Sunday, May 31, 2009

Man with autism expresses himself with art on walls at Venice Beach

From The Argonaut in California:

The electric, at times carnival-like atmosphere at Venice Beach holds a special meaning for those who live and work there. It is often a place that is abundant with creative expression, fused with the entrepreneurial spirit during the day and resplendent with picturesque sunsets in the late evening. It is a place of many things for many people.

For Pierre Dumas, it has become like a second home, somewhere he can feel alive, with therapeutic benefits as an added bonus.

Dumas, 58, is autistic. While he cannot speak, he has found a way to communicate through art. And the Venice Arts Walls have served as his canvas to self-expression, which has in turn lead to the beginning of a progression of social interactions with fellow artists at the art walls and dramatic improvements in his everyday life.

“For autistics, art can often be very therapeutic, even if it is not part of a prescribed course of therapy,” says Dr. Paula Pompa-Craven, a psychologist who is familiar with Dumas’ case.

Art therapy has been used to rehabilitate addicts and is often employed with children who are autistic.

While Dumas, who was raised in Westchester, is not using art in a controlled clinical setting, it can still have great benefits for him, Pompa-Craven says.

“I don’t think that you have to be in a clinical setting for an approach to be therapeutic,” the psychologist, who is also an autism spokeswoman for Easter Seals of Southern California, told The Argonaut. “Being part of a community can be therapeutic.”

Dumas, accompanied by his life skills coach Eric Tapia, visits the graffiti wall area off of the Venice Boardwalk on weekends, an experience that both seem to enjoy.

“When he’s out there, you can really tell that he’s having a good time,” said Tapia, a budding artist who began coming to Venice Beach as a teenager. “Pierre really gets excited when people pay attention to his (art).”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or autism is a developmental disability considered the result of a neurological condition affecting normal brain function, development and social interactions. It is the fastest growing developmental disability, increasing at a rate of ten to 17 percent annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

As many as 40 percent of autistic patients never learn to speak, and in many cases have significant problems developing nonverbal communication skills, such as eye-to-eye gazing, facial expressions, and body posture.

“There is a commonly held belief that art-making is beneficial to people (particularly children) with ASD due to their intense sensory needs (especially visual and tactile self-stimulation), often nonverbal nature, and need for more visual, concrete, hands-on therapies,” says Nicole Martin, a Missouri art therapist on her Web site,

Tapia, 24, noticed that Dumas became interested in the art walls after several trips to the beach as weekend outings as an alternative to working on arts and crafts at Dumas’ home in Culver City.

“You can tell by his facial expressions that he is trying to communicate with me and others when he’s (painting at the art wall),” Tapia said. “At first he would get very nervous around other people, but now he’s having fun hanging out with other artists and muralists.”

For the last three years, Dumas has lived with two other men, and according to those who know him best, he has progressed at a rate that no one had previously thought possible.

Yvette Beaird, Dumas’ sister, is a witness to those changes.

“He has changed so much,” she said. “He can prepare sandwiches for himself and do certain chores, which we thought would probably never happen.”

Prior to arriving at the home in Culver City, he was living in Costa Mesa in a more controlled environment. But since he moved to his new residence and began visiting the art walls, Dumas’ social skills have improved by leaps and bounds, says Beaird.

Beaird, who lived in Westchester through her high school years, mentioned a visit to her mother last December, when her brother shocked the family when he did something out of character.

“He called my mother ‘mama,’” she remembered. “And when we told him that it was time to go, he started crying.”

Pompa-Craven says interacting with his fellow artists at the art wall has done wonders for Dumas’ development.

“Being part of a community can be very therapeutic,” she said. “Pierre has grown by leaps and bounds. His eye contact, an important sign for someone with autism, has increased dramatically, and part of that is due to his family support and the opportunity to express himself artistically.”

The Venice Art Walls, like practically all arts venues, could be in jeopardy due to the city’s economic predicament. Since 2007, the city has given $35,000 to the art wall program, which pays for onsite supervisors who monitor the activity of the artists and provide permits for those who come to express themselves. Artists and muralists who wish to use the walls are required to have permits, which are issued onsite for one day.

Stash Maleski, the curator of In Creative Unity Art, a Venice-based art production company specializing in murals and live painting events, says that the walls have been an oasis for budding artists like Dumas and other muralists who use the space as a creative outlet.

“There were businesses and residents who complained about graffiti artists who were tagging their property before the art wall was built,” Maleski explained. “But what we’ve seen since the permitting plan was implemented is a higher quality of art and an observance of the rules, along with mentoring by some of the more experienced artists.”

Dumas has been the beneficiary of this community of artists, and that has undoubtedly played a role in his continued social development, says Pompa-Craven.

“There was some doubt initially about him being able to be a functioning member of the community,” the doctor said. “Being able to socialize with others in a community that accepts him has been very instrumental in his social growth.”

Maleski is hopeful that his organization will be able to raise additional funds to keep the art wall open.

“In previous years we have been able to raise additional money by fundraising, but with the budget deficit, the program is in jeopardy,” said Maleski.

The arts program is funded until August, but it is unknown whether it will be renewed by the city for another year.

For now, Pierre Dumas has found a home among the sand, sun and the Venice Art Walls, a place where self-expression can serve as therapy as well as the thread that can connect people from many walks of life.