Sixteen-year-old Zackary Ruhland has a particular talent for drawing cartoon characters — sometimes after having only observed his subjects briefly.
Realizing his talent, his art teacher Greg Hogan is holding a one-man art show in the library at Vilonia Junior High. The student, Hogan said, has a natural innate artistry and he wants everyone to have the opportunity to appreciate it.
At the premiere, the guest of honor fidgeted as people milled the exhibit. He smiled a lot and even laughed out loud a couple of times as he received attention. He offered up hugs to many of his teachers and friends but there was no bragging about his work. He answered questions but generally the answer amounted to a one word reply either yes or no. Moving away from the crowd on a couple of occasions, however, he was heard to recite a line or two from a movie for no apparent reason.
Yet, on many occasions, the teenager’s eyes would twinkle just before he would say or do something humorous causing everyone to laugh.
His mother, Jamie Ruhland, described her autistic son as being complex. Zackary uses his art, she explained, as therapy.
"He has learned by doing it, he can self-soothe," she said. "He uses art to calm down."
Zackary was diagnosed with autism when he was three. As a child he was mute, and did not relate to other people. He had no language and lived entirely in his own world.
He began sketching cartoons when he was about three before he was verbal. By age 4, she said, they noticed he had a raw talent perfecting Blues Clues’ characters.
"He had the fat notebooks and he would sit and draw and draw," she noted. He was about five when he spoke his first words. The lines out of cartoons and movies were some of his first sentences. Cartoons and Disney movies, Mrs. Ruhland said, "have been a big part of his life," and played a major role into his social development.
Today, he can draw a near-perfect Mickey or Minnie easily in five or 10 minutes. While cartoons are his choice of artistic subjects, she said, "If he can look at anything, he can draw it. Cartoons are just something he loves."
Being in Hogan’s art class for 9th graders, Mrs. Ruhland said, has allowed Zackary to hone his talent. While they try to stir him toward drawing other subjects, Mrs. Ruhland said, he always "turns back to drawing cartoons."
"His detail and depth has gotten so much better in Mr. Hogan’s class, "she added. The teenager has visited Disney in Florida and had the opportunity to draw for the professionals. He hopes one day to have a career in the art field.
A perfectionist, Mrs. Ruhland said, her son throws lots of his work away. If anything is the least off, it is marked with a big X and thrown in the trash.
"We go through tape and paper at our house by the box," she joked. On that note, she said, her son is easy to "buy for, just get him pencils, paper and tape and classic cartoons."
"He generally has an EBay Christmas—with movies and other things from 10 years ago," she joked.
Attending Vilonia School District, she said, has helped Zackary in many ways. He is integrated into some of the traditional classes allowing him to make friends and his socialization skills are improving, she said. Mrs. Ruhland said her family was living on Little Rock Air Force Base when she and her husband, Billy, made the decision to move to Vilonia. Although they have two additional children, the move to the district was "more about helping Zackary fit in."
"They have the best special education program here of anywhere I know," she offered. "His speech has exploded. I would recommend it to anyone."