Folks who live in a Class Five civilization, a sort of cosmic utopia, are much more sophisticated than Earthlings.
Earth, after all, is merely a Class One, or planetary civilization. Citizens of Class Five have universal health care and stronger economic support for all — including human-alien hybrids, cyborgs and robots with disabilities — Michael Engebretson says.
“They’re all coexisting with one another in unity,” Engebretson says. “They are more free-thinking than we are. These inhabitants see abilities, not disabilities.”
Engebretson is an artist from White Bear Lake and has created this classification system in great detail: Class Two is solar; Three is galactic; Four is universal. The aspirational intergalactic world of Class Five is at the heart of his solo exhibition, “Transdimensional Multiversal Nonlinear Cosmic Traveler,” which features dozens of paintings, ceramic works and poems, at the Interact Gallery in St. Paul.
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The show is inspired partly by Engebretson’s love of science fiction — he’s a longtime fan of Star Trek and Star Wars — but it’s also about what it’s like for him to have autism.
“My show might help people understand what it's like to have autism or other disabilities,” Engebretson says. “I can see things that neurotypical people cannot see in society. Like for example, what the future might hold for humanity.”
Engebretson is an artist with Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, a nonprofit that exists to support artists with disabilities. In the summer of 2022, Engebretson became the inaugural artist-in-residence at the gallery, which opened in 2021 in the warehouse district of the Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
Engebretson says he has turned that gallery into a metaphorical spaceship. If artist Wassily Kandinsky had progressed from his squares with concentric circle studies to spaceships and asteroid bases, they may look something like the hyper-colored world Engebretson envisions.
On his paper canvases, acrylic patches of neon orange, yellow, and fuchsia create the backdrop — “unstable hypergiant nebulas” — for highly detailed blueprints of spaceships, space waste management systems and ship construction yards; meditations on the architecture and built environment of a highly functioning cosmic community.
There are also glazed ceramic cyborg skulls and rockets. It’s a world hovering between pure light and pure dark forces, he explains. Engebretson says it’s taken about a year to create this body of work.
He’s been inspired by his favorite artists, the Minnesota-based Mark Shoening and the late Boston artist Paul Laffoley. The latter he learned about through the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s 2020 “Supernatural America” exhibition.
“It's really exciting to watch Michael work,” gallery director Brittany Kieler says. “He has so much certainty. There's no hesitation at all when he's putting the marks on the panel or the paper; he just goes for it, so it really feels like he's transcribing this future vision.”
Keiler explains that Engebretson has been an artist since he was a kid. Even then, he was creating Lego models and drawings of spacecrafts.
Today, many of the artworks have orange stickers next to them; they’ve already sold.
“Michael has collectors all over the U.S.,” Keiler said.
Engebretson says creating visual art and learning different techniques at Interact not only gives people insight into the inner workings of his mind — a “supercomputer” — but it has also improved his self-esteem. Through his art, he has become an autism advocate.
Many people, he says, treat him like he’s “cuckoo,” and judge him for being different.
“They just don't want to understand me as an individual who's got this ability, who’s got autism. They just refuse to understand it,” Engebretson says. “But here's the good news: Interact has helped me out to understand what it's like to be specialized, to be special, and to be unique in a way. Isn’t that cool?”
The exhibition runs through April 14, but the artist is far from done with Class Five. Next, he wants to depict the citizens themselves: everything from alien-human hybrids to higher-dimensional animals like cosmic toads and fish.