11-year-old artist on spectrum finds drawing kitty logo for parents' ice cream truck to be cat-thartic
Gretchen McNeal's cat-fancying started early. As soon as she could hold a pencil, she started to draw scribbles — which soon morphed into the whiskers, ears and faces of felines. So when her parents, Christina and Scott, decided to launch an ice cream-truck business this year, they looked no further than their own resident artist for a logo designer.
FARGO — Gretchen McNeal sometimes struggles to identify her own emotions.
But hand the 11-year-old an iPad and a stylus, and she will create a galaxy of cats who are instantly recognizable for their playful, mischievous and thrill-seeking expressions.
In the world of Gretchen, who is on the autism spectrum, everything is easier and more fun to try if it involves kitties.
Despite a sensory-processing disorder which keeps her constantly on the move, Gretchen can sit in contented stillness as long as she's petting her family’s long-haired tabbies, Willow and Veda. (In fact, studies suggest cats can have a positive effect on children with autism spectrum disorder. ) She also loves watching anime featuring cute, saucer-eyed kitties and drawing cats of every shape and color.
“Cats are just certainly amazing,” says Gretchen, wearing a cat-bedecked T-shirt and drawing a cat on her iPad as she sits in her family’s south Fargo home. “I love the little pointy ears, the fluffy, bushy tails, and that comforting motor.”
Her cat-fancying started early. As soon as Gretchen could hold a pencil, she started to draw scribbles — which soon morphed into the whiskers, ears and faces of felines.
So when her parents, Christina and Scott, decided to launch an ice cream-truck business this year, they looked no further than their own resident artist for a logo designer.
Christina says they gave Gretchen free rein in terms of what to design. Their only requirement was that it fit with the name they’d picked, “Cosmic Treats,” which was inspired partly by the family dog’s name, Cosmo, and partly by one of Gretchen’s favorite “cats in space” T-shirts.
In just a little time and with very little effort, Gretchen dashed off the drawing on her iPad. It showed a green-eyed, black kitty helming a tub of rocket-fueled Rocky Road, a white kitty and a calico both racing sugar cones and an orange cat joyriding an ice cream sandwich.
Although Christina and Scott requested some edits to better accommodate the name of the business, the cats in the final draft looked very close to the ones Gretchen initially drew, Christina says.
For Gretchen’s work, Christina and Scott paid her $100 — a kingly sum to an 11-year-old. “I didn’t know I would get $100 for just one drawing,” Gretchen says, sounding a bit surprised.
However, the illustration will serve many purposes. It has already been made into vinyl magnets for the ice cream truck’s doors and the individual kitties will decorate the side of the truck that doesn’t flip down to serve customers. Gretchen’s space-exploring felines will also be used in social media posts, ads, T-shirts, pens and on stickers, which they plan to hand out with ice cream treats, Christina says.
As Gretchen and brother Lennon, 8, are both on the spectrum, their parents realize their kids may not enter the workforce as seamlessly as their neurotypical peers might. The couple knew they probably had to find ways to bring the workforce to their kids, so they could continue building socialization skills and a sense of self-sufficiency.
“We’ve always had a desire to make sure our kids lived up to the best of their abilities,” Christina says.
As both Christina and Scott are self-employed — she as owner of the Hair Therapy salon and he as owner of Advanced Massage — the ice cream truck seemed like a natural adjunct to their home-based businesses.
So Scott has been devoting much of his spare time over the last few months into turning a 1-ton Chevy Savana 3500 into a mobile Popsicle pop-up. As of late last week, the license had been secured, the ice cream was chilling in the freezer and Gretchen’s signage was visible from all angles.
The McNeals hope to get the truck out and open for business this weekend. Besides driving the usual neighborhood circuit, Christina says they plan to make the truck available for special events like family reunions and weddings.
She would also like to partner with local nonprofits so they could donate a percentage of the proceeds to the special-needs community.
In the meantime, Gretchen remains pretty cool-headed about her first big commission. When she isn’t playing with her cats, helping her little brother draw cats or creating digital storybooks about Veda and Willow, she splits time between attending school at Willow Park Elementary School in Fargo and the North Dakota Autism Center, Inc.
Her mom hopes Gretchen will be able to make money as an artist someday — perhaps even one who specializes in drawing cats, like the British artist Louis Wain.
Besides perhaps running a cat day care someday, Gretchen agrees that she could definitely see herself painting cats for a living. “I have no other ideas of what I would do,” she says.
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