FINDING A VOICE THROUGH ART

Published On January 16, 2017 | By Erin Carey |

Words by Erin Carey, Photos by Kendra Siebert

Mary-Minn Sirag wants people to know something very simple: “Autism isn’t hopeless.”

As president for the Eugene nonprofit KindTree – Autism Rocks, Sirag has dedicated herself to helping those who, like her, are on the autism spectrum. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects everything from the individual’s social skills to their digestive abilities. For many people who live with autism, art is a way of helping with the social disabilities that autistic people face.

“Many [autistic people] are artistic,” Sirag says. “It’s a way of getting recognition in a world that doesn’t recognize you.”

KindTree raises funds for artists on the autism spectrum through the sale of homemade cards, jewelry, paintings, digital art and more.

KindTree was started in 1997 as a small outdoor retreat hosted every summer that has grown from 30 people to 150. Sirag and the volunteers who make up the backbone of KindTree have done their best to help those who are autistic in small ways, such as a focus on expression through art. KindTree’s art program is a 10-year-old endeavor to bring art pieces to life and artists together.

KindTree’s program Artist Guild has received a $1,500 grant from the Lane Arts Council for the last two years – the largest amount of money allotted for things like this, according to Sirag. The artist who receives this grant has money for materials and a scholarship for an art class or tutor. They are expected to produce something for the Autism Artism Gala hosted every year. Working towards being able to display art at the gala gives participants a way to work in a team, which many people with autism believe they can’t do, according to Sirag.

Chris Garza has worked with KindTree since late 2014 and has helped with organizing the Autism Artism Gala for 2015 and 2016. Designing posters and working with the art team has been a great experience for her socially. Garza was diagnosed with autism in kindergarten, during which time they used aggressive and often painful procedures on her to try to “fix” Garza.

“I received abusive techniques like applied behavioral analysis to try to break me of my autistic nature,” says Garza. “[Like] having my skin brushed and head rubbed against my will to try to break me of my hatred of being touched and seclusion rooms and threats to trigger fear responses.”

The work Garza has done with KindTree has not only helped gain exposure for her photography, but helped her find a place where she can socialize without worrying about judgement.

Another artist that has benefitted from KindTree’s art programs is Molly Nicole. Nicole has shown her art through KindTree for four years in a row. She does everything from documentary films to poetry and she’s currently working on a time period-based photography piece.

“It’s a way for me to express myself,” Nicole says. “When I do photography, I’ll dress in different outfits to do the time period stuff, so it’s me expressing my interest in history. I just try to create a backstory in the photo.”

Nicole doesn’t use models in her photography, just herself and her emotions to create a story. As someone with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning version of autism, KindTree has given her a way to show her interests and also promote her artistic independence.

Mary-Minn removes her collection of Etch A Sketch portraits from a box in the back room of her home.

“I just think it’s great that they have an art program because I think art is important,” she says. “I think it’s great that KindTree works to get people’s art out there.”

KindTree is also a place for families to connect, like in the case of the Doleman’s. Claudette and Ron Doleman and their daughter Sophie are all volunteers on KindTree’s Art Team. Ron and Sophie are both on the autism spectrum, and through KindTree they have bonded over art by working together. Claudette is the organizer, cross-checking and organizing the printing process, while Ron handles the technical aspects like printing the artists’ cards for different shows. 

Their daughter Sophie is an 18 year old University of Oregon student in the Clark Honors College. As an arts major and a science minor, she focuses on her art. She also works with Photoshop and Intuos to perfect the images before they’re printed.

Half of the proceeds of the jewelry, art, and other artwork sold through KindTree go to the artist, while the other half are invested into programs run through the organization, like the annual Friends & Family Camp.

“KindTree really is what it says in its name,” Claudette Doleman said in an email. “A sheltering, comfortable tree with kind arms that reach out to the autistic community accepting us for who we are, as we are.”

But as for the future of KindTree, Sirag says that keeping the culture and passion that KindTree has developed through these programs is the most important, especially since she is retiring in March. She wants to see KindTree progress and develop a system that more autistic people can get involved with, including more autistic people on the board for KindTree.

“It’s a group of very passionate people,” Sirag says. “People come to us with extreme passion: the passion that comes with wanting to make the world a better place.”