Kathleen Dugan’s artwork is filled with fantasy, but as the mother of autistic twins, her inspiration stems from reality. “Autism Colors this World,” an exhibition of paintings and drawings by Dugan, will be displayed in the Wilson Art Gallery in the Krannert Fine Arts Center on the campus of Anderson University through Oct. 13. Dugan’s show, which features her children, incorporates images from popular fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, and Cinderella. Fairy tales hold a special meaning for Dugan. “I grew up reading a lot and looking at illustrations from fairy tales. Many of the fairy tales of my childhood instilled in me a visual framework that I still respond to—even now as an adult. Fairy tales are more than just children’s stories. They’re a mythology for our culture today.”
Dugan’s paintings weave together the elements of her personal life with literary and historical references. Her use of Alice in Wonderland relates to autism. “It’s about running away from life into a world of fantasy, and finding that there’s absurdity, even in the fantasy. Kids with autism live in a fragmented, fantasy world. They say and do a lot of nonsensical things.”
Dugan uses her artwork to give her viewers a better understanding of children with autism and the effect on their families. “My work explores the perspective of an individual facing the spiritual and intellectual challenges of parenting twins with autism. My intention is to give voice to my situation—to give a face to autism and offer a glimpse of hope and beauty to others. Autism has given me a different perspective. It can be painful or sorrowful, but it can also be funny and joyous.”
In addition to the everyday struggles of raising her children, Dugan also struggles with finding time for her art. She paints mostly in the summer months, when her children are involved in a summer program and she is not teaching. Because she often feels strapped for time, timepieces are a prevalent motif in her artwork. “The kids are very demanding. They’re very bright and they like to experiment with things. They have to be constantly attended to and watched.”
In conjunction with Dugan’s show, the Wilson Gallery will host Dr. Naomi Swiey, Clinical Director of the Austin Clinic at Riley Children’s Hospital on Sept. 24, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Her lecture will focus on behavioral issues.
Dugan’s struggles as a woman, artist, wife and mother are evident in her work, in which portraiture is displayed in conjunction with a personal perspective of parenting special needs children. When asked to compare her life now to the ‘normal’ life that she once lived, Dugan laughs, “I don’t even know what normal is anymore.”
Anderson University is a private, four-year, Christian liberal arts institution of approximately 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Established in 1917 by the Church of God the university offers more than 60 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education and theology.