Liberating Disabled Artists

Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on October 5, 2008
Warren Westura Using a headband-mounted laser, Lee Papierowicz (left) directs his "tracker," or assistant, in applying paint to canvas.

When artist Tim Lefens visited a residential rehabilitation center in New Jersey 16 years ago to show some of his work, he was stunned by the residents multiple physical disabilities.

"I saw people in wheelchairs with flailing limbs they couldn't control. People strapped to vertical stretchers," recalls Lefens, 54, of Belle Mead, N.J. "But when I sat down to share my art, my life was changed by the look I saw in their eyes. It was so intense and alive."

That visit was the impetus of Artistic Realization Technologies (A.R.T.), a program that provides instruction and assistance to disabled artists, and even leads to showcases of some of their work in art galleries. "For people with little control over their lives, it gives them choices," Lefens says. "It liberates the spirit."

Although he had never taught before, Lefens volunteered to offer an art class at the rehabilitation center. He then spent sleepless nights trying to imagine how students could create a painting if they couldn't talk or even hold a brush.

Today, Lefens' students wear headbands with attached lasers that show assistants, called trackers, precisely where and how to apply paint to a canvas. The students also indicate yes or no to choices in color, texture, size and brush type as a painting is created, one brushstroke at a time.

Lefens likens the artists to architects who direct builders.

Early on, Lefens remembers introducing the system to a 9-year-old girl, Nicole, after she'd intently watched others paint. She said to me, "La-la-la-laser," Lefens recalls. An aide later told him Nicole didn't talk. "I said, 'She does now.' It was just that no one had asked her about anything she really wanted."

Lefens created A.R.T. in 1995 and wrote about it in an award-winning book, Flying Colors. Today, the nonprofit organization has more than 20 programs nationwide that allow people with severe physical disabilities to master sculpture, music and photography. It is funded in part with seed money from famed abstract artist Roy Lichtenstein, one of Lefens' mentors.

"I can get out what I feel and what I think," says Isabell Villacis, 28, one of Lefens' students from South Bound, N.J. Villacis is confined to a wheelchair and has limited used of her arms and legs. When asked what she explores in her artwork, Villacis says: "My happiness."

But Villacis' work is not merely disability art or even art therapy. She, like a number of Lefens students, has sold her paintings and had them displayed in shows at the Newark Museum, ABC World Headquarters Gallery, the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art and various Manhattan galleries.

"Tim's pioneering experiments with apparently dysfunctional subjects will truly astound the viewer by their originality and creativity despite their various handicaps," says Sam Hunter, art critic for the New York Times and a former art history professor at Princeton University.

"One of my guys, Chip, is so extremely physically challenged he is almost on a flatbed," Lefens says. "He painted this beautiful piece that two collectors had a tug of war over and eventually sold to former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman."

Another Lefens student, nicknamed Beanie, pays the rent for her and her mother from the sale of her paintings.

Ironically, Lefens became a teacher for the disabled soon after learning of his own disabling condition, a hereditary degeneration of the retina, which has left him legally blind. But while his own sight has dimmed, his vision for what a student—especially one with extreme physical limitations—can accomplish shines ever brighter.

"They may be on the bottom rung, but in 10 minutes of painting they are freed up," he says. "When they are expressing themselves, they feel they don't have any limits."