BENNINGTON — Among the whimsical, often technicolor artworks by Josh Gray is a frog with its mouth wide open. In its eyes are hearts for its pupils and a peace sign where a frog’s nose might be.
The frog, perched below a rainbow made up of small, various colored flowers, looks joyful, as if mid-laughter.
“He tells everybody, ‘That’s me,’” said Arla Foster, Josh’s mother. “I never knew anybody who could laugh for the pure joy of laughing, but Josh can.”
This love for life is what Josh, a soft-spoken 49-year-old with Down syndrome, hopes to inspire in others through his art, now on display in “Josh’s Fantastical Menagerie” at Left Bank Gallery, 5 Bank St., in North Bennington until Sept. 30. The 127 drawings, done in watercolor pen, include birds, fish, dogs, a lion, flamingos with their necks crossed, a lawn gnome and more.
“The number-one thing people say about people’s art is it makes them feel happy,” Arla said. “That is his purpose.”
When asked where he gets his ideas from, Josh gestures to a book of animals on a table at Left Bank Gallery, where he and his mother have been meeting gallery visitors a few days each week. Arla said he also looks at pictures of animals from the internet, and gets inspired by visits to the zoo.
“I like to draw monkeys. I like to draw cows. I like to draw birds, horses, pigs,” Josh said.
His mother added, “Josh loves animals, don’t you? Any kind of animal. I mean, there are so many animals. He’ll probably never draw them all. Themes get repeated. He’s done quite a few owls and quite a few cats and a bunch of different birds.”
On a recent day at the gallery, Josh exchanged hugs with visitors and with gallery director Rhonda Ratray. He also asked to take people’s photos using a digital camera he carries in a pocket.
“It’s just such joyful work that everyone who comes in is just blown away,” Ratray said. “It’s hard to pick a favorite. A lot of people have deliberated. I love the color, the patterns and all the animals — you can’t go wrong.”
Josh and his mother are both Bennington born and raised, and now reside on Amelia Island in Florida with Arla’s partner. Arla said she has known Ratray for many years, and after learning about Left Bank Gallery through social media, asked her if she would be interested in a show. Initially, the show was supposed to feature both Josh’s drawings and his mother’s sculptures made from found objects, but Josh’s body of work was so large, and Arla said she didn’t want her large, three-dimensional creations to distract from his drawings.
She said her son has always drawn, mostly creating abstract designs. He loves experimenting with colors. He started drawing animals around four years ago.
“I said to his dad one day, ‘I wonder if I could sit down with Josh and teach him the basic techniques.’ And so I did that, and this is what happened,” she said, gesturing to the gallery full of her son’s animal drawings.
Josh’s late brother, Jeremy Foster, was an artist who liked to make drawings and sculptures. He died in 2014 after some health struggles.
“So we kind of wonder if he, you know, there’s a little channeling going on,” Arla said.
Josh got his first commission shortly after he began drawing animals, and this took his art practice to a new level. Often, he will draw people’s pets.
“Sometimes, he’ll do people’s pets that have died, just because he wants to make them feel better,” his mother said.
His abstract roots are still visible, with much of the animals colored in with smaller, multicolored shapes and patterns. A fish has flowers for gills. A llama stands in a field of flowers under a multicolored sky. A cow would appear to be wearing mascara and a cross necklace, inspired by the singer Madonna — a favorite of Josh. But for some commissions, his mother said, he will cut back on the flamboyance.
“Because you don’t know if someone wants to their dog or their cat in technicolor. Right, Josh?” Arla adds with a laugh.
At the gallery on a recent day was Devon Lonergan, of Bennington, who is Josh’s cousin. He said he enjoys the humor embedded in the artwork through the whimsical style and the animals’ expressions.
“There is always kind of like, a Three Stooges bit going on. It’s humor, where they seem to be having this quirky fun,” Lonergan said. “It’s a lot of personality, all at once.”
Among others who have enjoyed Josh’s work is Jamie Franklin, director of exhibitions and collections at Bennington Museum. Franklin noted that artists who are not neurotypical see the world differently than most people, and are not bogged down by preconceived notions of what art is or should be.
“I think it is best to think about Josh’s work simply as great contemporary art. Whether one has Down syndrome, like Josh, or is on the autism spectrum, like many artists I know and love, or is highly trained and neurotypical, visual art is a means of non-verbal communication,” Franklin said. “Josh’s art, like Josh himself, is colorful, exuberant, and filled with joy. This exhibit is wonderful in that it includes so many works and gives viewers a sense of Josh’s insatiable desire to create and bring joy into the world.”
Many of the drawings have a yellow sticker in the corner, meaning the work has been sold. Arla said many people who decide to buy one of Josh’s drawings have a hard time choosing a favorite.
“It’s been fun, because people can’t make up their mind,” she said with a smile. “I’ll get the whole sale written up, and then they’ll come over and they go, ‘oh, I changed my mind.’”
Ratray calls Josh’s work “truly joyful.”
“He fills his pieces with saturated colors and playful forms, weaving together figures and their environments,” she said. “I’m so excited that we are able to show such an extensive representation of his work.”
Josh and Arla are meeting gallery visitors from 2 to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, through the end of the month.