuit partly made
out of a triangle from the music set.
One week, he spends a lot of time drawing smouldering lines on a piece of wood. I point out to him that
what he's made is using the same technique as is used in making a soldering iron hot. He looks across at
me with a, That is extraordinarily interesting! Now I understand! expression.
12/94. It is the school holidays - three days before Christmas - I have promised Ferenc that we'll go back
to Cardfields at last. When I pick him up (from his respite centre) he greets me with the sign C - very
urgently - "Yes! we're going to Cardfields," I say, and a look of satisfaction spreads across his face. When
we arrive, we are both struck at once by the new wooden walkway built out over the large pond. Ferenc
wants to go on it at once, but comes without demur when i say we'd better say Hello to the residents and
check that it's OK. After a quick visit to the dining room - where Ferenc is a bit agitated by the new table
cloths (probably the first new ones in ten or fifteen years) - we go back to the frozen pond.
For two and a half hours we break off the largest pieces of ice we can. Ferenc very quickly develops an
excellent technique for the purpose: he finds a long stick and uses it to press down on the ice as far out as
he can reach, soon a crack develops and i manoeuvre the latest piece out of the water. Each one is broken
into small pieces by one method or another - careful scraping, assiduous hacking, throwing, and eventually
(though still not exclusively) by bringing them down on the top of his head. He pings several of the ice
sheets, inviting me to hear them, holds them up to the sun and looks at the light through them , bounces small
shards along what ice remains, finally whirls every worthwhile piece left into the air, where they almost
seem to float as they spin.
After that, at my request, he takes me to the place in the field where, months previously he had neatly
trampled out a corn line. I've asked him if he remembers where the sun was when he made the line, and he
has nodded decisively. As I'd tentatively guessed, the line pointed at where the sun had been, "So, you
made the line point at the sun?" - another decisive Yes. When I look at the photo of his line, later on, I
realise that its slight deviation from straightness is a function of the sun's small movement across the sky
while he carefully trampled it out.
2002. Ferenc was encouraged by Disabilities Trust staff to help construct this shed, and decorate its
back. Different coloured spotlights are angled on it at his behest.
Late 94. Ferenc and I go off to look at the glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. At
Archway, Ferenc takes me to the place on the platform where you can look down the tunnel, curving off
into the darkness. He gestures at it, making sure that I am sharing his attention, that I am focussed on the
same object of interest. We gaze for a moment, then walk back down the platform. Now he points
eagerly down betwen the lines to where the rodents scurry busily about, polishing off all edible litter, "Oh
yes," I say, then add, "they're careful not to touch the electric rail". At the Museum, we're a bit
disappointed with the glass display: it's far too cluttered, nothing has a chance to be looked at properly.
Ferenc clearly finds it too much, and we both repair rather soon to the restaurant downstairs. There he
queues up in a perfectly orderly way, only spoiling the appearance of normality when he sniffs the
I get him a pastry, with a helping of cream, and a fizzy drink; I have a pot of tea. By the time I'm ready
for my first sip of tea, he has polished off everything and is asking for more. I look at my money and say,
"Will you go and get it, if I give you the money?" and he shakes his nead firmly. So 1 say, "Well, then i'm
afraid you'll have to do without, because i want to just sit here and drink my tea." He gets to his feet,
takes enough money for another pastry, and goes over to the counter to pick one up - actually, to pick two
up, which caused me to intervene briefly. Then he takes it over to the till, shows it to the cashier, hands
over the money, waits for the change, and comes back to the table with the pastry. He had only once
done such a thing before, and that under great pressure with nagging at every step, I tell him, "Well
done," add, "There's all sorts of things you could do, you know, Ferenc?" but don't get an answer to that.
Next we cross the road to the Science Museum, which also has a gallery devoted to glass and glass-
making. We find it altogether more satisfying than its arty neighbour's. At Ferenc's insistence, we watch
right through the scratchy looped video, dated 1979, of the process of glass-making in a foundry.
On the way back, we are waiting for the pedestrian light to come on at a crossing near the school. A
stranger asks me a question, and I don't notice when the green man finally lights up. But Ferenc does, and
nudges me anxiously. His general appearance when crossing roads is always of enclosed unawareness of
the scene around. After this, when we are out together I sometimes point out to him how much freer he
could be if he would iearn to cope with crossing roads.
Christmas 1994 I bring Ferenc to my home to show him our superbly decorated, very tall tree. He glances
at it extremely briefly, then averts his eyes, "Is it too much?" I ask -"Yes!" he nods decisively.
Late Jan 95 I have found a local glassworks, where they are willing for us to visit one Thursday afternoon.
As we approach it, I tell him that it's likely he won't be able actually to do anything, though it's just
possible he will. He seems to take this in.
