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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the November

24, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Lefens Enabling Art

The gallery is located at 53 Hulfish Street on the corner of Chambers

where the American Express office used to be. It is a warm, inviting

space of prime downtown Princeton real estate. The gallery has lots of

windows, flooding it with natural light that sets off the artwork

displayed on the walls. It is the art that pulls the visitor in and

draws the eye – bold, vivid strokes of color, splashes of light and

dark, abstract images that tug and inspire.

A work by Chip McCarthy is a modernist study in circles and lines.

Eugene Kurck has painted a vivid aquamarine oceanscape with a brooding

black sky. A painting by Tamika Cheek features apple trees dotted with

bright red pieces of fruit hanging at night against clouds of gold,

white, and black. And Isabell Villacis has produced a Miro-like work,

geometric lines of sculpture cutting across a black background.

The works on display at the A.R.T. Space gallery are remarkable on

their own, but what is even more remarkable is that the artists who

produced them live with severe physical and neurological challenges.

Some of them are paralyzed and are confined to wheelchairs. Others

were born unable to walk, talk, or use their hands. Most of them were

exiled to a world of isolation, seen only for their disabilities.

Since they were unable to communicate in the ways the world expected,

they were not recognized for their gifts of creativity and

self-expression.

Then Tim Lefens entered their lives and helped them find a voice

through their art. Not only did he break through the passive void of

their silent existence, but he gave them the tools to create works of

art. He unleashed their ability to communicate with a world that

previously had never stopped to listen to them or had looked right

past them. "This work is strong, honest, and direct," says Lefens.

"People can look at the work and appreciate it before they’ve seen the

maker. When they see the work and are moved by it, they can then look

at the maker and also be moved."

Lefens understood their pain more deeply than most. An abstract

painter himself, he had lived a Bohemian life, kicking around the

country, riding a motorcycle, cutting trees, and painting houses to

put food on the table, and then discovered that he was losing one of

the senses most vital to an artist: he was going blind.

Even as a child, he had noticed that something was not completely

right with his vision. "I might be playing hockey and the puck would

disappear. Completely. I just couldn’t see it," he says.

He ignored the problems until 1988, when he finally went to the eye

doctor. Even then he didn’t think it was anything serious. "I thought

I’d walk out of there with a pair of glasses." He was wrong. He was

diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that

meant that his vision was deteriorating and eventually he would lose

it altogether.

About 10 years ago he had to give up driving. Today he walks with the

aid of a walking stick. It’s hard to describe the range of his vision,

he says, because it’s so variable. For example, he says, putting his

hand into a shaft of bright sunlight, "in this perfect light I can see

my hand." He moves his hand forward six inches, out of the light and

now he can’t see it at all.

He says he doesn’t rail at the unfairness of it, nor does he become

philosophical as some do, trying to ascribe some divine purpose to his

affliction. "I realize that things happen," he says. "There’s nothing

unfair about it. It just is. I figure when things get blackest I can

lie back and give up or push on, so I’m like a Pac-Man. I push on. The

students have it way worse than I do. When I see one of them break out

of their shell, I look at that joy. There’s more that I’m after. I’m

after the whole enchilada."

It was in 1993 that Lefens visited a school for those with the most

severe physical and neurological challenges, an experience he

describes in his book, "Flying Colors," published by Beacon Press and

selected by Readers Digest as one of its best non-fiction choices. He

soon began teaching painting to physically disabled students. He and

his students shared a silent but powerful bond. As he put it

matter-of-factly, he had his hands, and not his eyes. They had their

eyes, and not their hands.

In 1995 he established Artistic Realization Technologies, A.R.T., a

nonprofit organization with a seed grant from Roy Lichtenstein, an

artist he had met when he was growing up in Montgomery. Lefens created

a system where able-bodied people act as "trackers" or "facilitators"

– neutral arms for the artist.

