JAMES Owen Thomas doesn’t like litter. As disheartened punters toss their used scratch-cards into the street with a thoughtless flick of the wrist, the 16-year-old quietly gathers them into a carrier bag and takes them home.

If they’re dirty, he cleans them, then, like a modern-day alchemist, he sets about transforming the dross of a throwaway society into spectacular collages.

His method is painstaking: colour-coding the cards before creating thousands of tiny dots with a standard office hole-punch, or slicing them into strips, then placing them in plastic pots ready for lifting out with a fine paintbrush dabbed in glue, to place them on the canvas.

What emerges, and what can be seen until the end of April at the exhibition of his work in the national park centre in Bainbridge, Wensleydale, are owls and canaries, coalminers, battleships, bird-tables, northern cathedrals and London skyscrapers. Close study of the facade of the 17th century Fountains Hall at Studley Royal, near Ripon, reveals every stone to be made entirely of replica £50 notes.

The collages incorporate £ signs and numbers, letters and whole sentences (“see reverse for details”), four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, treasure chests and the Queen’s head.

But the critical clue to the most extraordinary aspect of this exhibition, “Much more than meets the eye!”, is the recurring theme of the National Lottery.

Every dot, every ribbon of colour, every tiny, intricate detail of the beautifully constructed pictures owes its origin to the multicoloured lottery scratch-cards, discarded in their millions every day from Leeds to Lewes: James was born in Sussex before moving north five years ago.

It takes a special and unusual gift to spot the potential of a coloured card floating in a puddle at the side of the road, as James did four years ago, and put it to the service of his remarkable talent.

“The scratchcard caught my attention as the sunlight seemed to make its colours glisten. For something most people would consider unpleasant rubbish, I decided to pick it up, clean it, and keep it safe in plastic container.”

The words are James’ own, part of the narrative he has created to accompany the exhibition, telling the story that attaches to every single work of art on display.

As he tells it in person, he finds it impossible to contain his enthusiasm for what most people would regard with helpless despair.

“I saw a woman come out of a newsagent’s with a scratch-card in her hand. She looked at it and just threw it really hard into the street.”

He demonstrates the angry gesture.

“You see hundreds of them strewn all over the place. I bring them back in a big carrier bag. On a day’s trip I worked out I can come home with about £700 or £800 in used cards. I spotted a pile of them on a park bench once and asked the man sitting there if they were his. They weren’t. He gave me a very odd look as I asked if he minded me taking them. He didn’t.”

A student at Ripon Evolve, part of Craven College, James’ art both reflects and complements his other interests: photography, wildlife and horticulture.

“It’s a very practical, hands-on course, which suits my way of learning,” says James.

He talks about being a volunteer in the wildlife team at Fountains Abbey: on a guided walk there when he was just 14, he knew so much about so many birds he was asked to join the team.

He talks about his grandfather, Peter Thomas, who joined the Royal Navy when he was just 17, and his tribute to him in the form of a collage of his ship, HMS Black Swan. Or his great-grandfather, another Peter Thomas, a miner in West Yorkshire, and the colliery canary that forms part of the exhibition.

He talks also about his autism, diagnosed when he was three and a half, and how until he was five he couldn’t talk. Of how his art and his experiences, through people who have encouraged and supported him, not least his devoted mother, Jane, who works from home as a translator and runs an online crafts business which they have developed together, have been the making of him.

“It’s a gift,” he says of his autism.

The first sentence of his story-board says it all: “You’ve got to be strong to be different, and the way I keep myself strong is through my collage art. I’ve got a story to tell you that I hope you will find interesting ...”

You surely will.

l “Much more than meets the eye!” can be seen free at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Yoredale, Bainbridge, DL8 3EL, Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm. Original artworks are not for sale but there are framed prints to buy and a wide selection of cards. The exhibition will move to the Bradford Industrial Museum from May to July, the National Coalmining Museum near Wakefield, July to September, and Art in the Mill at Knaresborough, during September and October.

Hulton Crafts can be found at hultoncrafts.co.uk.