No Matter the Obstacles, Artists Can Still Create
I’ve been drawing most of my life. At three years old, I started drawing recognizable things like bunnies and Winnie-the-Pooh. I remember the amazing feeling I got from expressing important things in my life. There was such joy in sharing; it was a form of communication that I couldn’t put into words at the time. Art felt like home and it felt like love.
Art has also helped me find passage throughout life. I went the scholarly route and got an M.F.A. in painting. I learned about art history and constructive critiques and how to always strive to evolve my work based on past and present art movements. Early on, I worked many different professional art jobs, such as art teacher and showing artist. However, with the coming of family and the need for a 9-to-5 day, I eventually found myself beginning a permanent position as an art teacher at a progressive arts studio. This was over 25 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
A progressive arts studio is a term used for community day programs that focus on the visual and performing arts development and vocational learning of adult artists with intellectual disabilities. These artists have an undeniable passion for the arts. Many are self-taught or have limited formal education in their art fields. Coming from a background of higher learning in the arts was helpful as I began to teach artists with disabilities. I soon found that students of all levels were able to take pieces of my education and expand on them.
My students expressed awe and joy as they experienced various mediums and techniques. I cherished watching the vibrant responses of visual artists as they shared their pieces with friends and strangers alike and performing arts students as they sang for the first time to an audience or held a familiar instrument like a friend. All of these experiences triggered memories of my own early delight watching the magic happen as paint stained the canvas and feelings and thoughts turned into lines.
Within the program, I saw sophisticated, sometimes raw, and authentic works created every day. Although these individuals sometimes had additional physical, cultural and learning challenges, I observed over and over how present and invested they each were in connecting and expressing themselves through their work.
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One of my students left an indelible impression on me when I heard of the harrowing event that left him with a traumatic brain injury at the age of four. I’d come to know this student later in his life, and this artist’s mother told me that although he had trouble with traditional modes of learning, by the age of seven, he had learned the basics of music. At his first recital at the age of 17, he played the second movement from Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from memory. As soon as he entered the program, he auditioned and became part of the program’s rock band. He had realized a dream and found his connection. I watch him now as he remains hyper-focused in rehearsals and becomes wholly energized when playing live.
I’ve been lucky enough to see this level of commitment and dedication with many of the artists I’ve worked with over the years and it never fails to inspire. As creatives in this world of high-demand production, I think this really speaks to always keeping in sight the passion and love you have for your craft.
Another student opened my mind’s eye to letting the artwork direct you, just like I had when I was younger. This came about when I asked him what he thought about a beautiful painting he had created called “Playfulness.” He answered that enjoying life was what playfulness was all about. He told me that when he starts a painting, he doesn’t title it, rather preferring to keep it open, looking at it and exploring how he felt about the piece before tilting it. What especially resonated with me was that pure emotion guided his choices.
Embracing playfulness can have a profound influence on ourselves and our work. Many times, I’ve found that playfulness has led to viewing myself and my work from a new perspective; it’s allowed me to hold my attention longer with boring activities, making them more interesting. From time to time, it’s helped me relook at circumstances to make them more entertaining or less stressful.
Through knowing remarkable artists like these, I am now a raging advocate and lover of all art and music from all levels of creators, regardless of where you fall on the neuro-spectrum. It is a gift to see the passion and value in each precious artistic communication.
For all of us leaders and creatives, exploring and supporting artists with disabilities is a chance to learn about and celebrate a different culture. It’s an opportunity to strengthen our whole community by including everyone. Start in your local community and research progressive arts studios or studios that feature the works of artists with disabilities. Consider volunteering your time to assist with local programing or meeting up with and talking to the artists. Research the hundreds of inspiring artists with disabilities who are currently working, and go out and support these artists — maybe buy their work. Let others know about them too.
In the end, I’ve gained far more from teaching artists with disabilities than any M.F.A. could teach me. I’ve experienced the love of making art again and learned that no matter the obstacles, you still create.