Very Special Arts: Exploring Creativity with Special Needs Children

Murray, KY – 5 year old Garrison Kelly out shouts a small group of kids crammed together for a photo in Murray State University's Curris Center Art Gallery. As he grins proudly, his artwork hangs at the end of the room. It's a simple fish, drawn by the little boy in shaky black marker and painted with the help of artist Debbi Henry Danielson. Danielson directs Side-by-Side, a program that has allowed Kelly and other special needs children to experience art. His mother, Lorie, says he still asks her to drive him to art class even though the program has ended.

"It's wonderful to see what they can do and for other people to realize that these kids can do. And, they can do anything they want to do just like any child."

Sponsored by the state Very Special Arts organization, the program works with about 10 students per year, taking them through five weeks of art instruction. Danielson says they make several projects and dabble in various mediums, giving the children plenty of opportunities for self-expression. At the end of the program, Danielson pairs each child with a local artist to work on a collaborative piece.

"It's just really different working one-on-one because you can really have an opportunity to talk, to listen and to collaborate ideas."

Fifteen year-old Destiny Owsley developed an affinity for photography. At the exhibit, she flips through a cardboard-bound book of the work she amassed with the help of Murray State photography student Stacey Reason.

"I shot pictures of grass and, like, different angles of grass. Flowers - and then I moved the camera so it's, like, all blurry. And, my artist, we were walking and she took a picture of my back while I was walking."

Reason, Owsley's partner, was one of the few artists to work with students throughout the five-week duration of the program. She also helped Danielson plan this year's curriculum, which included a study of self-portraits.

"I was really excited that there was an opportunity for kids with special needs to get some special attention and also in an environment that supports their needs but also gives them an open environment to be creative in."

Reason says the program not only gives her a chance to work with special needs children, but it allows her to rediscover why she fell in love with art. She says the photographs she prepares for her classes force her to concentrate heavily on the concept and meaning of her pieces. But spending time with Destiny reminded her of what it was like simply to enjoy a day outside with a camera and a couple rolls of film.

"I think that she reminded me to have fun with taking pictures. I just love having a younger pupil to, kind of, guide through not only how to take a shot but what to take a shot of, so it was a really fun experience."

Danielson says she tried to pair students and artists based on their common interests and abilities. They worked together in everything from sculpture to photography to mixed media, creating colorful pieces that now dot the walls of the Curris Center art gallery. One of the director's favorite pieces of work is a collage hanging near the entrance. 15 year-old Alexis Cain made the project with her mentor. Danielson told the artist that the girl loved fashion and the color pink, so Cain's mentor showed up bearing sheets of pink paper in an array of shades and patterns.

"They used all that pink, patterned paper to collage a beautiful dress form, and there's a tape measure - a sewing tape measure - hanging around the collar, and 15 is circled on it because the girl is 15 years-old. It was just a delightful piece, and it's so much about her."

VSA state director Jenny Miller says the programs success can be judged by a recent award it received from the organization's national headquarters. VSA chapters in other states have also started to replicate the program. Miller hopes to expand it to include other artforms such as music, drama and story-telling. For now, it will continue to deal solely with visual art, letting children explore their own thoughts and feelings through paint and plaster. Yet, judging from the pride with which each child displayed their work, Side-by-Side has offered special needs students more than an outlet for self-expression.