Matthew Biegaj is a pretty prolific little painter, but also works at his own pace.
The 11 year old likes to do abstract art. His mom, Barbara, said he’ll sometimes work for an extended time until he likes his final project. Other times, Matthew might work for a couple of minutes.
His work was displayed Aug. 12 on Marion Street in downtown Oak Park during a street art fair sponsored by the village. Matthew honed his talent with the Oak Park Art League, which also had a booth at the event.
Its program, Art in Autism, pairs kids like Matthew, who has autism, with adult artists as mentors. Some of Matthew’s paintings at the art fair impressed a lot of people, so much so that many assumed that they were his mom’s artwork. And some wanted to buy a few paintings.
“Sometimes he paints a lot and other times he’s not interested,” his mom said.
Matthew, who attends a private school, isn’t too talkative, but he’ll offer up a “Hey, dude” to those he’s friendly with. When Matthew paints, he uses whatever tools he needs for a particular project. He uses different brushes and various paints. He likes to use different colors, his mom said.
Matthew’s mentor is Kimberly Kurrus, whom he meets and works with at the Oak Park Art League, 720 Chicago Ave. One of the things she would do is put pieces of tape on the canvass and have Matthew paint over them. Then, she’d peel off the tape, creating a kind of 3-D effect. His mom is very appreciative of how well Kurrus works with Matthew.
“She treated him like an artist, and he knew it,” Barbara said. “He loved the studio. People who saw his paintings [at the street fair] thought I did them. I said, ‘No, these are Matthew’s.”
Matthew has an older brother and sister. Michael will be a junior this year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, while Anna will be attending eighth grade at Percy Julian Middle School. Matthew last attended school at Oak Park’s elementary school District 97 in 2007. But Barbara and her husband, Rich, say they had conflicts with the district over Matthew’s education and decided to enroll him elsewhere.
They don’t wish to publicize where Matthew’s at now, but his mom said the change in schools has really made a difference with him. The family still lives in the Oak Park area and Matthew is known around town, his mom said. The businesses and places he goes, like the Lake Street Theater, all are aware of his condition and try to help out.
The downtown theater will let him watch a movie sometimes for no charge. Part of that also involves seeing how long Matthew can sit still in his seat and focus on the movie, Barbara said.
Matthew’s recent discovery of art is part of his continued development, she explained. He’s talking more and continues to be involved in other educational programs. Last Friday was his last day this summer at the Easter Seals School at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a therapeutic school and research institute for people with autism. But he’s also having fun like any other kid.
Three weeks ago, Matthew, his mom said, learned how to ride a two-wheel bike – no more training wheels – though his bike will be slightly modified. And he’ll continue his art classes at the Oak Park Art League.
A family’s happy transition
Barbara feels the entire family, and their household, is more normal now than in recent years, especially with Matthew’s development and his involvement in outside activities.
“Now we can focus more attention on Michael and Anna,” she said.
The house, in a way, felt more like a school with so many home-based programs for Matthew the family was involved in. He now has just one therapy session that takes place at his home. A lot of the family’s finances over the years have focused on Matthew, as well as on attorneys in their disputes with District 97, Barbara said.
But the family still has its shares of problems and issues to face. Barbara’s younger brother two weeks ago died from a sudden heart attack. It occurred the morning of the art fair on Aug. 12. Barbara’s family decided not to tell her at that time and instead waited until after the fair, which Barbara understands and appreciated.
But when speaking about her kids, Barbara sounds like a proud mom – she apologizes for boasting so much. Along with glowing over Matthew’s progress, she praises her other kids. Big brother Michael plays in a hard rock band at OPRF called Mellow Smooth.
It’s a new kind of heavy metal music that’s still loud and ruckus but without any bad language or negative lyrics. Michael is a keyboardist within the six-person group. And Barbara is proud of the scholarship her daughter recently received.
And given some of the families’ struggles from a few years ago, Barbara says Matthew has become more connected to his community here in Oak Park.
“The more places we go, the more comfortable he is with his environment. Everyone knows him and they know about his autism. They all help in their own little ways,” she said. “We went to a store and Matthew took something without paying for it. That’s been a problem with him we’ve been working on. But the person there was so nice. He said, ‘No, Matthew, you can’t have that. You didn’t ask for that. You have to pay for that before you can take it.’ And Matthew gave it back. It’s really helped him.”
He’s also comfortable away from home. The family sometimes vacations at a farm in Wisconsin that his dad, Rich, inherited.
“What’s kind of nice it that we see that the skills Matthew has been learning in his programs in Oak Park is translating elsewhere,” Barbara said.
During the week, Matthew will spend some time away from home while stay at his alternative school. It’s a place in the area for kids with developmental disabilities, but likes to keep a low profile for safety and security.
“It’s been there for so many years, but even neighbors don’t know what they do there,” Barbara said.
The family was there supporting Matthew at the Oak Park art street fair. He set up his easel and had his work on display. He wore a shirt that had hand prints on it that looked like they were pressed there after being dipped in paint – you could say the art was flowing through him.