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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the October 16, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From an Artist, `Flying Colors’

Tim Lefens, who is now 48, has always been able to

turn to mentors. As a child and teenager growing up around Princeton,

he found himself mesmerized by art — so he took every opportunity

to hang out (when he wasn’t at the shore surfing) in the studio of

his good friend’s father, Roy Lichenstein.

Mentors also served him well as he studied art at Virginia Commonwealth

University, did graduate work at Rutgers, forged a career in abstract

expressionist painting, and paid the rent from time to time by cutting

trees and painting houses. So when Lefens decided to write a book

about his work with gifted painters who have severe physical disabilities,

he turned to another mentor, Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee.

"We went out to lunch before the writing kicked into full gear,"

Lefens recalls, "and McPhee said, `Tim, number one, you’re not

a writer’ — I took offense at that because I figured I could instantly

write — `but you can tell one hell of a story, so just write the

book the way you talk.’"

"So that’s what I did," he continues. "It was the tip

of a lifetime, and it saved my ass."

The end result of that well-timed tip is "Flying Colors: The Story

of A Remarkable Group of Artists and the Transcendent Power of Art,"

published this month by Beacon Press. Lefens launched the book with

an appearance at Barnes & Noble in early October and hosts a reception

for a month-long show of 100 works by his students at Rutgers’ Mason

Gross Galleries in New Brunswick on Thursday, October 24, from 6 to

8 p.m.

In the memoir, Lefens tells a compelling story, one that is a passionate

paean to the commitment of the artists Lefens works with, many of

whom can’t talk or move their hands. The book is also a fierce indictment

of a system that shuts people with disabilities away and assumes that

their psychological and emotional selves function no better than their

bodies.

Lefens first visited the Matheny School and Hospital in Peapack in

1992 to show slides of his own artwork to students crippled with cerebral

palsy, muscular dystrophy, or spina bifida. Haunted by his brief visit

with young adults whose twisted limbs were strapped into wheelchairs,

Lefens proposed to the school’s administrators that he teach an art

class.

Only four students showed up at his first session, but their experiences

in the cramped studio soon transformed all present, including Lefens.

At his suggestion students created their first works by riding their

wheelchairs over painted canvases laid on the floor. But they soon

grew restless with that technique, pushing Lefens to technological

improvisations that unleashed their full range of creativity and energy.

He attached a laser to a headband the students wore to indicate to

a tracker — a trained assistant applying the exact amount and

color of paint, following the artists’ laser directions — exactly

how to realize their visions on canvas.

As they became proficient in their breakthrough technique, the students

also learned that Lefens was struggling with a handicap of his own:

Diagnosed with retinosis pigmentosa, the artist was losing his sight

— and facing the possibility that he might not paint again. (He

wrote "Flying Colors" on what he calls a "talking computer,"

with a Windows Eyes program that "speaks" back typed letters,

words, and sentences.) Lefens’s commitment to his Matheny students,

he wrote, eased much of his own anger and frustration over his growing

disability.

The students’ paintings were first exhibited at Rutgers and Art’s

Garage in Hopewell, then in sold-out shows in Manhattan corporate

headquarters and galleries. Students sold works for thousands of dollars,

while media outlets picked up their story and Lefens saw the condescension

his students first experienced change to respect.

"At their first exhibit, there was nothing but stupid questions,

like `Who really did these?’ and `Are you sure they’re right side

up?’ — all insulting stuff," he says in a phone interview

from his home office in Belle Mead. "But at every show that has

diminished, so that now it’s awe and excitement."

According to Lefens’s book, Matheny’s administrators basked in the

publicity, while imposing petty restrictions on the flourishing artists

and blocking every effort Lefens made to develop an outreach program

the school could use for other disabled students.

Instead, Lefens’s tenure at Matheny ended, and he established Art

Realization Technologies (A.R.T.) in 1995, a nonprofit company that

creates technologies and art programs that let disabled artists explore

painting, photography, and sculpture. A.R.T. is now active at the

Woodbridge Developmental Center in Woodbridge; had a successful four-year

stint with the Mercer County Special Services school district; and

is starting a partnership with Bancroft NeuroHealth in Haddonfield.

Several of Lefens’s original students continue to paint,

and A.R.T.’s success has been noticed by schools and agencies around

the country that care for people with disabilities. But Lefens has

to think hard when asked if A.R.T.’s remarkable track record has spawned

similar programs. Disabled students now probably have more art class

options, he says, and can experiment more with techniques like headband-mounted

paintbrushes. But virtually no other program in the country, Lefens

claims, comes close to what A.R.T. has been able to achieve.

"We’re not therapy, we’re not recreation, and we’re not disabilities,"

he says. "Instead, we’re a 100 percent uncompromised painting

process. We don’t care that an artist using a mounted laser is moving

her neck more — the painting isn’t designed for her neck, but

for her expression as an artist."

Even when caretakers and administrators comprehend students’ artistic

potential and needs, he continues, their focus is still on helping

the disabled.

"That’s the hang-up," he says. "Once you think you’re

`helping,’ it’s ruined." A.R.T. is not about "helping"

artists paint, he adds. "It’s about giving them a clear channel,

staying out of their way, and watching them tap into their own power."

Lefens amply conveys that power in "Flying Colors," and admits

that the linear logic needed in writing is the polar opposite of the

energy used to paint. "Abstraction is presenting a vision all

at once, while writing is putting down A, then B, then C," he

says. "I had to bend to the linear."

With almost 10 years devoted to A.R.T. and time spent writing, his

vision deteriorating and his own brushes untouched, Lefens had to

decide whether his hiatus from painting would pass or become permanent.

"Once you officially quit, it’s like killing yourself in terms

of your own persona and mythology," he says. "I decided two

years ago that maybe I should go back." But the prospect of painting

again terrified him, Lefens says, so he spent months "tippy-toe-ing

around" his studio, sharpening pencils and installing floodlights.

His breakthough came not in the studio but in his garden, where Lefens

found himself fascinated by the feel of dried cornstalks. "They’re

like ivory, with a silky surface," he says. "I was trying

to think of a way to paint that was more labor intensive than just

stroking with a brush, and that had enough contrast for me to see."

His first painting in several years was a 13-foot-wide abstraction

of a field, with cornstalk pieces applied to acrylic gel.

His latest work uses another highly tactile material: delicately curved

spare rib bones, left to bleach and dry on Lefens’s roof during a

New Jersey summer. Laying a four-foot square canvas with raised plywood

borders on the floor, Lefens first poured in five gallons of tinted

gel — and then a whole trash bag of bones.

"Wherever they squished in, that’s where they went," he say.

"I may be wrong, but I think it’s way beyond Pollock. Where the

field painting had a sense of control because of its even color and

motion, this has the freak feeling of randomness."

He does not think that "any yuppies are going to be fighting over

it." But after pioneering laser tools for other artists, Lefens

has with stalks and bones reached the same realization as his students.

"The true thing in my whole life," he says, "is painting."

— Phyllis Maguire

Flying Colors Take Wing, Mason Gross Galleries, Civic

Square , 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-932-2222. Show

features 100 paintings by physically challenged artists. To October

31. Reception Thursday, October 24, 6 to 8 p.m.

For more information about Art Realization Technologies (A.R.T.),

go to www.artrealization.org or call 908-359-3098.


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