Local artist finds outlet for Asperger's

This article originally appeared in the May 25, 2014 edition of the Uvalde Leader-News and was written by staff writer Kim Eagle. It is used here with permission.

By Kim Eagle

Staff writer, Uvalde Leader-News

A lot of people exercise their bodies to stay in good physical shape, but Michael Ortiz of Uvalde exercises both sides of his brain daily as he finds a balance between his day job – being a math professor, and his night job – painting small, incredibly detailed works of art.

Ortiz has taught math to students at Sul Ross University– Rio Grande College for the last five years. Originally from Castroville, Ortiz moved to Uvalde not long after finishing his doctorate at the University of Texas.

After putting his two young children, who attend Sacred Heart School, to bed, Ortiz retires to his studio, which is right off the master bedroom in his house, to paint.

“On the weekends I watch the kids play in the yard while I paint,” Ortiz said of the space, which has two large windows overlooking the yard.

When asked why a math teacher would also want to be an artist, which seems counter-intuitive, Ortiz replied that he actually started off as an art major in school.

“I began as an art student before I studied  math,” Ortiz said. “I just always loved art.

“I was in a design class in college and they showed us a video on fractals.”

According to fractalfoundation.org, fractals, also known as  pictures of chaos, are never-ending, infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Abstract fractals can be generated by a computer calculating a simple equation over and over.

Soon after his love affair with fractals began, Ortiz went out and changed his major to mathematics.

“I wanted to study something more abstract, I suppose,” he said. “I just found mathematics very beautiful. I still do. It is a part of my pursuit of beauty.

"My art is very different from my math. I find that in order to keep doing math well I have to do something completely different, which is art.

“So in a way, it is kind of a release for me; it is not as rigorous or logical. It's the other side of your brain.”

He has been working on some mathematical art as of late, but his show planned for next month is about abstractions: abstract art and mathematics.

“I am moving towards a middle point from both sides,” Ortiz said.

He has an art show planned June 13 from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Art Lab Contemporary Art Studio located at 227 N. Getty St. The show will be part of Uvalde's Four Square Friday event. The show is open to the public to come and go as they please. Hors d'oeuvres will be served throughout the evening.

The art that Ortiz will have on display has been worked on over the past six years. He paints mostly with oils and watercolors. He is inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe, and many of his pieces feature varied subject matter including religious depictions, bugs and fractals. The pieces are small in size – most are six inches in length and width –  but incredibly detailed. Ortiz explained that he believes his penchant for focusing on small, detailed art stems from his Asperger's syndrome.

“Asperger's syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. A person with Asperger's syndrome or high-functioning autism tends to focus on details, can be hypersensitive to certain noises or textures, processes things very slowly, and has difficulty recognizing faces, making eye contact, grasping social cues, and following casual conversations,” Ortiz said.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, two core features of autism are social and communication deficits and fixated interests and repetitive behaviors. The social communication deficits in highly-functioning persons with Asperger's syndrome include lack of the normal back-and-forth conversation; lack of typical eye contact, body language, and facial expression; and trouble maintaining relationships.  Fixated interests and repetitive behaviors include repetitive use of objects or phrases, stereotyped movements, and excessive attachment to routines, objects, or interests.

“Once, for instance, I recognized my wife’s nose from a distance in a public place,” he recalled. “I’d almost passed her before I realized she was attached to it.”

Now, Ortiz said he doesn't feel like Asberger's syndrome affects him as much as it used to.

“Life in Uvalde isn’t so fast-paced, and people are free to live pretty much as they see fit,” he said, showing his appreciation for the nuances that make  Uvalde unique.

Certain aspects of life that come easy to some people did not come easy to Ortiz.

“Growing up I was quiet and withdrawn. I pursued my interests such as entomology obsessively, and adults often called me 'The Little Professor.' My eccentricities caused me to have a lot of social problems. Art was, for me, a coping mechanism.”

Ortiz said in college he had few friends but worked in the library and always received good grades.

“In graduate school at UT Austin I had more trouble, as personal interaction forms a large part of research.

“The nature of my difficulties became more apparent to me, and that’s what led me to seek a clinical evaluation. In the end, I was diagnosed with AS.

“It was the most stressful time of my life, and producing art with repetitive detail and pleasing colors helped me get through it.”

keagle@uvaldeleadernews.com, 830-278-3335