The Art of Autism with Debra Muzikar |EXPLORING DIFFERENT BRAINS – Episode 8


In this episode, Hackie Reitman, M.D. speaks with Debra Muzikar, co-founder of The Art of Autism. Debra discusses her son’s diagnosis, and how his interest in painting has led to the creation of an organization that works to give a voice and outlet to neurodiverse artists.

For more information about The Art of Autism, please visit http://the-art-of-autism.com/.

And visit their facebook page facebook.com/TheArtofAutism.

 

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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR)

This is Dr. Hackie Reitman, welcome to Exploring Different Brains, and our special guest today, all the way from southern California, is one of the co-founders of the Art of Autism, Debra Muzikar. Debra, welcome to the show!

DEBRA MUZIKAR (DM)

Thank you, Hackie, I’m glad to be here.

HR

Well, why don’t you tell our viewers and listeners about who you are and what the Art of Autism is? I’ll let you get right into it.

DM

Well, I’m the parent of three children. My youngest, Kevin, who is 21, is on the autism spectrum, and he’s an artist. I started showing his art maybe when he was around 10 years old, and we’d have little exhibits for–like non-profits, and more and more people wanted us to show the art, and so the project kept on growing and growing, and I partnered up with Kerry Bowers in probably around 2005. We–Kerry’s a filmmaker and Kevin’s been in a couple of her films. A new film that she’s having, coming out right now, is “Normal People Scare Me, Too,” and the Art of Autism just kept on growing and growing and growing, and right now we’re a collaborative project with about probably more than 600 artists from around the world. We have exhibits and we also have different venues for poetry readings, neurodiversity panels and all kinds of different things. We have a very popular blog as well.

HR

Debra, what I thought was pretty cool in going to your excellent website, was the fact that you’re not only showing this stuff, you’re creating profit centers for the artists themselves, as well as the organization. Could you expand upon that a little bit?

DM

Well, we hope to really build the website in the next year or two with more opportunities for entrepreneur artists. We hope to partner with some other organizations for a curriculum to come onto our site to teach the business skills, and we want to also–we’ve started to license the art, so that the artist actually gets some revenue from selling images of their art. So it’s not just that we have physical exhibits anymore, which we don’t have as many as we used to. We’re now going more into the licensing aspect and the blogs as well. The blogs are a really important part of our project. And we call that part the autism shift, and we’re going to be coming up, in the next week, with a whole new side of our website, which is going to be the autism shift.

HR

And how old is Kevin now?

DM

He’s 21.

HR

And he’s an artist?

DM

He is an artist.

HR

Okay, now when was kevin first diagnosed and tell us that story?

DM

Kevin was diagnosed–well he was in special ed from the time he was maybe 18 months old, he was over 50% delayed in communication when he was 18 months, and we go him into certain programs at that time. He wasn’t diagnosed on the autism spectrum until he was three years old, but he had already been getting services.

HR

What were his initial diagnoses?

DM

It was just language-delay mostly, and being delayed in a lot of areas. So, it was–at that time it was PDD/NOS.

HR

And when did he start painting?

DM

He started painting when he was nine-years-old and he did that through a therapist at UCSB Autism, the Cagel Autism Center. We’ve been receiving services from them since Kevin was around five, and one of the therapists that graduated from Risty–and he was getting his master’s in psychology in working with the Cagel Autism Center, and he was just great with Kevin–he introduced Kevin to art, and we didn’t think Kevin really had any artistic talent but he kept on introducing him to different mediums. First, he started with water colors, then, the next week, he did acryllics, and then, he went to oil paint, and Kevin loved oil painting for many many years. And that was because the texture and how vibrant the colors were.

HR

So how did that lead to the Art of Autism?

DM

Well, I started showing Kevin’s art and a lot of people liked it, and I was working for some non-profits at that time, I was actually on their board, and we’d have benefits, so we decided to bring in artists who had a variety of developmental disabilities, so that they could make some money at our benefits and they can also–they were giving a portion of the proceeds to the non-profit. And it just kept on growing and growing–what happened was in 2010 I was approached to compose the next Artism book. Artism was originally published by Autism today and Karen Simmonds, and they were looking for somebody else to compile a new book. And that’s really what gave the project momentum, because I was in contact with so many artists from around the world.

HR

And how did you and co-founder Kerry Bowers, the filmmaker, hook up?

