By CORY BILICKO
Managing Copy Editor
Something made autistic fifth grader Tim Bray really blossom at school this spring. It wasn’t a kickball game, or the latest toy, or a new medication. It was an artist named Doug Kurtz, who has been overseeing the painting of a mural at Tim’s school- Burroughs Elementary in Signal Hill.
Doug calls himself a public artist- one who creates art that is seen and used by the public. His design for the “Angel of Long Beach” sculpture was unanimously chosen, and he was awarded with commission to build it in Shoreline Village in 2002, and he’s garnered numerous other awards and scholarships since high school, for culinary arts, design and art education.
It’s another discipline, however, that Doug would rather spend his time talking about- art therapy. He is spearheading the Powerhouse School for Art Therapy for Students with Autism, inspired by the notion that, as Doug puts it, “many children with autism can greatly benefit from a gradual yet radical change in the modality of their awareness.” He says the methods he uses to work with autistic students are relatively unconventional but very simple and powerful. “The transformation from living from the intellect, where the brain is the primary organ of sense, to living from and in an ever growing state of objective consciousness is rarely an easy task for anybody. For a child with autism, it can be a window to greater expression and freedom.”
The Autism Society of America’s Web site states that “Art and music are particularly useful in sensory integration, providing tactile, visual and auditory stimulation. Art therapy can provide a nonverbal, symbolic way for the child to express him or herself.”
Doug believes that art, especially music, visual arts and dance, can act as a gateway for the needed psychological change that can allow the students to receive impressions and express themselves in a way that bypasses much of the malady within the nervous system. “I believe in and have observed the healing of many disorders through the positive awakening of consciousness,” he said. “The art that I’ve found to be most effective is usually simple and fun.”
“Watching them work together is a beautiful thing,” said Kelly Bray, Tim’s father. “They’re like two peas in a pod. They work together so brilliantly.” Kelly pointed out that Tim had been withdrawn and misunderstood by peers and even adults, but creating art has had a remarkable effect on him. “It’s a way of bringing him out. It gives him something that he can show to others and say ‘Look, this is me.’”
Tim’s father wasn’t the only one to notice a change. He said Burroughs’ volunteer coordinator remarked, after observing Tim’s participation in the mural painting, that Tim looked as if he was six feet tall.
Doug says that a one-size-fits-all approach to art therapy isn’t the answer, and that the therapist must determine what medium works best for each learner. “Each student is an individual, so I spend a good deal of time trying to find out what type or types of art will be most effective for them,” he said.
The mural that Doug and Tim, as well as other Burroughs students, have been creating illustrates the pollen path of bees. It’s a concept that is dear to Doug because his grandparents were Navajo Indians and it’s a major part of their education and a symbol of healing that is used in the tribe’s sand paintings. “With them being the Burroughs Bees, I started to think of a design that could work along the 220-foot wall,” he said. “My grandmother and grandfather lived on a Navajo reservation, and she passed on a lot of the lore to me.” The pollen path was a perfect tie-in with the school’s mascot, but Doug also seized it as an opportunity to teach the kids about ecology. “The bees have been dwindling from the Earth because of the environment,” he said. Indeed, the Washington Post last month published a story explaining how air pollution interferes with the ability of bees to track the scent of flowers to their source, weakening the essential process of pollination.
Environmental education aside though, the development of the mural has taught other important lessons.
Doug says the school has been “transformed” by the colorful bees and flowers on the classroom’s exteriors, so he’s been able to witness the effects of his work as a public artist.
And Kelly is jubilant about the transformation he’s seen in his son after working with Doug, who, after working at Burroughs for a while, had left to work on other projects. Kelly said that Tim came to him one day and shared a special feeling. “Tim said, ‘I really miss Doug. He and I are so alike. We’re both artists.”