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Autistic young man's unique talent, mini dioramas, amazes Cookeville shop owners

Jul 26, 2023

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Several Cookeville businesses have been gifted with something that has left each shop owner amazed. It's something very detailed and hand-crafted. Just as amazing as the gifts are the people who made them.

As usual, The Exceptional Bean coffee shop was waking up Cookeville Monday morning. Also as usual, Thomas Golz was busy signing the take-out bags with a special message: be kind.

Mom Jennifer Gray helps tell the story of Thomas.

"Thomas is an autistic young man. He's 19 years old," said Jennifer.

"20!" Thomas chimed in.

"Yeah, he's going to be 20," Jennifer smiled.

The Exceptional Bean employs people of all abilities. That was always the vision of owners Michael and Cigi England.

"We want this to be a place where they can showcase what they can do, instead of what they can't do," said Cigi.

One day, Michael and Cigi learned about a special talent shared by Thomas and his mom. They create the most elaborate dioramas. One shows a two-story library complete with a little record player, a bubble in the cup of coffee, and the Abbey Road album on a shelf.

"Cigi had approached us and asked if we could do a diorama of her boutique," Jennifer remembered.

They did.

"My mind was blown cause he even got the art on the wall," said Cigi, speaking on the diorama made of her Cigi's Boutique. "The attention to detail, everything he did was on point."

Next, Thomas and Jennifer took on the Glass Tangerine, Emma Crabtree's flower market.

"I was shocked," Emma said of the diorama of her shop. "He's only been in the shop one time prior to that. To be able to walk into this space and conceptualize it the way he did and create something out of it was really cool. For somebody to spend so much time of their life to create something for us is a real treasure."

Then came a very important piece. Thomas and Jennifer did The Exceptional Bean.

"Thomas has the steady hand," said Jennifer. "He has the ability to recreate. He must see detail that I don't cause he will see things in the diorama and then I'll look back at the place and say, 'Oh yes, that was there.'"

The ASL sign that hangs at the Bean? They got it in the diorama. The art on the wall? They got that too.

"Any time we get some down time, we play Uno," Michael said. "The fact he's got the Uno cards on the table, it's incredible."

"The whole purpose of the Bean is to showcase ability over disability," said Cigi. "If you were to just meet Thomas, you wouldn't know he had this skill cause he can't tell you about it."

"When you have a special needs child, you hope for them to be able to have accomplishments," said Jennifer. "It's just been such a blessing. It's given us a lot of hope."

Through an effort they call Small World Dioramas, Thomas and Jennifer are going to just keep going, creating more and more dioramas together.

"All of Cookeville, and then maybe we'll make our way to Nashville!" Jennifer laughed.

The Art Round Tennessee nonprofit has been involving Thomas in art shows. There's another show coming up on July 7 at the Glass Tangerine from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.