Almost every month, Felipe Misan dons a safari hat and a vest and heads off to Zoo Miami or Jungle Island, where he photographs every detail of the animals.
He then goes to the Ceramic League of Miami in Kendall every Tuesday, where he sculpts the animals out of clay.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I’m very proud of my art,” said Misan, 29.
When he was 4, Misan was diagnosed with the autism spectrum disorder. And only when he was 13, doctors specified he had high functioning autism.
Roberto Tuchman, director of Autism and Neurodevelopment Programs at Miami Children’s Hospital, said it is not unusual that an autistic person develops interest in one specific subject.
“They learn all of this information at the exclusion of other information that they should be knowing,” Tuchman said. “So they know a lot of things, but when you think about what they know, it may not be relevant to real life.”
For Misan, his art is a significant part of his life. He hangs his sculptures of cobras, lions and antelopes on the walls of his bedroom, and the shelves of his closet hold more than 50 of his clay pieces.
His mother, Ana Lucia Misan, 56, noticed her son’s ability when he was sculpting a snake with Play-Doh at 14. She immediately enrolled him in sculpture classes in the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, N.Y., where they lived at the time.
One day, a couple saw the work in the center in New York and asked Misan to make three sculptures of their shar-pei dogs.
The couple offered $500 for the pieces and told Ms. Misan to never charge less than $200 for her son’s sculptures. The Misans haven’t taken that advice, usually selling his pieces for about $40 each.
“It was to give him a motivation,” his father said. “We never thought of making money.”
In 2006, the Misans moved to South Florida and settled in Brickell. Albert Misan works as a banker and Ana Lucia Misan used to work as a secretary. She stopped working when her son was born and now keeps him busy every day.
Felipe Misan goes to physical training on Monday and Thursday mornings, goes bowling on Monday and Wednesday evenings, takes singing classes on Fridays and, on Tuesdays around noon, Misan goes to the Ceramic League of Miami, in Kendall.
He is quick and quiet while he works at a large table, with his mom assisting him as he decisively turns the clay into animal shapes.
“If someone wants to make a piece, they may spend an hour making [it],” said Jill Gerlach, school director at the Ceramic League of Miami. “He can get two pieces of clay together and then just pull a leg, pull a head and then gets this piece done very quickly.”
Misan can finish a piece in about 10 minutes. In one hour on a recent Tuesday, he sculpted a buffalo, a hippo, a platypus, a crocodile and a snake.
“It’s rough, but it’s so realistic. As soon as he finishes the piece you know what it is representing,” said Gerlach. “He has no fear of the clay.”
His mother assists him with the material, photographs him and sometimes makes a sculpture herself.
“It’s going to take a miracle to get this done, mom,” said Misan while sculpting the details of the back of his clay crocodile.
He has sculpted more than 200 pieces since he was 14. He enjoys selling them, but his mother feels very attached to his work and doesn’t like to see a piece leave the home.
“Everything is unique, and you cannot repeat,” Ana Lucia Misan said, as she grabbed a pelican sculpture, caressing the clay wings and beak. “Even if he makes another pelican, it is not going to come out the same way.”
Felipe Misan learns about the animals from his zoo trips and watching animal TV shows and YouTube videos. He does not copy the animals from photos, videos or real models, yet the proportions are perfect.
“It’s all in my mind lately,” Misan said, as he pointed his index finger to his head. “Right here, up here. I can’t imagine a world without elephants, and rhinos and stuff like that.”