Manitoba artist with autism gets spotlight at National Dog Show in Philadelphia

A Manitoba artist, living with autism, is now getting international attention for his paintings of dogs.

Alec Baldwin's painting was unveiled at a special gala for VIPs and featured on posters, programs

Manitoba artist with autism gets spotlight at National Dog Show

5 years ago
Duration 2:45
Alec Baldwin's painting was unveiled at a special gala for VIPs and featured on posters, programs.

A Manitoba artist, who lives with autism, is getting international attention for his paintings of dogs.

Alec Baldwin's painting was featured at the National Dog Show held in Philadelphia last weekend. It was used on VIP passes, the cover of the program, posters and 8,000 brochures, and even on the wrapper of the show's official chocolate bar.

"It's amazing," the 24-year-old from Gimli said when asked about how it feels to paint dogs, an animal he deeply loves.

One of Alec Baldwin's paintings is featured on the cover of the National Dog Show program. (Kennel Club of Philadelphia)

Short on words but full on talent, Baldwin also plays guitar and piano — he is at the Grade 10 level with the Royal Conservatory of Music.

He is a dog handler who shows at competitions and is a Special Olympics athlete going to Nova Scotia next year as part of the Manitoba team.

"But above all, he has a good heart," said Tanis Benson, beaming with love for her son.

"When I was at the show [in Philadelphia], I looked down at my VIP pass and it had his painting on it, and it dawned on me that everyone around here who was a VIP has his painting around their neck.

"I'm really proud of him. He's worked really hard — he's had to work harder than anybody because of his struggle with language."

At 2½ years old, Alec Baldwin was diagnosed with autism, and his parents were told he likely wouldn't be able to speak when he was 18. (CBC)

At two and a half years old, Baldwin was diagnosed with autism, and his parents were told he would likely never be able to speak. They were told to have a photo album of objects that he could point to in order to communicate with them.

They refused to accept that.

"We've worked on his weaknesses and built on his strengths," Tanis said. "That's the best you can do with any child."

She took Alec out of school for a few years when he was young and got him into art, buying him a how-to-draw dogs book.

"He just took off," Tanis said, eventually drawing every dog in the Canadian Kennel Club books and the American Kennel Club book.

Baldwin used watercolour pencils and made 200 portraits of dogs that he gave to the owners of his subjects.

Eventually, he switched to paint, and one of his pieces, a 40-by-60-inch night scene with 35 champion dogs, won best acrylic painting in the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba's fine art show in Gimli last year.

Painting dogs, like this one, has become a passion for Alec Baldwin. (CBC)

Baldwin gave a copy of it to Wayne Ferguson, president of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, which runs the National Dog Show. Ferguson phoned Baldwin to say he had it framed and hung in his home den.

He then commissioned Baldwin to do a painting for the show. The finished piece is another night scene with lanterns in the sky above the Philadelphia skyline. There are 15 previous champion dogs standing on or near a blue carpet path leading to the city.

The painting was unveiled at a special gala for VIPs, including Baldwin and his mom.

Appropriately, his work is part of an event that celebrates achievement because Baldwin has accomplished so much.

"He's come from a place where in school they didn't believe he would do anything, to today," said Tanis. "He has come a long way."

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Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files CBC's Wendy Parker and Marcy Markusa