DM

We lived about 45 minutes from each other, and in California they have regional centers, which–they have 21 regional centers, which provide services for people with developmental disabilities. Well, we were both active in our own communities with the regional center and with providing services. Kerry had founded Paws For Kids, which was a non-profit in Thousand Oaks, and my ex-husband was on the board of the regional center, so we would see each other at meetings, and I was, at that time, on the board of Autism Society in Santa Barbara, and I invited Kerry to speak at the board and we just had a lot in common. Kerry’s son, Taylor, is quite a few years older than Kevin, I think he’s like 27, but she had involved him in the art as well, and especially when I got Kevin involved in the art, she was very, very supportive and she’s an artist herself, and it just worked out.

HR

Debra, what are the variety of art forms that are included at the Art of Autism?

DM

We have traditional art, which is art on canvas. We have photography, poetry, blogging and writing is an art. Storytelling, and–let me see, we also have had, in the past, art such as dancing and movement and just full-on entertainment shows. Music.

HR

Is most of what you do in the painting sphere, or would that be a misstatement?

DM

I think most of what we’re doing right now is blogs. Blogs and artists that write blogs about their art and poetry–that’s what we’re doing right now.

HR

Now we interviewed a very interesting character, Michael Tolleson.

DM

Oh, yeah. I know Michael.

HR

And he’s a savant autistic artist.

DM

I had just talked to him on the phone this week. My friend’s editing his book.

HR

Oh yeah–he sent me a rough draft of his book, it’s really, really something I think. Where he takes each of his paintings and then tells it from the autistic point of view, and I–we’re trying to get more of that out on DifferentBrains.com, also, which is more things from the aspie or the autistic or the dyslexic point of view, and not limiting it to them, because the way I’m seeing, Debra, is that we’re all on one giant spectrum, I don’t think it’s just the autism spectrum. You’ve got–we have so many people on anti-anxiety medications, we’ve got 1 in 13 Americans with PTSD and the list goes on and on and on.

DM

So true.

HR

Especially in California.

DM

There’s a lot more of them here, for sure.

HR

Now what events does your organization have coming up, The Art of Autism?

DM

Well, we have a really cool collaboration for April. And for World Autism Day. We’ve hooked up with these cake decorating organization that has cake decorators from around the world and they’ve taken images from the Art of Autism galleries, and they’re putting them onto cakes. And I had the pleasure of seeing one cake that they did of my son Kevin’s work, and it’s just incredible–it’s just amazing what they’ve done. So that’s just like an online project–all of the cake decorators are going to change their facebook profile page on April 2nd to the cake that they did. And the artwork that inspired the cake.

HR

Oh, how cool? How can any of our viewers or listeners participate in that?

DM

Well we’re going to write a blog about it. I think they’re going to come up with a website–I’m in contact with the person organizing it. So I think they just need to check back on our FaceBook page or our website for more information on that. I don’t have the exact details right now.

HR

Debra, if an artist wants to become involved with you, how do they go about it?

DM

Well, right now, they’re emailing me their art or their blogs. We’re going to be putting up a submission form with some criteria that will be coming up in the next few weeks. But they can email me at theartofautism@gmail.com until that’s up.

HR

Now can you tell us about the film that Kerry Bowers made and Joey Travolta and their involvement, whats going on with that?

DM

Yeah! Well Kerry’s–that’s Kerry’s own project, but it’s really cool. My son, Kevin, was in one of her other films, the arts film she did, but this time, he’s in Normal People Scare Me, Too. Now, Normal People Scare Me came out–I think maybe in 2007, it’s been awhile. And now she’s checking back with all of the people that were in that film at that time and giving an update, and she’s added a whole bunch more people. And it’s really interviews with people on the autism spectrum, her son, Taylor, interviews the people. He’s also, I guess directing–helping direct the film.

HR

Where do you see The Art of Autism, say five years from now? How do you visualize?

DM

I think there’s a momentum in the country that people are wanting to–they’re realizing that autistic people are marginalized and they’re wanting to empower them and they are empowering themselves by their artwork, by their blogs, by their advocacy, and so I see us going farther out into that. In this last year, we really took a turn with our blogs. I think 80% of our blogs are by people on the autism spectrum, and then we also have–you know, I blog, and Kerry blogs and experts in the field–and parents sometimes. But I think it’s going more to the empowerment, and I also think they’re going to be compensated more for their work or their art. Right now there’s a lot of struggle with business aspects of–a lot of them are not good at business, and so I hope that our organization will be helping them with that as well.

