vsa VSA arts

In 2002, VSA arts and Volkswagen of America, Inc. launched "Expressing Freedom," a call for art which encouraged young artists with disabilities to contemplate freedom in their lives. The resulting 131 submissions demonstrated that freedom does not always refer to an external state, but as reflected by an abundance of self-portraits received, can be more intimate, quite internal or personal.

Over 20,000 calls for entries were sent to high schools and colleges around the country inviting submissions by young artists with disabilities, ages 16 to 25, to illustrate the theme "Expressing Freedom." Ten Finalists will be awarded a total of $25,000 provided by Volkswagen of America, Inc. The contents of this exhibit were developed under a grant from the Department of Education.

VSA arts, an international nonprofit organization founded in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith, promotes education and lifelong learning opportunities in the arts for people with disabilities. Nearly five million people participate in VSA arts programs annually–many of which are sponsored by a worldwide network of affiliate organizations. VSA arts programs in music, dance, drama, creative writing and the visual arts develop learning skills, encourage independence, and promote access and inclusion.

Matthew Krawcheck

Three Self-Portraits mixed media on illustration board (39" x 16")

"I live in a world in which spoken language is muted and indistinct. As a child, I discovered that pictures allowed me to experience what I could not hear, my own drawings allowed me to express what I could not say. Visual art gave me the freedom to communicate with an intensity and precision that broke through the frustration of acquiring language."

Matthew Krawcheck, who has Asperger's syndrome, attended public school magnet art programs since the fifth grade. Slow at processing oral and written language, he learned to turn this challenge into an advantage. The extra time he spends on a problem, whether practical, academic, or within his art, gives him the freedom to explore unexpected connections that might be missed by someone who absorbs information more quickly. A few years ago, he began to incorporate unique textures and found objects to add depth and intensity to his pieces. As a result, his paintings emerge in layers beginning with the choice of canvas (an old car door, a pegboard left in a trash pile, etc.) and progress through the base coat and textures to painted images. Of this technique, he articulates,

"This mirrors the way talents and skills, relationships, and experiences, are continually overlaid to create an understanding of the world, each new layer enriching, but never completely eclipsing what came before." Matthew recently graduated from the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida, and will continue his studies at the Kansas City Art Institute this fall.

Carrie Wheeler
Pulling up a Dose watercolor (10 1/2" x 14.5")

"Painting is an escape from living with my disabilities. It is the physical release from the bi-polar disorder, allowing my emotions to drain on to a canvas. It is a mental exercise for multiple sclerosis, making me continually think. I feel a drive to create, to overcome the disability."

Carrie Wheeler attended the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan in 1995, and Schoolcraft College in Livona, Michigan from 1996 to 2001. She was afforded almost no art education as a child, yet eventually decided to teach art. "Now as a teacher for home schooled children, I find myself in the position of the student again." Wheeler uses watercolor as a medium because it is easy to transport and dries fast. She also incorporates water-soluble pens and purposefully allows them to bleed into the paint. Her work is intended to evoke a mood, and she is less interested in a realistic portrayal. "My self-portraits are created when I am able to find a moment of beauty and hope in myself and in my daily struggle." Primarily self-taught in art, she continues to pursue her creativity on her own.

Ashley Youkilis

Wonder b/w photograph (8" x 10")

"My creative process is able to proceed without my learning disability interrupting it. Dealing with a learning disability all my life, I have always been cast lower than others, pitied, or done worse than my peers. But in art, I can compete on an equal playing field and excel past those who can read better or faster or even spell all their words correctly."

Ashley Youkilis enjoys showing the soul of her subjects through photography. She comments, "I feel through my black and white photographs, the viewer can see into the soul of the picture and indirectly into my soul." Ashley's goal is to be a fashion photographer. "Art is a large part of my life. It enters into almost every decision I make; composition, sensitivity, creative thinking all factor into all my classes and they are all skills I have learned in art." Ashley will be starting her senior year at Wyoming High School in Ohio.

Dana Liebermann
Lapse Into Reflex I medium formate C-print (9 1/2" x 9 5/8")

"In the space of these photographs I am able to control my illness, as I now believe my illness only lives in memory, as does any psychological rumination. Because the fear, pain and loss accompanied by any disability is no different from that which all people must at one point pass through, it is important to me that this work and its future offspring surpass the limits of my cancer."

Dana Liebermann, who is in remission from Hodgkin's disease, began photography classes at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1996. This photograph is part of a series of five photographs that are a direct reference and testament to her cancer. The photographs are meant to function in two ways. First, they are meant to reference medical photographs. This is achieved by using a metallic surface as a backdrop and a shallow depth of field so that the body takes on an object-like quality. Second, they are meant to be seductive, as reflected in the pastel palette and cinematic execution. Liebermann conveys, "The duality that is here created between medicine, which is associated with the absolute and unalterable truth, and image, which is associated with the subjective and the always relative, is meant to create ambiguity." Dana will be a sophomore this fall at New York University, Steinhardt School of Education, in the Department of Art. She is pursuing a bachelor's degree in studio art.

Timothy Batten

Sunday Afternoon oil on canvas (30" x 38")

"Each piece I create shows the freedom of people, the freedom they have to experience, and my freedom to create and show that experience, that moment."

Timothy Batten, who is legally blind, is able to accomplish his artwork through the use of dark contacts and biocular glasses. "I find it ironic that I am legally blind, but I am still very much a visually artistic person. I really don't look at myself as having a disability." He was encouraged to practice art by his uncle and grandfather, who are both professional artists. Timothy prefers using a variety of media to achieve different feelings. "Instead of having my work focus on the individual person, I wanted to use the people in the painting as an artistic device that could be used to help create a moment," says Timothy. Moving the viewer through the picture plane, he attempts to capture them within a moment of observation, where they are unable to look away. Timothy is a freshman at the School of Visual Arts in New York where he is majoring in computer animation.

Justin Duffus
The Sixth Plane oil on canvas (48" x 48")

"This is a painting of a gray box, the box of limitations. Since beginning to paint I have seen the sixth plane of that box become more and more transparent for the viewer. I have been able to reveal myself and connect with people through this sixth plane, which is now transparent."

Justin Duffus' interest in art began in the third grade as a form of escape in the private school he was attending. The arts gave him a form of recognition and satisfaction that he was not receiving for academics. For twelve years, he struggled with required schooling due to a learning disability. The dependence on language in the form of words left him feeling isolated and alone. For Justin, "Art has become my language. It has set me free from this isolation." Now, strong connections for him are possible. "I am able to communicate with the viewer and incorporate the viewer's experiences into mine. I feel there is an unspoken understanding between us."

William Ferguson
Studio Antics mixed media (22" x 16")

"Using art to communicate, I concentrate on observation and having fun, not rigid rules and logic. With art I am free to express myself through it using the world around me as my guide. It is also forgiving and mistakes can always be corrected."

William Ferguson, who has Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit disorder, was placed in a self-contained special education classroom where his teacher encouraged him to draw to assist in learning academics. He continued art classes throughout grade and middle schools, exploring a variety of techniques and media. Fascinated by cartoons, William often created his own characters and situations. He applied this interest by joining the staff of the school newspaper as a political cartoonist. "Through education and my gift of art, I have found the freedom to express myself without limitations." William will be a freshman this fall at the Ringling School of Art and Design, Sarasota, Florida where he will pursue a BFA in illustration.



More stories from The John C. McGinley issue:

John C. McGinley Interview

UCP Interview with New CEO Stephen Bennett

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