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Young artist wins trip to D.C. Jon Campbell | Thu, Jul 01 2010 04:33 PM

Sixteen-year-old Sebastian Martinez became a nationally acclaimed artist earlier this year and he didn't even know it.

His work was selected out of more than 5,500 entries to represent the state of California after his mother entered one of his pieces in a contest coordinated by VSA, the International Organization on Arts and Disability.

"I didn't have a clue about any of it ... she called and she was like, 'Hey, you know, you just won an all-California contest.' I was like, 'Oh. I didn't even know I was entered to win something.' So it was quite the surprise, but a good one," laughs Sebastian.

Rosa Vasquez, Sebastian's mom, said, like any mother, she thinks her son's work is exceptional. But before she told him he was up for an award, she wanted to be sure she wasn't the only one.

"I didn't want him to be disappointed if he didn't get it. Or maybe I didn't want to be disappointed if he didn't get it," Vasquez said.

It turns out, Vasquez wasn't the only person who thought Sebastian's vivid pastel abstract was a cut above the rest.

The High Tech High student, who has Asperger's syndrome, was promptly flown to Washington D.C. for a reception and a chance to rub elbows with Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. The trip culminated in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

As one of the contest winners, Sebastian's work, entitled "Mariela," will be on display in Washington's Union Station through the middle of July before going on a two-year odyssey to children's museums throughout the U.S.

Asperger's is a developmental disability on the autism spectrum. It's often characterized by above average intelligence and intense interest in specific activities, like art. Asperger's differs from autism in that it does not include the kinds of language and social difficulties often associated with that disorder, but there is still debate in the medical community as to how it should be classified.

"Mariela," the piece that earned Sebastian his trip to D.C., was originally created for a very specific audience, Sebastian said. It was a gift for his aunt who had recently lost her mother-in-law. That's why the work uses bright colors and has an overall happy feel to it, Sebastian said.

Sebastian, or Seb, as his mom calls him, said that Asperger's does come to bear on his work in some ways; he often has an intense drive to complete something once it's begun.

"A lot of artists, you hear that it took them, like, months to paint something. But with me I'll start something and I'll usually be done that day. I'm very specific about wanting it done and sort of out of my system," said Sebastian.

Sebastian said he paints or draws virtually every day in all kinds of mediums, and he says he'll work with any surface he can. Recently he's been working with denim fabric as a canvas.

His abilities aren't limited to the visual arts either-Sebastian came in third two years ago in a San Diego-wide contest for young playwrights. He said he hasn't given much thought to art school after his high school years.

"I'll definitely continue with my art, though," he said.

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