When 15-year-old Harrison Halker Heinks saw a pair of old shoes dangling from a telephone wire, an idea for a work of art sprang into his head that he believed might win the National Scholastic Art and Writing Award of which he'd been dreaming.

He was right. On May 31, he'll head for New York City's Carnegie Hall to pick up his national gold medal, the organization's highest honor.

His creation, a clay sculpture fashioned in just 30 minutes called "Homeless Shoes," mirrors how lost he felt when his family moved from Robbinsdale to Edina a year ago, said his mother, Kari Halker-Saathoff.

"When that idea came to him, it was really magical," she said. "He knew what he was doing."

Harrison, an eighth-grader at Edina's Valley View Middle School, received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at age 2, when he suddenly lost his fledgling ability to speak. "He disappeared, and we didn't know if he would ever return," his mother said.

Over the years, his speech did come back, and now his love for art is helping him communicate at an even higher level.

He makes art "because he has to," said his mother, an art teacher at St. Michael-Albertville High School. "He would die if he couldn't, because it's a way for him to express himself. That's the bottom line with Harrison."

When Harrison arrived at his new school, his sixth-grade special-education teacher, Julie Robinson, could tell he had great ideas, but he "had a difficult time communicating all the details," she said.

"I could see his brain ticking with ideas when he arrived in my classroom," said Robinson, who is now a special-education teacher at Eden Prairie High School. "He was a 12-year-old freethinker."

Harrison would come to Robinson's classroom to escape the noise and chaos elsewhere in the school. "He would create art in his head when he was sitting in other classes like reading or science class and then return to my classroom to actually make it," she said.

After only five minutes in her class one day, he created a 3-foot-tall paper sculpture character out of six sheets of paper. His work looked like a cross between something created by American sculptor Alexander Calder and Geppetto the puppetmaker in "Pinocchio," Robinson said.

"His art lets us into his world," she said.


Last year, Harrison won a regional silver-key award in the National Scholastic Art and Writing competition. Early this year, he learned he'd won the regional gold-key award with "Homeless Shoes," which then went on to win the national gold medal. He and his family will attend the May 31 awards ceremony in Manhattan, and then his artwork will join the Art.Write.Now Tour for a two-year U.S. tour.

Three students in Halker-Saathoff's art class who also won awards will travel to New York with Harrison and his family.

"For me, it's exciting as a parent and a teacher celebrating my students and my child," Halker-Saathoff said.

The trip to New York will mark Harrison's first time on an airplane. To prepare, he participated in the "Navigating Autism" program with the Autism Society of Minnesota in St. Paul. He practiced entering the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, going through security and finding his seat on the plane.

"It was a phenomenal program," his mother said. "He's OK about going to the airport now."

This summer, the Autism Society will offer a program called "Art Skillz" for autistic students age 8 to 14. It will include four one-day sessions and a community art show afterward showcasing their sculptures, paintings, drawings and photographs.

"We find that children on the spectrum are often very successful with art," said Nora Slawik, the society's education director. "It gives them a freedom of expression that they may not have with other mediums in school."

In addition to helping the students improve their social skills via interaction with others students, teachers and others, art also can help relieve the anxiety that often accompanies autism, Slawik said.

Harrison's mother shares his pride and joy over his achievements and the possibilities ahead. "It's overwhelming and exciting," she said.

Candice Wheeler is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.