NEW ALBANY—It all began with one illustration.
About three years ago, Ashton Beaulieu created a drawing of the first time she met her beloved calico cat, Callie. She soon started creating more and more artwork, and that early drawing became one page in an entire book about her cats.
The 27-year-old artist has been working on her book, "Ashton's Life with Cats," through an internship at ArtSeed, an art gallery in New Albany. She is also preparing to collaborate with Indiana University Southeast's graphic design department to edit and publish the book.
She recently received a $2,000 grant from the Indiana Arts Commission for the project.
Beaulieu is autistic, and her artwork and writings have been an important way for her to work through her emotions. In her book, she tells stories about her cats through both portraits and words.
She describes the sadness she experienced when her cats Patches and Callie died, and she writes about adopting a new cat named Cleo. She captures each of her cats' distinctive personalities in the book.
"I never met a cat in my whole life that I didn't like," Beaulieu wrote in the book. "I like big cats, little cats, young cats, old cats and all color cats."
Even when cats scratch or bite her, she can't stay mad at them, she said. She loves their curiosity and their whiskers, and she enjoys hearing them meow.
"I like to be around cats and give them some love and give them some company," she said.
A FORM OF EXPRESSION
It has become easier for Beaulieu to talk to people since she started the book. She particularly likes to discuss cats.
ArtSeed Executive Director Julie Schweitzer, who has been her mentor throughout the process, said she is impressed with how Beaulieu's communication skills have improved since she started the project.
Beaulieu, a Charlestown resident, first started working on the project as an intern at the Arts Council of Southern Indiana, where Schweitzer worked as the executive director at the time. At first, she had trouble talking to people, and she would typically respond to questions with a yes or no.
As an intern, she started out working in the Art Council's garden, but on a rainy day, she stayed inside and created the first drawing of her cat.
"All I had to see was one drawing, and I told her, I think you should write a book," Schweitzer said. "I went and got her a big paper and folded it in half, and she has never looked back. I expect the same of her that I expect of all my artists — to be creative."
When Schweitzer left the council and opened ArtSeed in 2017, Beaulieu came along with her as an intern. She typically spends time at the gallery each Wednesday to work on her project.
"Ashton's Life with Cats" helped them speak with each other and develop a connection. While Schweitzer is her mentor, she said she has also learned a lot from Beaulieu.
"She thinks in such a loving, giving way," Schweitzer said. "Her heart is just as big as can be."
As Beaulieu has progressed with her book, her writing has also expanded. While her first drawing included only one sentence, she started writing longer paragraphs in the following pages.
Direct support professional Terri Branham has worked with Beaulieu for several years, and she brought her to the Arts Council for the first time. She said this experience has allowed the artist to blossom.
"She has opened up personally," she said. "Ashton has grown so much in communication and expressing herself. For her to have a comfortable relationship with someone like Julie, who can also foster her talents, is just incredible."
Nicole McCollum has worked as Beaulieu's direct support professional for the past few months. She said it is inspirational and rewarding to see the artist accomplish her goals.
"It's extraordinary to sit there and watch her create those cats from her mind," she said. "She has great vision, and she just displays it so well...I think she puts so much expression and feeling into her work."
Beaulieu said she used to draw in high school, but once she started practicing throughout the past few years, her skills improved. She used a combination of crayons, colored pencils and markers in her artwork.
Hello Kitty is one of Beaulieu's favorite subjects. While she likes to draw the iconic cat, she quickly developed her own characters and style while creating her book, Schweitzer said.
While she has never met the cats in person, Schweitzer has become familiar with their personalities through the book.
"The expressions are priceless," she said. "You know exactly what they're thinking and what they're feeling. That's something that Ashton has worked on with people and with cats."
Beaulieu has also been working on a second book. While her first book is about her own cats, "Ashton's Life with Cats: Part Two" is about other cats she's known.
She regularly volunteers at the J.B. Ogle Animal Shelter in Jeffersonville, so her second book features many of the cats she's met there. She wants proceeds from sales of her first book to benefit local animal shelters.
"She spends her time giving back for what the cats have given her," Schweitzer said. "I think that's admirable in any human being."
In most of Beaulieu's illustrations, she does not include her own face. But she recently included a self portrait on the last page of her second book.
In the portrait, she smiles as a series of thought bubbles float above her head. They show scenes of her petting a cat, walking with a cat and sitting with a cat curled up in her lap.
"There are many things I like about cats," Beaulieu wrote on the page. "I like how they meow and purr and crawl into my lap. Whenever I'm sad and lonely, cats always make me feel better. Cats are my comfort buddies."