Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.