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A·R·T Press

Inner Light
By Susan Abdulezer
June-July 2002
In June '99, we featured Tim Lefens' brilliant program to assist the immobile in painting. Here we revisit Lefens and the extraordinary artists he has come to know as
men, women and children ...
Editor's Note: In 1992, Tim Lefens was a visiting artist in a classroom for the severely handicapped with the intent to inspire them with his own art. Instead, it was Lefens who was inspired by their untapped potentials, and never stopped doing more to unleash their passions. In June '99, we featured his brilliant program to assist the immobile in painting. Three years after that article, and on the 10th anniversary of his initial impetus, Lefens continues his magical mission to bring out the very best in others, expanding into other mediums with the same fervor.

Between white light and its absence, there is endless nuance of color, shade, hue, radiance and glow. Each sliver is different, but each reflects light and absorbs light; actions that vary only in magnitude. What makes them different is just what makes them the same. And that's just how Tim Lefens, abstract painter and founder of Artistic Realization Technologies (A.R.T.), views the extraordinary artists he has come to know -- men, women and children whose physical or intellectual spectrum is narrower than most, but who luminesce just the same. Or better.

"Inside a limited set of connections are unlimited possibilities," Lefens explained, "If you have white and black on either side of the intellectual spectrum and you have gradients all the way through. At one end is genius, someone who can think of the most complex thing. And at the other end is someone who can only handle the simplest things. Extremes. But even if that spectrum is circumscribed, yes means yes to everyone, and no is no, and pleasure, and work, are universal. So, you have to give up on this idea that, because they can't do other things, therefore they don't share these universals."


Since 1992, Lefens has worked with individuals who cannot walk, cannot move their arms, may not be able to speak or breathe easily, and who may only be able to move a finger or turn their heads. Lefens, joined by colleagues Mary Beth Hill and John Becan, uses an uncompromisingly neutral technique to help these immobile artists to paint ("A.R.T.: Shining the Light" June 1999). Shown boards of paint daubs, the artists indicate, by any means possible, "yes" or "no" to each minute aesthetic choice of color, texture, size, density or other parameters that invest a painting with its physical and spiritual expression. In strict response to each discrete choice, Hill and Becan act as neutral tools -- they are referred to as "trackers" -- they put paint on the canvas, locating the placement of each stroke, splatter or dot by following a laser light attached to a headband worn, and controlled, by each artist. Like the British Army heliographers who sent codes from remote mountaintops with reflecting mirrors, Lefens'artists reveal their secrets by communicating through light.

The pieces produced are resplendent. Shown at the ABC World Headquarters Gallery, the Newark Museum, ARTWORKS Gallery and Rutgers University School of Visual Art Gallery, among other venues, they are collected on their own merits, beyond the label of "disabilities art." In addition, variants of Lefens' technique -- which riled some purists because the artists never themselves physically engage in painting -- has won acclaim when used by famous artists without disabilities, as evidenced by the Guggenheim Museum, which mounted a major show of work by the conceptual painter Sol LeWitt who simply directs others as to where to place the paint.


For Lefens' painters, this technique is more than a valid art form. It is often the only way out of a marginalized life in which physical barriers are compounded by institutional and social stigma -- a stigma that further confines already hampered personalities, making them seem beyond connection, almost infantile, vegetative, lost.

One woman, Sheila, recently made the long journey out of isolation and detachment -- the difficult reconnection of a woman to her own will -- through painting. Perhaps because they are both artists, and can make their own inner light visible, Lefens and Hill simply believed Sheila, a woman in her thirties, long institutionalized, could respond to their techniques.

"When Sheila would come in to the studio all she'd really say was, 'Baby doll, baby doll, I want a dolly.'" recalled Hill. I knew that she was in there, hiding out," said Lefens." The only approach that was worth anything was to treat her like the young woman that she really was, a normal person. I said, 'Sheila, you know, you're wasting your time. Are you going to watch, or are you going to paint?' So she vegetated one week, she watched the next week. About four to five weeks passed when an attendant said to her -- not expecting an answer: 'How's your painting?' Sheila spoke. 'I didn't do nothin'.'" The following week, they fitted Sheila with a laser and taught her the yes/no technique. Now she paints for two hours at a time. "That's huge," said Lefens. "Now she can't stop -- and she's talking like the lady next door. 'Tim,' she said the other day, 'I think I've been here too long.' It had been a year since she begged for a 'baby doll.'"


