Unconventional art program offers creative outlet for the disabled (with video)

Unconventional art program offers creative outlet for the disabled (with video)

April 12th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Connie Wyatt paints an acrylic on canvas at Open Arms Care Chattanooga.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.


Through April 30, Open Arms is hosting an online fundraising campaign to raise $5,750 to cover the cost of the program's materials, all of which are provided free to its clients.

More information and one-time or recurring donation options are available at www.globalgiving.org/projects/help-our-oac-clients-create-art/


The paintings are available for sale from $50 to $500, and all proceeds are returned to the clients.

Amy Pinyan Rowe is the only certified "tracker" for A.R.T. at Open Arms. Her job is to translate a client's artistic vision onto canvas via brushstrokes following the path of the laser pointer's red dot.

Amy Pinyan Rowe is the only certified "tracker"...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Before she selects a single color or brush, artist Connie Wyatt dons an orange plastic poncho. When you're as fast as she is, the paint can literally start to fly, and a little protection is a necessary precaution.

But the piéce de résistance to her outfit? The laser pointer attached to her headband.

Wyatt has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair. She struggles with speaking and has severely limited use of her arms and hands. Thanks to Art Realization Technologies, an unconventional arts program for disabled persons, however, the laser pointer is the key to something all too rare in her life: freedom of expression.

"With the use of a laser, the world is their oyster; [our clients] can do what they want," explains Amy Pinyan Rowe, a program specialist at Open Arms Care, a nonprofit service provider for Wyatt and 63 others with various physical and mental disabilities.

"Every other moment in their world may be based on someone else's schedule -- what time they can eat or what time they can go to the movies," she adds. "Here in the art room, it's their time."

A.R.T. is a national nonprofit program developed by Tim Lefens, a New Jersey-based abstract painter and sculptor who was inspired to write a book, "Flying Colors," after visiting a classroom of students with disabilities in the early 1990s. His A.R.T. program since has been adopted by organizations around the country.

Last year, Rowe underwent training to become the only certified "tracker" at the Chattanooga Open Arms branch. Her job is to translate a client's artistic vision onto canvas via brushstrokes following the path of the pointer's red dot.

Although she attended art school, she doesn't express her opinions about a client's piece or question their decisions. The goal is to remain absolutely neutral, she says, an extension of the client's will. Even her clothing is uniformly white to avoid inadvertently influencing their decisions.

"It's not me painting. It's them painting," Rowe says. "I'm merely a vessel for them to work through."

Rowe runs biweekly sessions in the art studio of Open Arms' support office in Ooltewah. The paintings are available for sale from $50 to $500, and all proceeds generated are returned to the clients.

Artist Connie Wyatt, left, who has cerebral palsy, uses a laser pointer attached to a headband to direct Amy Pinyan Rowe, right, a program specialist at Open Arms Care, where to paint.

Artist Connie Wyatt, left, who has cerebral palsy,...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

The paintings, which predominantly are abstract, have been on display at shows around the state. They also have been featured in temporary and permanent exhibitions at local events and galleries, including Wine Over Water and the Mountain Arts Community Center.

Since the program started in 2007, about 180 paintings have been produced, generating about $10,000 for clients, but the program's primary benefit is raising awareness of the capabilities of Open Arms' clients, says development coordinator Rebecca Buxton.

"[They] are tied to all these labels," Buxton says. "A big part of what this program does is remove those labels for our clients and make them individuals. OK, Connie is in a wheelchair, but that's not who Connie is."

Building trust, opening eyes

Figuring out who Connie is and what she's capable of is an ongoing process, Rowe says. Wyatt has been painting since the A.R.T. program's inception and is one of Open Arms' "senior" artists. She and Rowe worked together during Rowe's certification as a tracker.

Rowe says that learning to intuit what Wyatt and other clients want is as much about asking questions as it is about building a rapport and learning to interpret nonverbal cues, some as subtle as opening an eye or gesturing with a foot.

"It's truly about trust," Rowe says. "It really is an individualized, one-on-one relationship."

From her chair, Wyatt alternates between grinning widely and focusing fiercely on directing Rowe's brush strokes by moving the laser pointer across the canvas. During their three-hour session, Rowe asks a seemingly neverending series of questions:

"Do you want me to use this side of the brush or the other side?"

"Do I have enough paint, or do I need more?"

"Is this consistency exactly right?"

The flood of queries is designed to give clients the maximum amount of control over the process, Rowe says. As a result, if a mistake is made, clients understand that Rowe was simply following their direction.

Providing an outlet for pent-up emotions has been a boom for Open Arms. After adopting the A.R.T. program, the agency saw a dramatic reduction in outbursts and self-injuries among its clients, says Steven Johnston, who was day services director when the program was implemented and now serves as quality assurances director.

But Buxton says she measures the success of the program by a less-tangible standard.

"One of the goals of this organization is for our clients to feel like they're not as limited because of their disabilities," she says. "Every day, we deal with some kind of limitation, but through this program, they're not limited."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.