We're coming out of a recession, but Michael Broadhurst has sold dozens of his paintings -- close to 50 -- over the last two years. We're not talking Sotheby's prices; a Broadhurst typically goes for about $200. Still, it adds up to decent income for this outsider artist, 33 years old and autistic, who contributes it toward the upkeep of his East Palo Alto household.

But his story inspires not because Broadhurst is the next Thomas Kinkade, or because he is having his moment of Bay Area stardom with an interview on ABC-7 TV. It inspires because his paintings speak to people: "Really intense," says Wendy Kuehnl, who, by chance, has become his agent. "There's one called 'The Ram's Eye' and it really seems to be looking right at you, seeing into you, seeing who you are inside -- and keeping an eye on you."

Kuehnl is marketing director of Abilities United, a Palo Alto nonprofit that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities. In an unlikely turn of events, it also has emerged as a clearinghouse for outsider artists -- who reap all the profits from the sale of their works. Wish Book contributions will help Abilities United build its arts exhibition program.

Broadhurst is one of the artists, and Kuehnl, an art lover, became a fan about two years ago, when she also began to notice that surprising numbers of the organization's clients showed artistic ability: around 50 of them, with a core group of 15 or 20 who struck her as gifted. Inspired, and on a volunteer basis, she organized exhibitions, first at Palo Alto City Hall and in a Mountain View coffee shop, then a couple dozen more in libraries, cafes and galleries up and down the Peninsula, from Burlingame to Saratoga.

"It's a way to show that people with developmental disabilities are more about the abilities than the disabilities," she says.

Seen together at Abilities United, they make for an odd pair: diminutive Kuehnl, a professional woman with an MBA, and 6-foot-2-inch Broadhurst, a gentle soul who washes dishes five nights a week in the Menlo College dining hall. They keep tabs on one another: "He'll check in on me," Kuehnl says, "call me on the phone to say hi -- and to ask if he's sold any art lately."

He sold six paintings in November, including one titled "My Town," purchased for $500 by Lynn and Jim Gibbons, whose tastes typically run to Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud and other venerable Bay Area artists. The Peninsula residents bought Broadhurst's painting not "to be nice," Lynn Gibbons explains, but because they "thought it was a terrific composition, very tightly composed and a good landscape. I think he's a superb artist."

On a recent morning at Abilities United, Broadhurst worked on "Red Tree," his rendering of a cherry tree out on the patio. Seated at a picnic table in front of the tree, which was bright with fall colors, he mixed his acrylics and painted his tree as a series of vibrant color fields, boldly outlined, maybe just a little like Gauguin -- whose name means nothing to him. "Add some light on the situation," he murmured, adding streaks of yellow-green to a blaze of red leaves.

Michael Broadhurst shakes hands with Carolyn Johnson, the master of ceremonies  at the Abilities United Authors Luncheon in Palo Alto, Calif., on Saturday,
Michael Broadhurst shakes hands with Carolyn Johnson, the master of ceremonies at the Abilities United Authors Luncheon in Palo Alto, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer, Bay Area News Group)

Broadhurst mostly paints the natural world: landscapes and animals. His mother once told him, "There's something inside you. You shall be reincarnated with an animal."

Now when he paints, he says, "Nature is strong in me." About animals, he remarks, "I can see in their eyes -- deep down inside they have human souls." He pauses to take in questions, almost seeming oracular with his responses: "The owl understands sorrow," he pronounces, while "the bull is stubborn. I see my father in the bull."

In Greensboro, N.C., where he grew up, he began painting at around age 18, taught by a man named Robert Postma, who he still faithfully calls every Tuesday. Broadhurst was mostly raised by his father, who died about seven years ago, leaving him "heartbroken and devastated," he says, shaking his head at the memory.

First, he moved to Philadelphia, where he lived with an uncle, Darryl Matkins, and Matkins' old friend Chester McCall, a Unitarian-Universalist minister who grew up in East Palo Alto. That's where the threesome moved five years ago, after McCall's brother Joseph suffered a debilitating stroke. Now Broadhurst and his three "uncles," as he calls them, are a unit, a family.

Two mornings a week, Broadhurst takes the bus to Abilities United, where he studies computer skills and is trained in independent living: "Michael is much more social than he used to be," says Deborah Davis, his one-on-one skills coach. "And he is starting to understand the difference between generic and name brands and the price differences. We're getting him to the point where he's making his own doctors and dentists appointments, calendaring things and comfortably handling his money -- keeping receipts; it's a big deal."

Three mornings a week, a van takes him from East Palo to ArtReach Studios in Daly City, another nonprofit serving the developmentally disabled. It's part of the Arc of San Francisco, and it's where he does most of his painting . (Abilities United encourages its artistic clients to get out in the world and study in other places.) The van also takes him to his night-shift job at Menlo College, where he works until 9 p.m., then catches a pair of buses home. The trip takes more than an hour.

He is a busy man.

"Am I proud of him?" Chester McCall asks. "Oh, definitely. He's an accomplished individual. He's very caring, not only about animals, but people. He's become well known throughout the Bay Area. He's gotten a couple of awards, and I'm glad to see him flourish. Michael is a gentleman."

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HOW TO HELP

Readers can help Abilities United raise $9,000 to expand its art program services. Donations of any amount will go toward expanding artist work areas and storage space, purchasing matting and framing materials, and developing an online art database for artists to display work. Donate to Wish Book at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about Abilities United, go to www.abilitiesunited.org.