HR

Can you give us some anecdotes about some of the individual artists who are part of The Art of Autism?

DM

Oh yeah, I have lots of anecdotes. Well, one of the artists that we–we have a 2016 Art of Autism calendar, which we partnered with Grant Montier, and Grant Montier is a young artist, I think he’s 18, he’s a senior in high school this year in Texas. He had a compulsive habit of tearing paper, and this was in–when he was in junior-high, and, his mother, instead of telling him to stop it, she realized it was like a self-soothing technique. She channeled it into collages. And Grant, now, has so many artworks that are, like maybe 10,000 pieces of paper. They use cereal boxes, posters, magazines, all kinds of things to make his, what he calls, “Cool-ages,” and it’s an eco-friendly artform. And he sells them for $5,000 each. I mean he’s very successful in Texas. His mom is managing his career and it’s just–it’s something, a partnership that she has with her son.

HR

That is a classic example–I’m learning more and more as I speak across the country, getting to meet the real giants in the field, unlike myself, you know, the Stephen Shores, and Temple Grandins and Ron Kaufmans–but the one principle that I’m really coming up with, with all of neurodiversity, is up until recently, society has always been trying to–the most important thing is don’t do that so you can be like everybody else. Don’t do that. And I think the emphasis, now, is more on to connect and build the positives and see what potential is there for that particular drive. For that particular interest. For that particular talent, to make that into something that they can earn a living with and do what they love doing the rest of their life, and I think the example you just gave is a classic example of, instead of stop tearing up that paper, now he’s figuring out how to make a living with it. And that is tremendous. Tremendous. Tell us another. Tell us another, that was a good one.

DM

Yeah. And there are a lot of those kind of stories. There was another young man, Will Kerner, in Michael Tolleson’s territory, he lives in Washington, and, in fact, Michael Tollesson has shown his art in his gallery. He was compulsively cutting paper, and what they did was they would take the cut-outs and frame them, and he’s called the cut-out kid, and his works sells for in the thousands of dollars as well. And so, you know, it’s just really interesting. It became a really good art form. We showed his art and we also showed Grants art in the Good Purpose gallery in Massachussetts because we partnered with Michael Mcmanman on an art exhibit there.

HR

Nice. Now how can our viewers and listeners and readers get in touch with you and find out more?

DM

Well, they can email me at theartofautism@gmail.com or they could go to our facebook page, The Art of Autism, or our website is The-Art-Of-Autism.com, there’s dashes between each of the words, so it’s a little–if they google “The Art of Autism,” we’ll be the first one to come up.

HR

Alright, well that’s great. And we want to congratulate you on everything you’re doing, and keep up the great work. We’re very fortunate to be able to help get the word out that all of our brains are different and society needs to understand and embrace neurodiversity for all of us, not just for any one segment. All of us need to do that. All right, well great talking to you. We’ve been talking with Debra Muzikar, one of the co-founders of the Art of Autism, out there in California, and you can go to their website, The-Art-Of-Autism.com and you can email Debra directly and get in touch, they’ve got great artists there, they’ve got great blogs, they have nice stores there, and it’s a very, very informative and resourceful–you know, website. And that’s the-art-of-autism.org or .com?

DM

Oh, well thank you.

DM

Oh, wow, thank you! That’s exciting. I love what DifferentBrains is doing as well, I mean this is an amazing website you have.

HR

Well, thank you very much, we’re very fortunate to be able to help get the word out that all of our brains are different and society needs to understand and embrace neurodiversity for all of us, not just for any one segment. All of us need to do that. All right, well great talking to you. We’ve been talking with Debra Muzikar, one of the co-founders of the Art of Autism, out there in California, and you can go to their website, The-Art-Of-Autism.com and you can email Debra directly and get in touch, they’ve got great artists there, they’ve got great blogs, they have nice stores there, and it’s a very, very informative and resourceful–you know, website. And that’s the-art-of-autism.org or .com?

DM

It’s .com. We’re going to–we’re becoming a non-profit, so we’re going to get that domain name as well.

HR

Okay, the-art-of-autism.com with Debra Muzikar. So this is another–we’ve come to the end of another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Debra, we want to thank you very much, keep up the great work at the Art of Autism. Thank you very much.

DM

Thank you. It was a pleasure.

 

 

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