Art transforms the lives of a group of profoundly disabled individuals, in this serviceable account by the man who devised techniques to assist them.
After learning he has retinitis pigmentosa, abstract artist Lefens is asked by his doctor to give a talk about his work to students at the Matheny School in New Jersey. They have a variety of disabilities, but none can walk or use their hands. Lefens, disturbed by what he sees as the staff’s condescending attitude toward their charges, decides to return and teach an art class, taking the students’ special needs into consideration. They begin with wheelchair painting: laying canvas on the floor, covering it with a thick coat of paint and then a sheet of plastic so students can drive onto the canvas, using their chairs as a sort of paint brush. They move on to laser headgear, which enables the artists to realize their vision more clearly by indicating precisely where the paint should go; an able-bodied assistant follows the laser’s path and applies the paint. For the institutionalized students, this class represents their first chance at self-expression, and both they and Lefens are hooked. After years of hard work, the artists are rewarded with a New York show and featured in a documentary. The publicity, however, has repercussions; after repeated clashes with school administrators, Lefens is asked to leave. He goes on to found Artistic Realization Technologies (A.R.T.) and begins working with a variety of schools and organizations for the disabled across the country. Lefens isn’t a captivating writer, but he gets the point across, including as a sidelight a brief history of Abstract Expressionism. This would have benefited from including some of the artists’ images; readers are directed to A.R.T.’s Web site, where a few of the works mentioned in the text are shown.
A vivid reminder that one teacher truly can make a difference.