Express yourself!: A remarkable group of painters transcend challenges to find power and joy in art

December 29, 2012 8:09:29 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


In her world, Monica Herard may not enjoy the ability to dictate her day, a freedom most of us take for granted. But when in front of the canvas, she is finally in control, the creator of an imaginative, colorful vision that develops at her direction.  


Herard is one of 10 participants in the A.R.T. (Artistic Realization Techniques) program at the T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability on the Mississippi State University campus. Theirs is a story of courage and possibilities, of burgeoning self-confidence and increments of independence.  


The A.R.T. method, developed by Tim Lefens of Belle Mead, N.J., enables those who are physically challenged to create art with the assistance of an able-bodied "tracker." Sensitive and empathetic, trackers act as the artists' arms and hands. 


"But the artist is in control of everything -- the size of the canvas, every paint color choice, every mark on the painting. Everything about it is their decision," emphasized Judy Duncan, a tracker and case manager at the T.K. Martin Center.  


The result is a vibrant collection of self-expression that will be on display -- and for sale -- in "Express Yourself!," a show opening at the Columbus Arts Council's Rosenzweig Arts Center in downtown Columbus Thursday, Jan. 3. The public is invited to a free reception from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Arts Center at 501 Main St., to view the exhibit and meet the artists.  


"The magic of the art is when you meet the artist who created it," said Tina Sweeten, executive director of the Columbus Arts Council. "It's really inspiring to see that art is accessible to everybody, and we're very proud to bring this show." The exhibit has special meaning to Sweeten; she is a longtime friend of one of the artists, Mark Jones. 




Artists' perspective 


Many, but not all, of the exhibitors are non-verbal. All are in wheelchairs. Most live in the same group home adjacent to the Rolling Hills Developmental Center in Starkville.  


"When I started I thought art had to be a picture. I thought it had to look like something," said artist Ashley Bass Wednesday at the group home. Her voice was halting, but her thoughts clear. "It took me a long time to know that it can be anything I want ... it's just whatever comes out." 


The art program employs every sort of implement to apply paint to canvas, adding intriguing textures and interest to the process.  


Bass likes bubble wrap. 


"You paint on the bubble wrap and put it on the canvas and pop it," the 26-year-old explained. "I've used a turkey baster, too, and I know someone who's used corn on the cob." The broad list also includes sponges, brushes, hair rollers, horse shoes -- almost anything imaginable. 


Artist Thalamus Brown, 31, has been with the program since it was implemented about eight years ago. The monthly art outings are high on his list.  


"It's an outlet to express myself, to get my feelings out there," said Brown, whose physical limitations do not dampen his bright-eyed enthusiasm. He likes abstracts. "What it looks like just depends on what my mood is at the time. ... It would really be devastating if our art (sessions) ever had to stop; so many of us depend on it." 






Speech pathologist Laurie Craig has been on the T.K. Martin Center staff since 1999. She is also a tracker. 


"Trackers pretty much have to be a blank slate; you don't lead the artists," Craig stressed. "They've not had the opportunity to make many choices. This is their artwork, not ours -- you check yourself at the door." 


Non-verbal artists have distinct and individual means of communicating their wishes. Each has a recognizable "yes" or "no" response, Craig explained. Sometimes, communication is as straightforward as a gleaming face, or a frown. Each artist finds a voice through the canvas. 






Like Craig and Duncan, Marie Oswalt sees signs that the art program boosts participants' self-confidence and even independence. Oswalt is the support coordinator at the group home, where most of the artists reside. 


"Like Shannon (Herod), she writes poems now to go with some of her art. And Mark (Jones), he looks back at his painting like, 'I did this. It was me!'" Oswalt said, smiling. "And if they sell one, it's such a feeling of fulfillment. As Thalamus said one day when one of his paintings sold, 'It's good to make your own money.' 


When a painting sells, a portion goes to the artist, and a portion goes toward continuing the program, which is also supported by a modest Mississippi Arts Commission grant. 


Artists featured in the January exhibit include Ashley Bass, Thalamus Brown, Demetria Gilbert, Monica Herard, Shannon Herod, Terell Jenkins, Mark Jones, Candace Stephenson, Clinton White and Amanda Williams. Most will attend the opening reception Jan. 3. In memoriam, works by T.J. Bovastro and Martha Lipsey are also included in the exhibit. 


Brown, like his fellow artists, is eager for the show to open.  


"I'm always glad when other people come to look at the art," he smiled. "When other folks come, it makes me feel wonderful and good inside." 


Oswalt summed up well: "People often look at what they can't do. This is what they can do."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.