Art+Design professor spends sabbatical painting autism

Tue, 2012-12-18 10:04 -- univcomm
December 18, 2012

This fall, Art+Design Professor Kathleen Dugan exhibited a series of paintings she created during her sabbatical last spring. For nearly a decade, she has been painting the “faces” of autism. Of these many faces, two that have played the most prominent role are her children’s. Dugan is the proud — and often beleaguered — mother of twins with autism.

When Dugan first began painting her children, autism was a new concept, not only for her, but also for many in the local community. She explained, “There was a lot of hopefulness that we would be able to overcome the challenges. As the children grew up, I experienced increasing frustration within the schools and medical community about professionals not understanding high functioning autism.” [Artwork: Navigating, oil on canvas, 2012, with detail.]

Now fifteen years old, Ed and Hannah are encountering the the trials and tribulations of high school. While students with low-functioning forms of autism may not be able to handle a classroom, the twins have Asperger’s Disorder, a high-functioning form of autism, and are in the classroom much more often.

This presents a unique set of challenges for the twins. She shares, “Because students like Ed and Hannah have language skills and are mainstreamed into the typical classroom, many people make assumptions about them … that they understand social norms like ‘little white lies,’ polite social behavior, and how to read between the lines.” This often is simply not true. While an adolescent with Asperger’s Disorder may have the intellectual capacity of a 13 year-old, he may have the emotional and social capacity of an eight year-old.

Dugan brings her experiences as a mother and her observations as an artist to the canvases in her studio. For her, it’s not just about raising awareness anymore. She works to portray the qualities of an individual person, in order to help outsiders further understand what autism really is, beyond the “diagnosis.”

Some of Professor Dugan’s newest portraits use a wider lens; in them she describes more of the space around her subject and uses those details to give us greater insight into the experience of the person she is painting. As she recounted her time working in the studio, she explained that these paintings gave her some of the best, most exciting moments of her sabbatical. In Navigating, it was the challenge of “how to make it work, because it was a little different than portraiture”. For Domain, she shared “I wanted to convey the strangeness and the beauty of his world — he was so fascinated by all those papers.”

For many university faculty, a sabbatical is an opportunity to spend more focused time on their own work. It can also be a time to regenerate. For Dugan, this meant four hours a day, just painting, and setting aside time to exercise and regain a more balanced lifestyle. “I appreciated just having the time to think and work and process. It’s so hard, when you’re teaching, because you can’t carve out all that time for your own work. A sabbatical helps me with the production and gives me a structure to keep going.”

Now back in the rhythm of academic life again, Dugan expresses a sense of mixed emotions: “I have this feeling of being renewed, but also a little sadness. Working in your studio generates a lot of energy, it’s a great catalyst … but the demands of being a teacher and a mom … make it hard.”

To see more of Kathleen Dugan’s work, visit her website.
To read more about her experience as a mother of children with autism, read the recent article “Raising Teens with Autism” in Indy’s Child Magazine.

About the Department of Art+Design The Department of Art+Design at Anderson University offers majors in the areas of fine arts studio, visual communications design, and visual arts education. Students gain experience through intensive studio practice, professional internships, and by working closely with a faculty of professional artists and designers.

Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson University continues to be recognized as one of America's top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, music, nursing, and theology.