By Susan Abdulezer
| 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 ...
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.
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.'"
THE A.R.T. C3D: ANOTHER DIMENSION
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.
SOUND AND LIGHT
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
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.
LIGHT AND POWER
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?"