A.R.T.: The Essence of Art
The power of an important new art can turn things upside
down. Where Cezanne's reproductions were seen in the most conservative
homes, the neighbors back in the late 1800s pelted him with stones.
Cezanne's tapping into a new means of expression placed him in the
avant-garde circle which as always created disquiet, even anger, among
those that held the status quo.
Now, with Artistic Realization Technologies
(A.R.T.) children and young adults with the most severe physical challenges
are turning the art world upside down. The work they create is not
art therapy. The work they create is Art, with a capital A. A.R.T.
does not come from the disabilities world but from the art world.
Its director, Tim Lefens, is a recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Award
for Painting. A.R.T. started with a seed grant from one of America's
pre-eminent artists, Roy Lichtenstein, and since his death has been
supported by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. A.R.T. received the
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Teaching Award.
A recent exhibition of the works created, without any guidance, any
outside influence, no art history of any kind, or training in techniques,
has impressed experts such as Sam Hunter, professor emeritus Modern
Art Princeton University. Hunter came in the back door of the gallery,
seeing none of the explanatory wall text. Seeing only the work, knowing
nothing of the ages or physical conditions of the children and young
adult painters, he made an excited bee-line to the gallery director
telling her the work was the best the gallery had ever shown, that
it was 'ready for Soho.' After learning the details of the A.R.T.
program, he joined its board of trustees, along with actor Willem
Dafoe, rocker Neil Young and Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee.
The claims concerning the A.R.T. artists are so powerful they cause
an instant wave of doubt among those not ready to be turned on their
heads. How could a teenager who since birth has been unable to walk,
talk or use their hands, a young person who has had no formal schooling,
who has been seen by the average person on the street as incapable
of sophisticated thought or feeling, in one fell swoop take art, naturally,
without training, to a level above that achieved by the average able-bodied
In a recent studio session with the ARC Jacksonville, Kinghorn,
Dir. of JMOMA sat in to see the very first painting created by a non-verbal,
wheelchair-bound young man who had never met the staff of A.R.T. As
the painting emerged through a sophisticated set of guidance systems
including a head mounted laser, Kinghorn spoke with A.R.T. Director
Tim Lefens, saying "That painting is really good."
How is it that
an individual thought to be unable to communicate, are able to create
pieces with such grace and power? Lefens suggests that is has to do
with concentration. "When you have no means of expressing yourself,
the whole world going on around you, without you, and all of a sudden
you can place the exact amount of the exact color you want, where
you want it on the canvas, a lifetime of pent up energy comes out
through a very concentrated channel." Able-bodied people today are
bombarded with everyday options in life. They are dizzy with choices,
while the people A.R.T. works with have, in the past, gone through
full days, weeks, months, years, decades, without having made a single
choice of any creative consequence. So when they get the power to
assert choice-making, they grab it and run with it, like their life
depended on it. For the individuals we work with, painting is not
recreation. It's life." Unable to move their bodies, on the canvas
they can race, fly, spin or ride delicate curves of color.
visitor to the studio asked one of the artists who could speak-albeit
with difficulty-how he felt while he painted, he said, "Even Tim doesn't
know how we live in the paint." This may be the simple answer to the
question, 'How is it possible that such profoundly handicapped people
could blow away the work of art school students? How is it possible?"
The answer is: they put more into it. They put everything into it.
Another aspect that turns things upside down concerns the fact that
these artists have never had any art instruction. "Art instruction,
throughout grade school is responsible for squelching the art out
of kids, not setting it free," said Lefens.
Art in most schools is
not about freedom but conformity--coloring inside the lines. With
the A.R.T. artists, having never been told to do this or do that,
or this is right and that is wrong, never encouraged to copy clichZ
subjects such as the house, the sun, the smiling face, the artists
we work with, this invisible, rejected population of young people
work from inside themselves. They don't know what they are expected
to do so they do what they feel like doing. And, unlike art therapy
programs, A.R.T. does not interfere in their creative process. Instead
the studio assistant remains neutral, allowing the artist total freedom
to go where they will. This is how their work has come to be exhibited
at major museums and Manhattan galleries, how it has garnered the
praise of experts in the art world.
A.R.T. has been contracted to
teach their technique at The Arc Jacksonville this spring to allow
some of Jacksonville's Developmentally Disabled individuals the opportunity
to become artists. To learn more about The Arc Jacksonville visit
their website at www.arcjacksonville.org or call Dawn Bell at 904-355-0155
x12. To learn more about A.R.T. visit their website: www.artrealization.org.
Tim Lefens book, Flying Colors was the winner of Reader's Digest 'Today's
Best Nonfiction' and is available on www.amazon.com.