Find us on Facebook

A·R·T Press

The Power of A.R.T.
By Maria A. Tortoreto
Exceptional Parent Magazine July 2004

"Trapped first by their bodies, then again by the people around them. One massive barrier wall stacked on top of another. The isolation must be crushing. Yet there is that light in their eyes. How had they kept their spirits alive? What would they tell us if they had the power?" -Excerpt from Tim Lefensā book, Flying Colors

Tim Lefens has heard some of his studentās say their first words. He has met students who didnāt speak complete sentences that can now carry on complete conversations. He has seen students argue for what they want and donāt want to do after never speaking up for themselves in their entire lives. He has "outed" them, as he calls it, because he has seen the inner person where no one has ever bothered to look.

Lefens is not a doctor or a therapist, nor has he ever had any formal training involving people with disabilities. He is an abstract artist, who since childhood has found absolute freedom in expressing his emotions through painting. His worst nightmare is to see others not being able to express themselves, and upon first witnessing this distress, vowed to find a way to change it.

He first came in contact with the world of the severely disabled in 1992 when he was asked to do a slide show of his paintings in a school for young people with cerebral palsy. Many of his students cannot speak or walk, and have limited or no use of their hands. Dumbstruck at first at the thought of showing his work, his creative perceptions of reality, to a group of people who cannot experience the sensation of expression, he had an idea.

"My life was of total physical freedom, their lives of total physical limitation," he explained. "I thought maybe painting could be a world we could both enter. But how, with no use of their hands, could this ever be?"

With no idea what techniques he could use, Lefens proposed to the school that he teach an art class allowing the students to paint. Skeptical but open to the idea, they let Lefens do as he asked without many guidelines. He had the students drive over paint with their wheelchairs and move around in circles over a huge canvas on the floor. He saw an immediate change in their attitudes; they went from being very subdued to overcome with excitement in a matter of minutes.

But as time went on, the students were beginning to lose energy, and Lefens suspected they were bored with this tactic, which the students confirmed unanimously. It also wasnāt good for students with manual wheelchairs. So he tried another tactic: a laser pointer strapped to their heads. They would point to the colors and decide the size and shape of the paintings, and trace where they wanted the paint to go on the canvas as a "tracker," a person acting as the hands of the artists, applied the paint. Some of the students demonstrated wonderful control and could create amazing paintings, but others with less control werenāt excelling as they could be. So Lefensā started to use the tactic that he still uses today: a very patient tracker working one on one with the students, and an infinite series of yes and no questions.

Although not all of his students are as profoundly disabled as others, he treats them all the same, and in 12 years has never seen a student that couldnāt make a painting. If they can nod their head or blink their eyes differently for "yes" and "no," they can paint. "You can do anything with yes and no," he said.

The trackers use a board of colors and a canvas and keep asking questions until the painting is exactly how the artist wants it. For example, a tracker will point to the color board and say, "do you want blue, green, yellow, red·? Ok, red, now lighter than this, darker, how dark, is this ok, darker, ok·" until it is right. Then they move on to the canvas, where the tracker uses two sticks, one horizontal and one vertical, to locate the point where the paint first hits the canvas, and the same as to where the next point is for the paint. It is usually a long process for each piece requiring an undoubtedly high level of concentration from the tracker.

Lefens began his own nonprofit organization, Artistic Realization Technologies, or A.R.T., in 1995. It received its 501(c)(3) status in 1997, and Lefens left the school in 2000. Based in Belle Meade, New Jersey, three locations exist around the state. There are currently locations in Arizona, Florida, and New York, with many more springing up across the country.

Lefenās has given hundreds of proteges of all ages the means and the confidence to produce art, and they are free to do with it what they choose. "Art is giving them a wild liberation from the misconceptions that hold them back," said Lefens.

Their work has been exhibited in numerous New York City galleries, and many paintings have sold for thousands of dollars. "People are buying the paintings not because the artists are disabled," said Lefens, "but because theyāre freakingā good."

"Weāve been trying to find creative ways to get inside these kids," said Ronald Savage, executive vice president of the Bancroft Foundation of Bancroft Neurohealth, an internationally recognized leader in special education, rehabilitation, evaluation, and research. Their facility in Haddonfield, New Jersey has hosted an A.R.T. program for the past three years. "While these are wonderful and creative works of art, itās the other things theyāve gained thatās really incredible. Their attention and concentration has improved. They are able to make choices and communicate."

