By Faith Harron
Bismarck Tribune

Kiln-fused glass art designed by autistic students made for a unique exhibition Wednesday evening in a downtown art gallery.

[quote_center]”The idea of having artwork in a real studio, in a real gallery, is a big point of pride to these kids,” said art instructor Charles Van Zee. “They’re gonna have a chance to share what they’ve created with the community.”[/quote_center]

Van Zee began the trial phase of his program with one student, Gavin Garcia, in January. Finding success, the program was expanded in July to 10 children and six teens and adults, ranging in age from 4 to 22. Each one received two to three classes, one every week, and made three to four glass pieces. The finished pieces were shown Wednesday at Impact Gallery, 324 E. Broadway Ave.

“The process of teaching works the same, you just have to explain it differently. The lessons have to be more visual, rather than auditory. You have to show, not tell,” said Van Zee, who described visible improvement from his students.

“The biggest change is the engagement with the program,” Van Zee said. “They’re still kids, they like games, but these things are seen sometimes as chores. But here, they immediately came to the table … with a surprising depth and interest in the projects. They were focused in a way that you don’t see often with autistic kids.”

Van Zee described one teenager who sat, of his own accord, for more than an hour to fix his glass art just right.

“To get a teen with autism to spend that much time on a six-by-six piece of glass — it’s very gratifying,” said Van Zee, adding that no two children were the same.

“One of the interesting things about the autism spectrum is that the symptoms can be any or all in a mixture,” Van Zee said. “You can see the mindsets of the kids reflecting in their art, and you get a feel for the personality of the kid based off what they create.”

One of Van Zee’s most memorable moments came from a little girl who had had severe behavioral problems at the time. He almost didn’t add her to the roster for the glass art class, but decided to after a small breakthrough.

“Before, we couldn’t get her to sit still for five minutes,” Van Zee said. “She’d be screaming, saying ‘I can’t do this anymore, I’m done,’ and throwing stuff on the ground. In the class, she sat and focused for 40 minutes. It’s just really nice to see.”

The most surprising thing for Van Zee was how quickly his older students grasped the concepts. They understood immediately, even principles that had taken Van Zee himself months to learn.

“People with autism, because of their disability, get certain labels,” Van Zee said. “A lot of problems they have are people not understanding their needs, and, when you do, they are incredibly intelligent and talented.”

Lorena Poppe, the Anne Carlsen Center’s autism services director agrees. She said she was excited by how the glass art allows the autistic students a chance, regardless of their disability, to express themselves.

“The excitement that the kids have had is really the best part, just to see the looks on their faces,” Poppe said.

Involvement in the programs, held at the Anne Carlsen Center offices in the Northbrook mall in Bismarck, had positive effects, according to Van Zee, who noted that the art has a genuine benefit for those with autism.

“To do art, there’s this process of a mental image, planning what to do and all the spacial orientation,” Van Zee said. “Fine motor deficits are common on the autistic spectrum and the very act of creating art helps.”

The glass art is unique in that it’s a more sensory experience, according to Van Zee.

“You operate with frit, which are small bits of glass with rounded edges like sand and pebbles,” Van Zee said. “Kids can pick up the frit, run it through their fingers, and if their hand slips … they can redo it, re-position the little pebbles until they get it the way they like it.”

The increase in hand-eye coordination that comes with creating this type of art is a slow process, Van Zee says. But it is the steady gains over time, the progress, that is important to him.

“We’re hoping to continue the program, to expand into different arts,” Van Zee said. “This winter, we plan to make glass Christmas ornaments.”

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