Saturday, May 10, 2008

Autistic boy creates art with paper and scissors

NANCY BARTLEY
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — In Wil Kerner's world, happiness and grief and all the feelings that come between are puzzle pieces as alien as the curious construction-paper characters in the art he assembles on his grandmother's living-room carpet.

What the autistic 12-year-old can't express verbally or in social interaction he can show through his carefully cut out geometric shapes assembled into characters in a paper collage, a talent the staff at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center calls a rare artistic gift. Large red circles become heads, delicate strips of fringed white paper become hair, and finely cut arches are shaped into eyebrows.

The art and the artist intrigues those who study autism. Dr. Stephen Dager, interim director of the University of Washington's Autism Center, who has been studying brain anatomy and chemistry in autism, is mystified by Wil's artistic talents. Autistic people generally pay little attention to eyes during social interaction, studies show, and usually are unaware of others' emotions. Yet, Wil has the ability to mimic human emotion through his art.

Wil doesn't understand numbers, has limited speech ability and very limited social skills. He has a brief attention span, tends to be compulsive and doesn't like his routine interrupted, and while he seems oblivious to others' subtle facial expressions, he manages not only to reproduce them but to do so by cutting them out of paper.

Those who study autism wonder if Wil's remarkable gift is a means of compensation for other deficits or a matter of serendipity.

In the past, Wil would have been called a "savant," a term now considered insensitive. Dager calls him extraordinarily talented.

Last week, Wil was honored at a reception in the Harborview cafeteria, where his art is on display through the month. He fidgeted at a table in the corner with a pile of colored paper in front of him, as dozens of people milled through the exhibit, challenging Wil's need for a calm environment.

Guest of honor or not, he finally had enough and shouted. He left for a quiet place as guests continued to admire his work.


The hospital has an art program and features artists year-round. When art director Peggy Weise saw Wil's work, she was intrigued.

"It's full of symbolism. Once you spend time with it, it's actually quite sophisticated. You can appreciate it first on the cursory level, and then you can appreciate its more sophisticated qualities," Weise said.

Wil, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, went to special classes in the Issaquah School District until two years ago but failed to thrive and began having panic attacks, said his grandmother, Susan Mooring. He was allowed to be tutored privately at Mooring's home just outside Renton.

With the help of his teacher, Leroy Maxwell, Wil, at 10, slowly began to learn to speak, something he seldom had done, and to read.

Then one day his father took him to a warehouse store and granted his wish for colorful construction paper, letting him buy an entire cartload. Wil's first collages circle-headed people with one eye each, a boy and girl holding hands, a blue baby with a shy smile, began to take shape. Mooring glanced at what he was doing and was stunned.

"There was really something going on there," she said of her grandson's art.

Although she had no formal art training, she believed Wil's creations were more than haphazard assemblages. To capture a design before Wil could destroy it, Mooring photographed each one and collected all the pieces. Later, she reassembled each collage on a large piece of artboard and hired a photographer to take digital photographs. Now hundreds of collages later, they're selling sometimes for as much as $1,000 each in the case of three sold at a charity auction to benefit autism.

One collage, of a pig with a downcast look and raised shoulder, gives a strong sense of isolation and sadness, Mooring said. While Wil names most of his work simply "Blue Baby" and "Pals," for instance Mooring named the pig collage "Exclusion." It was something Wil experienced, she said.

Another one of his creations is a collage of rectangles with a large figure, vaguely resembling Donald Trump, seemingly overlooking buildings. "He calls this one 'Rat,'" Mooring said.

That he can create facial expressions so well is particularly amazing, Dager said, because autistic people tend not to maintain eye contact or study facial expressions.

"Is it that their brains are wired differently? That's part of what we're studying," Dager said.

As for Wil, time for his art is a reward for doing schoolwork, Maxwell said. And when Wil begins to cut, the paper flies, the shapes emerge, the floor is littered with scraps of color and Maxwell and Mooring wait and watch for the magic.

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