Recalling a decade of work -- with over 200 students, pre-school to adult, in facilities spanning New Jersey, California, Florida, Illinois and Virginia using lasers, trackers and electronic switches to signal yes and no -- Lefens wondered at the consistent success of his approach. "It's really miraculous. The systems work. It's more amazing to me now than it was 10 years ago, in that it works all the time, with everyone -- deeply. It's just a powerful system. So powerful that we pushed on to sculpture."

Using a motorized device called a C3D, consisting of Plexiglas mounted on an aluminum base, you can raise and lower a sculpture from the floor to as high as five feet -- an invaluable perspective for a dimensional artist. Atop the Plexiglas is a switch-activated turntable. Using a finger or manipulating a pointer, the artist can tap a switch and rotate their piece. While the tracker still builds the piece with strict approval from the artist, the switch technology extends a capability, a freedom to alter a view, correct a perspective or develop a dimensional idea that these artists would not ordinarily have. One nascent sculptor, upon tapping a switch, saw her piece turn. She screamed -- a mix of delight and power. "That's the beginning of more sophisticated sculpture," said Lefens.

Not stopping at visual arts, Lefens knew there was music locked inside his students, and he intended to adapt his techniques to include composing. In his first attempt, he recruited a young woman, Natalia Manning, who managed to tap out a tune on a portable keyboard and compose lyrics. The song, "I Don't Have to Change," was then farmed out to professional musicians. Said Lefens, "Natalia wrote it, the Maggie Hill Band recorded it, and it really rocks."

Manning could tap real keys. But most of
Lefens' students can only move their head slightly. He needed a different strategy to capture their music. However, the device he imagined, an instrument that could be played by aiming beams of light to trigger musical sounds, had not yet been invented. In search of help, Lefens approached labs, display companies and engineering firms, asking, "Can you make something that plays the keyboard through light?"

After three years of searching, he met Christopher Wheeler, a master of electronics, metalwork and glassblowing. Wheeler developed the Light Actuated Synthesizer (LASSY) by fashioning a cluster of photoreceptor disks mounted on slender rays of metal arranged in a circle, a beautiful light-catching mandala. Using the LASSY, you can set rhythms and tempos for 75 different instruments by choosing combinations of "keys." "Each photoreceptor is tied to a key on a keyboard," Lefens explained, "so when you strike it with light, it's like a finger hitting a note." For someone with limited motion, a head-mounted laser controls the sound choice and sequence. When the right combination is reached, a tracker could record the music.

The prototype Wheeler designed is impressive. In a darkened room, Lefens demonstrates its power by shining a small flashlight on a series of diodes. Sometimes it produces a sustained French horn; a disordered beep, clank or tinkle; or an entire percussive orchestra, but always in response to light settling, glancing off of, or shimmering on the surface of mirrored disks.

A restless thinker, Lefens is already conceiving of the next generation LASSY, a larger, simplified instrument with a scale of no more than one full octave. Holding up his hands to frame an imaginary lens, Lefens attempts to describe his newly conceived "keyboard." Each note would be a mirror made of four angled segments attached to a square, reflective center, like an inverted pyramid with a flat top. The photoreceptor would sit in the flat area of the pyramid. This way the device would be generous enough to round up each stray head-mounted laser beam and herd it toward its target diode, making composition easier and less frustrating for unsteady musicians.


Lefens doesn't have to push his students to become serious about their work. In some cases, the choice is stark: art or oblivion. While the effect of A.R.T. systems yields personalities reborn through a slow, aesthetic gestation, it also yields superb art. "We are looking for product," said Lefens. "This is not process. You can't transcend the material, which is the definition of art, without having the material. The whole game is to leap beyond the material world and to bring you somewhere else. There's no way that an unknown person in an institution can connect with a hotshot who owns a turbo Porsche, living seaside in California. They'll never share anything. But when you have a painting that is the quality of their spirit, and that painting is sold, and sent to California for the pleasure of its viewing, it's just an exchange of power, right?"