We step into a large room with furnaces, kilns, and strange implements in it. Ferenc is longing to explore
everything; I say, "I'm sorry, we're just going to have to wait until there's someone here to tell us what we
can touch". He just about brings himself to refrain from then on, but the minutes do drag by. Eventually I
call up some stairs and a kindly admin person - probably she with whom I'd arranged the visit - comes
down and starts explaining things to us. Ferenc listens intently to everything she says, looking at the objects
whose uses she is describing. He has spotted a stack of carefully ordered and labelled, coloured glass
pieces, and he takes her over to those to have them explained.
2009/10. Ferenc’s interest in melting and reshaping blends with his interest in teeth.
He also wants to have one, but I tell him they're part of the process, and not hers to give. In another room
wheels for glass-polishing/grinding are spinning round, while an artisan shapes a stopper on one of them,
which Ferenc watches intently. When she stops, he seizes one of the many plain glass stoppers awaiting
their finishing touches, and is allowed to set it against the turning file. He holds it with his usual steady
hand, purposefully and smoothly making it into an almost perfectly rectangular squared- off section at
The news comes through that the afternoon's glassworking had commenced in the foundry, and Ferenc
stops his filing without too much reluctance. For the next hour and a half, we watch the team of three
perform their subtle glass-heating dance, which culminates in a great coloured bubble being squeezed
into a mould. Ferenc manages to stay out of people's way whilst staying close to the processes they're
engaged in. When he's told that he's not going to be able to work on any softened glass himself, he takes
it very well. But he acts like lightning when an opportunity comes to do things to a small piece of still
molten glass that gets dumped. He spots a piece of broken brick and presses it carefully down in time to
impress the cooling blob.
Early March 1995
There has been a light fall of snow, which has settled outside the London basin of warmer air. The Leavers'
Class is going to St Alban's for the day, to find the snow. When we get there, before us is a great
expanse of untouched white. Almost at once, Ferenc begins rolling a snowball along until it's too big to roll.
He then goes off about twenty feet and starts to roll another ball towards the first. That gets packed into
place while I get some more. The others go off to see sites while we keep building. It isevidently not to be
a snow person; once sufficent mass is in place, Ferenc starts to shape a four-cornered structure, with flat,
slightly sloping sides. ! keep the supplies of snow coming in, and find a long straight stick I think might be
useful. At once, Ferenc uses the stick in a wide sweeping motion to flatten off the sides. Our time is limited
and we work solidly without a break for nearly an hour and a half. When time runs out, the structure is
complete. It is a solid plinth of packed snow about four by four feet at its base, about three foot high and
three by three on top. We get the others to take a look; Ferenc briefly climbs up onto it (it easily bears his
weight). His pride in his achievement is palpable.
At School Assembly,! show Harborough the film Mike Lesser and I have made with Ferenc: all of our names
Copyright on the title page. Ferenc (who was not particularly interested when I played it through for him
soon after we'd made it) watches it all with great intensity, and rushes over to me as soon as it ends,
making the Makaton sign for "more". There had been no indication from him in all those months, that he
was currently aware of ever having had a good time doing animation. I promise him to write to his
parents to fix seeing him at the coming weekend. So, five days later I pick him up in Hackney and bring
him back to my place. We head straight upstairs to the computer. After a little help from my son, we have
the animation program running, and I leave Ferenc on his own with the computer, while I hoover the stairs.
When I go in, after about half an hour, he has written a thirty-two frame abstract animation with flying
discs and lines hurtling in and out of each other. I congratulate him and make sure it is saved, then go on
with the housework. Next time I go in, I find he has integrated his short film with my son Fergus's steadily
revolving mathematically derived animation, and added to his own some clear references to Fergus's
independently generated sequence.
When I read out the anecdotes above to Ferenc, I apologised for it, and explained that I needed him to
listen and see if he remembered what I remembered. I also explained that I needed to know if it was all
right if other people read it. He seemed keen to hear, and attended closely …Throughout, I stuck fairly
closely to my text, simplifying only occasionally, getting regular nods to my memory checks. About
halfway through, I asked him is he was just nodding because it was easier. He shook his head. When
asked if he knew what it meant, he signalled decisively that he understood "compromise".
Concerns with fragmentation and order intersected with the major event of Ferenc’s home being
demolished – a process that started around 1997, when he produced the leather tooling above on a
school trip to the Cordwainers’ College in London. It was his first chance to work leather and his first
meeting with the tools needed. Once he knew what he was doing he created a depiction of an exploding
world – he confirms that is a detonator, see the detail on the right.