Savage and Lefens are working to create a way to measure cognitive changes being brought about by A.R.T. Over 20 Bancroft residents have participated, and every one of them has improved in other areas of life, according to staff members. "Iām convinced that what weāre seeing is bringing about changes in their brain," said Savage. "Now we want to measure it from point A to point B."

Lefens studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University and did graduate work at Rutgers University. His life revolves around art and itās power to transcend materiality, to express emotions or capture feelings without words or objects.

A.R.T. has received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leadership Award, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Teaching Award, and the AAMR Training Award, in addition to being featured in People magazine, the New York Times, and The Essence of A.R.T.. Despite all of this exposure over the years, the organization is still struggling to gain moral and financial support.

While sites sponsored by schools or nursing facilities generally take care of the expenses, independent sites are forced to charge their students to cover the costs, which, combined with other medical expenses, can add up to more than many people can afford. The cost of supporting one artist for a year averages $5,400. A.R.T. has repeatedly been rejected for grants and financial support due to lack of belief in the benefits. Lefens hopes, in time, studies will show just how beneficial the program is, and verifiable data will generate more support.

A major reason A.R.T. is met with many skepticisms is because the artists never actually touch a paintbrush. Critics have questioned why a tracker simply canāt hold the artistās hand and paint together, so that the artist physically "paints."

Lefens cannot fathom this reasoning. "Whatās in their head is never going to come through their hand," he said. "No robots or computers are ever going to work for them, so why not forget all that and ask simple questions of where, what, and how much?" He compares the situation to a writer and secretary. "If a writer dictates a story to his secretary, and the secretary types it, who is the author of the story? The writer, of course."

"This is not traditional art therapy or recreation," said Lefens. "It is art, which is a critical means of self expression."

Isabell Villacis, 24, has been a student of A.R.T. for a year and a half, and is loving every minute of it. She recently had one of her paintings displayed at an A.R.T. gallery in Princeton, New Jersey. "I was looking for a way to express myself, and a friend told me about A.R.T.," she said. Ever since her first session with Lefens and four-year, veteran-tracker Jonathan Becon, sheās been hooked. Isabell plans to attend Middlesex County College this September to study graphic design.

Although many people along the way have been interested in beginning an ART program in their community, Lefens is very adamant on the idea that "everything be in place" before that happens. There needs to be a belief that the artists are really painting, not the notion that the community is doing something charitable. They need a network of people with disabilities, trackers trained by Lefens, funding (the most difficult barrier), and the media. If the artists are not able to showcase their work, then there might as well not be a program, because art is meant to be seen, according to Lefens. Itās as if they are speaking but no one is listening. If the art isnāt seen or appreciated, he believes that in no time the program will fall by the wayside.

Throughout his crusade to gain support for his breakthrough program, Lefens has gotten and held the support of a few influential people, including former governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, who also attended the gallery in Princeton. "Iām just amazed at what Timās been able to do," she said. "Itās really incredible."

Lefensā artists have blown away professionals and art students alike everywhere they go with their work, years and years of oppression finally released. He believes that the reason they are all good is that people with such severe disabilities are not easily distracted by the outside world; they can take an emotion and fixate on it, and translate it onto a canvas.

"One of the most beautiful and profound things in the world," he said, "is the liberation of people who never thought theyād be free."

Flying Colors: The Story of a Remarkable Group of Artists and the Transcendent Power of Art by Tim Lefens was published in 2002 by the Beacon Press, and was named a Readerās Digest Best Nonfiction Book of 2002. It is available through the EP Library,, item code HM1801GN, $25.00.


Communication is a two-way street. But when we think about communication and people with disabilities, we are too willing and ready to assume a lack of communication, and to blame that lack of communication on the person with disabilities rather than on ourselves. We find it easier to claim that the person with a disability cannot communicate with us rather than admitting we lack the determination and drive to seek to understand the methods of communication the person most likely is using to express her or his needs to us.

Tucker Lewis is one of our communication teachers. Tucker, 10, is also an artist. He does not communicate with words, but instead uses eye movements, facial expressions, and body language to answer questions, to make choices, and to express his opinions. These methods work well only with those people who are able to see beyond Tuckerās captivating smile.

