A young autistic man, who is making a name for himself as an environmental artist, has been inspiring students thanks to a partnership between an autism charity and a building society. PETER BARRON reports

AS he looks back at how far his talent has taken him, James Owen Thomas can vividly remember the moment that inspired him to follow a creative path to becoming an award-winning environmental artist.

Walking near his North Yorkshire home as a 14-year-old, he saw a £1 Lottery scratchcard that had been dropped into a puddle.

Most people would hardly have noticed yet another piece of litter. But, to James, growing up as an autistic teenager, it was magical. The rainbow colours were vibrant and glistening, and he instinctively felt he could “do something more with it”.

It was the beginning of a specialist form of art that has given James, who also goes by the name JOT, a growing following. He uses cut-up recycled materials – predominantly old scratchcards – to make stunning works of art, based on the natural world.

The Northern Echo:

“It all goes back to that first scratchcard in the puddle, and it became an obsession,” smiles James, who, at 22, has become a sought-after professional artist, with his own gallery in Pateley Bridge, near Harrogate.

James is telling his inspirational story at Aycliffe School, run by the North East Autism Society, ahead of creative workshops that have been funded by Darlington Building Society.

“It’s wonderful to be here to tell you about my art,” he tells students from across the charity’s educational provisions. As well as Aycliffe School, they’ve come from the neighbouring Thornbeck College; the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, at South Bank; Kiora Hall, at Stockton; and Thornhill Park School, at Sunderland.

And the workshops are the latest stage in his remarkable transformation from an introverted, bullied schoolboy into a confident, talented young man who wants to pass on his passion for turning waste into art.

James was born in Eastbourne, and lived on the South coast for ten years, before his family moved to North Yorkshire. As a toddler, doctors initially put his seizures and hyperactive behaviour down to epilepsy, but his mum, Jane, insisted on him getting all the support available, and he was diagnosed as autistic when he was three.

The Northern Echo:

As he grew older, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which uses cards with pictures and symbols, became his main form of communication.

At secondary school, he felt isolated, but he found comfort in his art, with his teacher being supportive, though he never wanted to share his work until she encouraged him to do so. His first exhibition was in the school hall.

He'd always had an interest in collecting items such as bus and train tickets, and then came the magical discovery of the scratchcard in the puddle.

"It really captured my imagination, and I started collecting more and more scratchcards for use in my art," he recalls.

Local shops heard what he was doing and started giving him piles of winning scratchcards that people had claimed and would otherwise have gone to landfill.

The Northern Echo:

Then, as if by fate, one of the options for the theme of his GCSE art exam was 'recycling and sustainability'. Using recycled materials, he produced a piece, called Woodland Walk,and earned an A-star.

He went on to study for two years at Bradford School of Art, and completed other arts courses.

Today, he is a full-time professional artist, and has had his gallery in Pateley Bridge for a year. The lease is now coming to an end, and 2024 will see him concentrate on touring exhibitions across Yorkshire.

They include his work being displayed at The Yorkshire Arboretum, at Castle Howard, between March and April.

Another highlight of 2024 will be the publication of a book, hopefully to be called 'In My Nature'.

His environmental work has also been recognised by him being made a Tree Council 'Force For Nature' ambassador, and a COP26 'One Step Greener' ambassador.The Northern Echo:

In addition, his work has been used to fundraise for charities, including a beach scene raising £10,000 for The Alzheimer's Society. On that occasion, he used recycled seaside postcards that had belonged to his grandmother, who had been diagnosed with dementia in 2016.

Although scratchcards are his signature medium, he also uses a variety of fabrics, food packaging, leaflets, tickets, and Christmas cards donated by family and friends.

Earlier this year, Great British Racing marked the coronation of King Charles by commissioning James to produce an artwork made from recycled materials, including raceday tickets, racecards, and even used jockeys' silks. The piece was unveiled at Pontefract Races, then shown at Thirsk Racecourse before being displayed at the St Leger Festival, at Doncaster.

The connection with Darlington Building Society resulted from a chance meeting with chief executive, Andrew Craddock, during an exhibition at Fountains Abbey.

With Andrew a fan, the Society has gone on to commission James to run a series of workshops, including the latest at Aycliffe School for the North East Autism Society.

"I just love what James is doing," says Andrew. "Not only is he very talented, but he's using his art to send a clear message about the importance of sustainability. We're delighted to have been able to support him through these workshops."

The Northern Echo:

John Phillipson, chief executive of the North East Autism Society, is equally as impressed, adding: "James is a wonderful example of how the talents of autistic people can be truly inspirational. We're delighted with the quality of the work he's been doing at the workshops, and grateful to Darlington Building Society for their ongoing support."

For James, it's been another fulfilling step in an artistic career that's his passion, his mission, and his therapy.

"Because I'm autistic myself, I can relate to other people who are autistic and neurodiverse, and get a lot of enjoyment from them finding the workshop activities therapeutic," he says.

"I'm not a protestor like Greta Thunberg, I'm just someone who wants to make a stand about climate change, and the importance of looking after the planet, through my art.

"Hopefully, I can continue to develop my art, grow my business, and raise money for good causes – because I'm doing what I love."

And to think, it all started with the mesmerising beauty he saw in a puddle.