Niles man uses greeting cards to express himself

Published 11:00 am Friday, March 1, 2019

Niles native Ian Ernsperger has never been the best with words.

As an adult man living with autism, he has always had a different way of relating to the world than the average person, preferring visual mediums over verbal ones to express himself.

Ian, 29, has now turned his unique form of communication into a business. As the creative force behind Sour Patch Art, Ian designs greeting cards that are sold at various locations in Niles and southwest Michigan. Through his business, Ian can bring his inner thoughts to life — from a set of faces showing off his every possible emotion to a winter scene of moose and penguins skating together over an icy pond. Ian also enjoys artistic success outside of his business, as he has won competitions and been displayed at the Buchanan Art Center with his works.

“I like to draw,” he said. “I like to draw animals most.”

When he was first diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, Ian was mostly nonverbal, according to his mother, Carolyn. As he had difficulty communicating with others, his mother gave him paper and a pencil and told him to draw what he was thinking and feeling, as a way of expressing his wants and needs.

“If he was angry or upset at something because he didn’t talk too much, I would have him draw to kind of figure out what was causing that,” Carolyn said. “That’s how it all started — along those lines.”

Ian said art is important to him, as it has helped him feel understood.

As Ian’s communication skills improved, drawing became more than just a means of communication. Art became a way for him to relax and express himself.

As he grew up, his love of art was fostered by his family and teachers. One of the first drawings Ian ever shared was on a teacher’s chalkboard at Brandywine Elementary School.  After a field trip to the Potawatomi Zoo, he drew his two favorite animals — a lion and a flamingo — and impressed the teachers with the details in his images, according to his mother.

From there, he was given many opportunities to experiment with art in school, learning many mediums such as Papier-mâché, wire sculpture, scratch boards and painting. However, drawing always remained his favorite way of using art to express himself — and animals have always remained his favorite subject to draw.

Now, he never goes far without a pencil and paper, ready to draw whenever the mood strikes him.

On an unusually sunny day in December, Ian sat at a red and white desk in his room and demonstrated how his creative process works. Armed with little more than a stack of standard computer paper and a mechanical pencil, he went to work, designing what might eventually become his next greeting card. Less than five minutes later, he held up the rough draft of his product, an image of his dog, Dempsey, wearing a Santa hat, smiling contentedly under a Christmas tree.

“He’s a Boxador,” Ian said of his dog as he proudly displayed the image. “Check it out.”

“He draws all the time,” Carolyn added. “It is what makes him happy. It’s part of who he is.”

Ian made his first greeting card in 2005, a line drawing of nine reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh full of presents across the front of the card. His family chose to use the image as the family’s Christmas card that year, and when family and friends saw Ian’s name as the artist on the card, Carolyn said their phone started ringing off the hook and wanted to know if Ian would be designing next year’s card as well.

“People really responded well to [the cards],” Carolyn said.

From then on, Ian designed the family Christmas card, eventually expanding to other holidays such as Thanksgiving, Easter and Valentine’s Day. In the last two years, Ian began selling his cards at local businesses, increasing in popularity each season. However, no matter how many cards he makes or sells, Ian said that first Christmas card remains his favorite because Rudolph is leading the sleigh “like a flashlight.”

Ian said he is happy knowing that he can put a smile on people’s faces when they use one of his cards.

“[It feels] nice,” he said. “It’s the right thing, I guess.”

Going forward, Ian plans to continue to design and sell cards, and his mother hopes that he can one day turn the business into a full-time gig, while also staying local.

“He is really talented, and this is how he knows best how to communicate,” Carolyn said. “It’s great that he can share that.”


Photography by Emily Sobecki