One way to look at Michael Engebretson's art is to imagine you're living in, let's say, the year 1200 and you meet an unusual artist who claims to see a future full of mind-boggling technological and social advancements.
Eight hundred years from now, the artist tells you, humans will travel in carriages powered by burning liquid derived from decomposed animals. They'll have discovered that their bodies are swarming with trillions of invisible creatures, benevolent ones as well as evil ones that can sicken or kill them. They'll carry little machines in their pockets with which they can access a boundless supply of information, create amazingly realistic pictures and communicate with people elsewhere on the Earth — which, by the way, is a sphere that rotates around the sun, not the other way around.
Oh, and women and men will be officially proclaimed equal, and peasants can realistically aspire to lead kingdoms.
"Yeah, right," your 13th-century self might say. But of course, everything the visionary artist described is ordinary today.
Fast forward to 2023 and you can have a contemporary version of that experience with Engebretson's art, which depicts a future a million years from now in which multiverses and outer-space worm holes are as familiar as cars and cellphones are now, and society is more accepting of differences.
Transdimensional Multiversal Nonlinear Cosmic Traveler, an exhibit of Engebretson's paintings, drawings and ceramics, is open through April 14 at Interact, a center in St. Paul where performing and visual artists with disabilities can develop, show and sell their work.
"Our mission is to challenge perceptions of disability," said Brittany Kieller, Interact's gallery director.
Engebretson, who is 28 and lives in White Bear Lake, has autism. He credits that identity with enabling him to think and imagine in ways that those with neurotypical brains do not.
"Autism is like a gift," he said. "It allows me to see what it's like to live in the future."
His drawings and paintings vary in size, color and subject matter, most featuring complex drawings divided into many tiny compartments and forming geometric shapes: squares, rectangles, diamonds, circles. They somewhat resemble architectural blueprints.
You could view the paintings and drawings as intricately detailed abstracts. But each piece represents a real concept that Engebretson is passionate about, such as the mega-rocket ship he says will be capable of holding as many passengers as the population of New York City.
The art depicts "corridors, cosmic nutrition services, docking systems, engineering, environmental services, cargo holds, command bridge sectors, resupply bases, supply bases and turbo lifts," Engebretson explains in a flyer accompanying the visit.
If his version of the future seems improbable or baffling, such as "the cosmic Class 5 hyper-pressurized, exotic hyper-matter containment vessel," think of your 13th-century counterpart listening to that visionary artist describe algorithms or the internal combustion engine.
"Isn't that cool?" Engebretson often says when pointing out the futuristic concepts in his art, as if confident that others share his fascination. But many people with neurotypical brains don't understand his work, he said.
"I think they just don't want to understand it," he said. "They'd rather see my ideas wiped away from the face of the Earth. They don't understand what it's like to be me."
'Big, beautiful world'
There's a growing interest in art by people with autism, based on the idea that because their brains operate differently from those of neurotypical people, they are capable of unusual and original styles of artistic expression. That is, they can create valuable works of art not despite their autism, but because of it.
"There's a great big, beautiful world out there that a lot of normal folks are just barely taking in," wrote Temple Grandin, a prominent author, speaker and animal scientist with autism. "Autistic people and animals are seeing a whole register of the visual world normal people can't, or don't."
Art by people with autism serves as evidence "not of a medical condition but of an expressive intentionality entirely worthy of the interest of those drawn to the aesthetic experience," wrote Roger Cardinal, an arts scholar who published a book about his ideas, "Outsider Art," in 1972.
Researchers who have studied the connection between autism and creativity have found that neurodivergent people "display a high level of detail and a particularly high level of originality," according to an Italian team that conducted a review of studies between 2010 and 2020.
Organizations like the Art of Autism, a nonprofit that showcases art by neurodivergent people, also are helping promote the idea that art by people with autism should be embraced as original and unusual in its own right. A gallery in Pompano Beach, Fla., specializes in work by autistic artists.
In 2014, when author Jill Mullin published "Drawing Autism," a collection of art by autistics, she was contacted by galleries and museums, cultural institutions, social service providers, personal blogs and the mainstream media, she recalled in a later edition.
"Thank goodness for autism, it really helps me out," Engebretson said of his own work. "If it weren't for my autism, I don't know what I'd be doing right now."
A 'utopian element'
The images in Engebretson's works "are really just so bold and so striking and so intricate, on a purely visual level his paintings and drawings convey this kind of other world," said artist and writer Jonas Specktor, who serves as Engebretson's advocate, or mentor, at Interact.
"They're transporting, and they invite me as a viewer to really kind of wonder and puzzle over what these images are representing," Specktor said. "I would describe his art as having an almost utopian kind of element to it."
Engebretson's art reflects his longing to someday have experiences that aren't, at the moment, possible: seeing a bird with multiple faces, feet, tails and wings; meeting aliens and tasting their food (they might have 25 food groups, he speculates); encountering other versions of himself in other universes.
Autism helps him imagine "what it's like to travel to higher dimensions — not just psychologically, but physically," he said. "I've been thinking about these things ever since I was really little."
He hopes someday to travel through a wormhole, the passage through space-time, theorized by Albert Einstein, that could dramatically shorten journeys across the universe.
But Engebretson's visions don't just address technology and space. In the future he imagines, society is more accepting of differences, problems like racial injustice and hate crimes no longer exist, and autism is not considered a bad thing.
"In [the year] 1200, I would not have been accepted in society," he said. "In 2023, people are more accepting of me in society."
As humans develop advanced technology, he reasons, those prejudices will vanish completely.
"In a cosmic society, they don't see disabilities, they see abilities," Engebretson said. "Isn't that cool?"