The techniques of Artistic Realization Technologies have allowed Tucker to paint. He doesnāt use his hands, his feet, or the wheels of his wheelchair to apply paint to canvas. Tucker paints with his mind and his eyes and by choosing shapes, textures, and colors to match his vision. A.R.Tās techniques permit the artist with physical disabilities to assume total control of the creative process through the use of assistants, called trackers, who physically convey the artistās expressed choices to the chosen medium. Tucker expresses pleasure, displeasure, and choice through specific eye movements or body language developed over the past several years with the help of his family. His physical impairments limit his ability to hold a paintbrush, physically draw, or describe things with his limbs. Tucker chooses shapes and is able, using his form of "yes" and "no" responses, to tell trackers precisely where to put the shapes on the canvas. He can indicate the precise size of the shape, the thickness, the colors to be used, and the texture of the paint. He makes every decision. The tracker is trained, above all, to assume nothing. Those who have worked with him consistently express their amazement at how strongly Tucker is capable of expressing his preferences using the A.R.T. technique.

Well-meaning people over the years have tried to find other ways to bridge the cognition gap between people with disabilities and those who are trying to understand them. These efforts, commonly called facilitated communication, have met with varying degrees of success and equally varying degrees of skepticism. The form of facilitated communication that has received the most criticism involved hand-over-hand manipulation. The communication facilitator in the hand-over-hand methodology tries to mechanically respond to trace movements or other spontaneous muscular actions on the part of the communicator.

The A.R.T. technique is completely different from hand-over-hand manipulative communication, because it relies first upon a communication device between the artist and the tracker. While Tucker uses eye movements that indicate "yes" and "no," an artist using the A.R.T. technique can use any reliable yes/no indicator provided that it is clearly understood by the tracker. Trackers learn to act upon artistsā movements and choices only after receiving solid affirmation, as opposed to facilitated hand-over-hand manipulation that attempts to interpret all movements, whether the movements were deliberate or impulsive.

Artists control their choices of shapes, colors, and locations using the yes/no communication method with the trackers. Again, the key is effective, reflective communication of yes/no options, rather than reflexive or reactive responses to potential impulsive hand-over-hand movements. Patience is critical for both the artist and the tracker so that the artistās wishes and directions are clearly understood and implemented by the tracker. The critical yes/no question following each and every application of paint to canvas becomes, "Is this as you envision it?" If the answer is negative, the process must begin anew.

Tuckerās paintings, clearly a product of his creativity and his expression, have unleashed a self-awareness and self-assuredness that Tuckerās family never knew or expected they would see. We marvel at how easy it is easy to blame communication difficulties on the person with disabilities, rather than on ourselves, the perceivers. We commit the same sins with art by assuming people with disabilities lack the capacity for creative expression because we lack the ability to perceive the means by which they can express their creativity.

Tuckerās mother, Debi, describes the process as it existed for her in Tuckerās early years. She wrote:

"For so many of us, the brainwashing begins when our children are quite young, occasionally even before their birth. Diagnoses. Prognoses. Itās no wonder we learn to underestimate our children. After all, weāre bombarded with information regarding their potential (or lack thereof). We get it from the medical profession. Weāre fed it by educational experts. We go in search of it online or in libraries. We even get it from friends, family, and total strangers. Some of it is bound to stick. All of it, regardless of the intent with which it was delivered, limits our children."

Tucker has taught his mother and others that we must look for ways to improve our ability to understand communication, even as we seek ways and methods -- like the A.R.T. technique -- that help us to understand what others are attempting to communicate. Tucker has an irrepressible creative drive. The ART technique has been like reading glasses for the rest of us, in that it has permitted us to see Tuckerās creative abilities as Tucker feels them.

Tucker is telling us that he wants to be an artist. He already is an artist. If we have the strength to listen to him, and to believe in and accept his choice, we already are well positioned to help Tucker succeed as an adult in the same way that we help other children achieve their goals as adults. Tucker already is achieving some success and renown as an artist. His paintings have been sold to corporations and individuals for several hundred dollars per painting. These purchases are being made because it is good art, and because Tucker is a good artist.

Weāve heard it said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the journey to change our perceptions and our ability to understand others, single steps like the ART technique, and single people, like Tucker, produce the changes that make the thousand miles worth walking. Tucker is yet another example of the type of leader we all need to see and follow if we truly are to build the inclusive society we all dream of.