Left is a picture from the 1960s of the part of the Holly St Estate known as The Snake, where Ferenc
lived, it is clearly referenced in the leather engraving above; and this layered block (2011) also echoes it
in some ways, as do the modules below
2006-2012 Ferenc made each of these out of tiny hand -made bricks, without using measurements; they
are closely uniform in size. He is in accord with the idea that they relate to the now demolished
estate. Not much light gets in.
Ferenc’s family was re-housed and then a placement was found for him in a flagship residential autism
provision where it was hoped he would be able to follow his creative pursuits as they offered carpentry,
jewellery making and metal work. Unfortunately within a few months of arriving there, he broke a
window in the office in response to confusion and mixed messages about a possible visit from his family
(now far away). From then on, Ferenc was deemed to be someone who couldn’t be trusted near sharp
things and his participation in all those activities was curtailed.
The placement broke down within a year, and Ferenc moved to a place with the Disabilities Trust, nearer
home and with real sensitivity to his needs, as he regularly affirms when I see him. He used to draw a
sketch map of Britain every time I saw him, with his first placement marked on it, with where he now
lives also marked – he would give place No 1 a vigorous thumbs down and agree strongly when I said
how much better things seemed to be where he is now. Then one day (in 2007?) he heard an item on
the radio about a place in Cornwall where the staff had stolen from their ‘service users’ and physically
abused them. After that Ferenc added them to the map, and now regularly points out that place No 1
was a lot better than the horror place in Cornwall, where really really bad things happened.
Since I took him to see an enameller at work, in about 2004, Ferenc also typically draws an enamelling
kiln each time – which I am to make sure the management knows he needs.
2013. After years of haphazard access to ceramics, Ferenc is promised a purpose made zone for a kiln.
Another demolition of his home has now happened: this time the Edwardian pile – where he and several
other people had lived at too close quarters for autistic comfort – has been replaced by individual
purpose-built dwellings, giving everyone a much higher degree of autonomy and the possibility of
avoiding much distress. Somewhere, there will be room for a kiln.
It’s not obvious that these apparently abstract works (left 2007, right 2012) have any bearing on the
issues Ferenc has had about home. Yet there is a clear continuity with the late – unfragmented - 2012
image below left, which represents the ground plan of the twinned bungalows Ferenc was about to
move into, with great satisfaction, in early 2013.
Before the move, both of these were on display on his bedroom wall along with the pair of matched
‘abstract’ patterns above.
As I did in 1995, I asked Ferenc to confirm my interpretations in this paper, and he is happy to have the
article shared. He strongly assented to the idea that questions of darkness and light have always been
very important to him, and that the Holly Street estate was a dark place; mainly he was impatient with
going over his old art at-all. I apologised for the rather poor quality pictures, he seemed indifferent. I
asked him if he wanted a camera, he said, No; I pointed out he could photograph his work himself, he
still said, No.
What have I learnt?
I had an idea about the role of highly focussed interest in autism (see Murray, Lesser and Lawson, 2005;
Lawson, 2011; Milton 2012) and that’s why I met Ferenc in the first place. Bert Furze (now MBE), the
head of the local autism school, said “Yes you can come and be nosey about autism in my school but
only if you come regularly and make friends with one of the pupils”. So that helped me on the right
path even though my motive was investigation, with its Us and Them potential.
Engaging with his interests guaranteed engaging with Ferenc as a person rather than as an
object. Interests are at the core of human connection, both mentally and socially.
When considering human beings, it is more rewarding, more open, more constructive and more
informative to explore the possible than the typical.
Ferenc, who is so classicly autistic, always in ‘special’ provision, always in the purview of the authorities,
is a passionate human being who has forged an autonomous path by means of recurrent creative acts –
and a little help from his friends.
Many thanks to everyone already mentioned above who helped make this story possible.
The Disability Trust centre where Ferenc lives has provided a lot of excellent support: in partciular,
Ferenc rates Joe Kingsley highly for standing up for him and his passions over many years, and Linda
Dejager for recognising so well the materials and opportunities he needed for his art, and making sure
he got them.
Thanks also to Larry Arnold for encouraging me to undertake the expansion here, and for helping me
think of this title.
Lawson, W. (2010) The Passionate Mind: How People With Autism Learn. London; JKP.
Milton, D. (2012) “So What Exactly Is Autism?” AET Competence framework for the
Department for Education http://www.aettraininghubs.org.uk/wp-
Murray, D.K. (1995) “An Autistic Friendship” in collected papers from the conference,
Psychological Perspectives in Autism organised at the University of Durham by the Autism
Research Unit at the University of Sunderland with the NAS.
Murray, D.K., Lesser, M. and Lawson, W. (2005) “Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic
criteria for autism.” Autism. Vol. 9(2), pp. 136-156.