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A·R·T Press

A.R.T. provides creative tools for disabled
Monday, August 03, 2009
Krystal Knapp


PRINCETON BOROUGH - Dennis Bernhardt spends his morning in a small art studio on the campus of Princeton University, his wheelchair propped in front of a computer, his eyes scanning the screen for just the right image.

He moves his head, and along with it, the red laser attached to the center of his forehead, shining the light on one of more than two dozen directions on a list in front of him. "Zoom in," he commands by aiming the light on the words, followed by "Move right" and "Walk forward."

Sitting next to him, Darren McManus uses a cell phone to give the instructions to Ray D'Andrade, who stands outside on Nassau Street with a large Nikon digital camera rigged to relay what is in its field of vision to the art studio computer via a program called Skype.

Bernhardt keeps pointing the laser to the instructions "look up" and "raise camera angle." D'Andrade moves accordingly, and the picture on the computer screen changes from streetscape to clouds.

"Is that what you want?" McManus asks, and Bernhardt nods yes.

After a few minutes of scanning the clouds, his eyes flash and he points to the words "This is it!" and "Take picture.

Everyone is surprised to see that he caught a tiny airplane in the frame, which they agree could make for some interesting art. Bernhardt later names the resulting photograph, a miniature plane approaching giant swirling clouds against a backdrop of bright blue sky, "Good Sister."

The photograph is one more piece of art Bernhardt can add to the collection of artwork he has created through A.R.T., a nonprofit that provides the severely physically challenged with new tools and technologies for creativity.

The A.R.T. photography program, called Flying Eye, allows those who cannot walk, talk or use their hands to direct a remote camera anywhere in the world, allowing the artists to explore places while creating art.

For Tim Lefens, the executive director of A.R.T. (which stands for Artistic Realization Technologies), the Flying Eye and his other endeavors are about providing the physically challenged artist with total creative control.

This concept of allowing the physically challenged person to make all the creative decisions, he says, is a paradigm shift, a shift not everyone has accepted.

Total creative control, he stresses, does not mean the artist physically has to mimic what he refers to as "abled-bodied" artists. In other words, it is not the press of the camera button that makes a photo; it is the vision of the artist, what they see, what they feel and want to express that makes a photo or painting art. The artist telling someone when to snap the picture is akin to a writer dictating a book to a secretary, he says.

"It's all about the product, not the physical process," says Lefens, whose voice becomes a mix of anger, frustration and sadness when talks about other art programs for the physically challenged that focus on the act of clicking the camera button. In one program that he finds particularly patronizing, artists in wheelchairs are placed in front of a scene and they take a picture of the image already set up for them by pulling a feather trigger.

"This is not OK," says Lefens. "These are not robots or pets; these are people full of creative potential. We want them to act like us, but their bodies don't work well. Their power is from inside. My job is not to interfere with that."

Lefens, an abstract artist who is gradually losing his own eyesight because of a progressive condition called retinitis pigmentosa, began working with the physically challenged in the early 1990s. He was asked to show slides to residents at the Matheny School and Hospital in Peapack-Gladstone, a facility for children and adults with medically complex disabilities. The experience of connecting with people he saw as having so many emotions bottled up inside, but with no outlet for expression, prompted him to create an art program at the school.

First, he devised a program where students painted with their wheelchairs, rolling the wheels over paint and canvas. They eventually became bored, prompting Lefens to find new ways for them to express themselves. He then came up with the idea of the physically challenged using lasers to direct where paint is put on a canvas. The result: The artists eventually showed their work at galleries in New Jersey and Manhattan, with attendees sometimes reacting in shock when they realized the artist was the person with cerebral palsy in the wheelchair next to them.

Since then, Lefens has constantly been on the lookout for new ways to help people express themselves creatively. When he is not working away on one of his own paintings in his home studio in Belle Mead, he is thinking up innovations for A.R.T., which now includes a music program and the Flying Eye photography project.

The A.R.T. artists began shooting photographs in a painting studio they work in, then moved to the streets of Princeton, then to Disney world, where artist Lee Cramer Papierowicz, 13, directed the camera from 1,060 miles away in Princeton.

The Flying Eye project is made possible through grants from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Hyde and Watson Foundation, the Bunbury Company Foundation, the Kessler Foundation and Princeton University. The university has donated studio space at the Lewis Center for the Arts, and photographs from the project will exhibited at the university art museum in January 2010.

Because of funding cuts in the tough economy, the project is now on hold for the rest of the summer and will restart in the fall. Meanwhile, Lefens will continue to look for more funding sources.

Lefens stresses again and again to the artists that they are in charge.

"I love these people so much, and I want people to understand what they can do, what is inside them," he says. "They have all this pent-up energy and emotion that is just amazing. These are the people I want to hang out with because of art."

As he speaks, Bernhardt uses the laser to direct cameraman D'Andrade outside to walk forward more. Finally, D'Andrade explains that if he goes any further, he will walk right into the middle of the street.

Bernhardt gasps with laughter, his head bobbing side to side, and the others laugh with him. Then it is back to work, and he zooms right in.

For more information about A.R.T., visit