From her wheelchair, Kristen Martin held a laser and pointed to various locations on the canvas to indicate where she wanted painted splattered next. Her tracker, as they’re called, is Mary Lynn Nelson, the dedicated volunteer who brought this painting program to Easterseals Arkansas. The two were preparing a piece of art to be auctioned at the 14th annual Art & Soul fundraiser, where Martin is the featured artist.
For more than 70 years, Easterseals Arkansas has been a resource for people with disabilities and their families. Its mission is to provide exceptional services to ensure that all people with disabilities or special needs have equal opportunities to live, learn, work and play in their communities.
A.R.T., an acronym for Artistic Realization Technologies, provides hands-on creative expression for children and adults who have limited use of their arms and hands. Artists like Martin work with trackers via a laser attached to a headpiece or other methods of communication to create a unique painting. Martin has the use of her arms and hands so she simply holds the laser and points where she wants paint thrown or placed next.
A.R.T. originally was developed by Tim Lefens in New Jersey. Nelson had read about the program in the 1990s in an edition of Reader’s Digest. “I was never able to get it out of my head, and when the time was right I introduced it to Easterseals,” she says.
This year marks the seventh that volunteers have worked with Easterseals artists to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces. “Tim is blind and he came here to train us. From the lighting to the tools, everything is set up how he designed it,” Nelson says.
Nelson and other trackers become the hands and arms of the artists, taking directives from them to make the piece as visualized by the artist.
On this particular day, Martin says she was in the mood for something bold and bright. “Sometimes I come to my session with a vision of what I want and sometimes not,” explains Martin, who has been an Easterseals client since she was a baby.
After she picked her color palette of orange, blue and green, Martin gave direction to Nelson and Nelson’s dedicated volunteer sidekicks, Kathy Cobb and Ginger Couch. At one point, Martin stopped and stared at her piece, joking, “Oh now you all are just standing there waiting on my indecision.”
Martin, who has been painting since January of 2013, says she loves the freedom it gives her to express herself. When she’s not painting, the taekwondo black belt says she enjoys watching movies, reading and knitting.
There’s an apparent sense of camaraderie among Martin and the volunteer trackers. In this fun environment at Easterseals’ Center for Training and Wellness, it would be hard for artist and volunteer not to become friends.
“If there wasn’t a fun factor, we wouldn’t be here,” Couch says. More importantly, though, the volunteers work with artists for the gratifying results. “It’s so rewarding to be able to give these artists the freedom to create,” she says.
One of the key things volunteers have to keep in mind, Cobb notes, is not to “baby them,” but treat them like a person. “You can’t be passive and have to be direct to help them create their vision on the canvas.”
Nelson adds that if someone can gesture yes and no, they can paint through A.R.T. “The hardest part is not leading them and being patient enough to let them tell you what they want and where they want it.”
Along with the usual painting paraphernalia, such as brushes, A.R.T. uses everyday tools like potato mashers, spatulas, forks and other household items that can give interesting texture elements to paintings.
New volunteers are always welcome to help make A.R.T. and other Easterseals programs a success, Couch says. “For us, it’s always helpful to have people here to help wash things to get paint colors out of tools, for example. And we always encourage businesses to partner with us by simply hanging up some of the artwork to showcase what we’re doing and the potential our artists are reaching.”
Guiding all things art on a daily basis at the Center for Training and Wellness are instructors Susan Tillemans and Laura Terry. Tillemans trained with Lefens when he visited to help establish A.R.T., and she does so much more. Every day, they lead the artistic expression in about 150 adults with disabilities. From molding pottery to building sets for local school plays, the art instructors enlist the creative expression of the adults they teach into everyday art activities. Some select pottery pieces will be included in Art & Soul’s silent auction.
Martin’s artwork, along with additional pieces created through A.R.T. as well as other artwork from children and adults at Easterseals and local and regional artists, will be available for the bidding in live and silent auctions at Art & Soul. The event takes place Thursday, Nov. 2, at Christ the King Family Life Center with music, gourmet food from At the Corner, special drinks prepared by Petit & Keet, and other beverages provided by Lost Forty, Flyway Brewing, and Golden Eagle Distributers. Visit artandsoulevent.org for tickets and more information.