Accidental artists: Two CT artists share how injuries led them to become 'savants'

David Marchi is an artist with acquired savant syndrome. 

David Marchi is an artist with acquired savant syndrome. 

Courtesy of David Marchi
Alder Crocker is an artist with acquired savant syndrome. 

Alder Crocker is an artist with acquired savant syndrome. 

Courtesy of Alder Crocker
"Hatters Diversion" is a piece by Alder Crocker. 

"Hatters Diversion" is a piece by Alder Crocker. 

Courtesy of Alder Crocker
Pictured (clockwise): David Marchi, Alder Crocker, "Hatters Diversion" by Alder Crocker. (Photo credit: Courtesy of David Marchi and Alder Crocker)

Alder Crocker and David Marchi are both painters who had little interest or training in art until each experienced a kind of midlife creative eruption that neither would have wished for or even understands.

For Crocker, who lives in Fairfield, it happened in 2018 after he had extremely bad luck on vacation in Mexico when he stumbled in soft beach sand and fell so awkwardly that he broke his neck. Paralyzed, he was introduced to painting in an art therapy class during rehab. By 2020, he had an exhibit of 35 paintings at the Rene Soto Gallery in Norwalk. Then he won first prize in the Rowayton Art Center show.

"Hatters Journey" is a piece by Alder Crocker.

"Hatters Journey" is a piece by Alder Crocker.

Courtesy of Alder Crocker
"Visions" is a painting by Alder Crocker. 

"Visions" is a painting by Alder Crocker. 

Courtesy of Alder Crocker

In a statement for that show, Crocker identified himself as a tetraplegic and described his abstract paintings as post accident “visions.” Unable to stand, and with limited use of his arms, he paints sitting down, squeezing latex paint from tubes.

For Marchi, who has lived in Wilton and now resides in New London, the painting epiphany happened in 2015 after a boating accident in Florida. Bounced high and hard from his seat, he broke his back when the boat hit the wake of another boat.

Flown to New York for treatment, he soon began to dream in color. “It wasn’t the same dream or colors. But there was a point where I woke up one morning and had someone go out and get a piece of canvas and brush. I had no idea what to tell him to get and just started painting,” Marchi said recently.

A commission piece of soccer star Carli Lloyd by David Marchi. 

A commission piece of soccer star Carli Lloyd by David Marchi. 

Courtesy of David Marchi
"500 Spoons" by David Marchi.

"500 Spoons" by David Marchi.

Courtesy of David Marchi

After major back surgery in 2016, his dreams became more detailed, his paintings larger. “The dreams went from just colors to structures. I actually saw a part of the painting I would paint the next day,” he said. In 2019, Marchi had his first solo show at Miami Art Basel.

Both men now attribute their sudden, compulsive talent to what has been recognized as acquired savant syndrome that arises from traumatic injury. Crocker was recently named vice chair of the Fairfield Commission on Disabilities. He and Marchi are currently building a website for what they are calling the Artistic Savant Guild., which they view as a way to promote the healing power of art, for any kind of trauma, psychological as well as physical.

Marchi, who had a career in advertising, first heard of the syndrome after a “60 Minutes” report on the psychiatrist, Darold Treffert, who identified it and later diagnosed him. Before that Marchi hesitated to call himself an artist because, he said, “I didn’t fall into the category of trained artist or outsider artist. It was something I couldn’t explain.”

"Hot Mess" by David Marchi.

"Hot Mess" by David Marchi.

Courtesy of David Marchi
An in image of "500 Spoons" before David Marchi finished the piece. 

An in image of "500 Spoons" before David Marchi finished the piece. 

Courtesy of David Marchi

Crocker, whose main career was in marketing, learned of the savant syndrome from Marchi, who contacted him around the time of his show at the Rene Soto Gallery. Crocker credits the gallery curator, Nancy Breakstone, herself an art photographer, for giving him the confidence to see himself as an artist. He said Breakstone also helped promote a joint exhibit he and Marchi had in April at the Carriage Barn Art Center in New Canaan.

Both work in an abstract style, but their Carriage Barn paintings showed clear differences.

Impossible to miss was Marchi’s 15-foot long “Galaxy.” Densely painted, it could be navigated by jagged yellow streaks connecting blue nodes. Marchi said his galaxy was more or less born when he dropped a drill on the canvas while mixing paint. Meanwhile, a hanging sculpture of 500 paint-encrusted plastic spoons doubled as a kind of pendulum brush. Marchi makes some paintings by pouring fresh paint over the spoons, letting it drip onto a canvas beneath. His hands-off method is inspired by a Japanese art form called Gutai.

"By His Side" by David Marchi. 

"By His Side" by David Marchi. 

Courtesy of David Marchi

Crocker’s paintings looked more deliberate. Many swarm with curving, concentric lines of color, suggesting a musical score in fragments. Some share an elongated element that viewers guess might be a thermometer or guitar neck, Crocker said. But he thinks of it as a good luck comet, guiding viewers into the rest of the painting. Another set of his paintings is almost the inverse: grids of hieroglyphic-like designs set on bare canvases. They reflect Crocker’s interest in ancient alphabets and a desire, he said, “to change up my color palette.”