The facilitator carries out the visions of the artist through laser

guided tracking, sometimes with a light beam strapped to their heads.

The artist has total control over the tools, materials, and placement.

He carries a mental image. The facilitator confirms the desired shape

by asking for a signal, sometimes a nod or a blink if the artist can’t

speak. There’s agreement before the brush moves to the canvas. The

facilitator never gives ideas or suggestions of his own, but will ask

occasional questions, such as "Is this the right shape?" "Is this the

right color?" The artists have held shows. At one a 15-year-old boy

with cerebral palsy sold a painting for $650.

Lefens says the best trackers are trained artists, not because of

their aesthetics, but because of their control, knowledge, and

handling of the materials. He has one active tracker on staff and two

more in training. He says the whole process gives the artist an

incredible feeling of empowerment, something many of them have never

had the chance to experience in their lives. "It’s the manifestation

of everything that’s great, direct, and focused," he says. "It’s all

about individual power. I’ve lived for that."

He has shared his techniques in training sessions with staff across

the country. A.R.T. has helped start programs in California, Arizona,

Florida, Virginia, and in other parts of New Jersey. Most of the

artists are from the Princeton area. Lefens also does a lot of work

with artists at the Woodbridge Developmental Center.

Lefens says his work goes beyond helping the artist. The support

network extends to families, who often feel isolated from the rest of

the world. "They run up against a wall of able-bodied people who are

scared of their kids. Families need to know that their kids can do

something magnificent, that they are capable of creating works of

beauty. They need to know my kid can be alive."

Lefens now has the power of Princeton University behind him. The

gallery held an opening reception at the end of May, and Lefens had

reached out to the university community. "Lo and behold one day I open

my E-mail [accessible through a software that converts text to audio]

and there’s a message from university president Shirley Tilghman

saying ‘I’ve heard about your program and all the good work you do.

I’m excited about it and I hope to find space for you at the

university.’"

A.R.T. already has a spring show lined up at the University Art

Gallery. The university has also given Lefens studio space for his

artists at 185 Nassau Street in the university’s art department.

Lefens says the Princeton University connection has injected him with

new energy, a feeling of purpose, and a support system he’s needed

after pushing the program for so many years alone. "It’s reviving me

from the energy drain of being out in the field, having to face the

slings and arrows of outrageous rejection," he says.

"It’s been a really rough 10 years. Imagine if you had the best meal

you could cook, and you’ve laid it all out on the table and somebody

knocks it on the floor and says ‘we don’t want this, we’re busy, we

don’t have the time, it’s too much money.’ That’s what it’s been like.

Since we’ve integrated with the university all of a sudden everybody

is locking into the concept, really willing to look at it and

understand it for the first time. We’ve had an outpouring of support.

I really needed the help and it’s a dream come true."

Despite the cachet of Princeton University, A.R.T. still faces

challenges. While the gallery recently expanded its hours from five

days a week to seven days, 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., the space is only

temporary, for now offered through the generosity of Palmer Square

Inc. and the Palmer Square shops. Lefens says someone came running in

recently with a tape measure muttering something about opening up a

pizza shop. He laughs off the uncertainty. "I’ll employ the hermit

crab strategy. If we have to close down here, when the next store goes

down we’ll scurry on over."

Lefens says his lifelong fascination with abstract art began as a

child. He was born in Detroit. He was five when his father, a civil

engineer, moved the family to New Jersey. His mom taught nutrition to

nurses. He went to Montgomery High School and graduated in 1972.

As a child he suffered from asthma so severe "it was the kind where

you turn blue and you get used to the oxygen steam tent." He says he

was somewhere between three and five years old when he had an asthma

attack so severe, "I was gone, they lost me. My mother and father were

there trying to bring me back, and all I remember was a feeling of

ecstasy, not the white light at the end of the tunnel you hear about,

but more like a black nirvana, a feeling of having no weight, no body,

nothing to stop you from floating. There’s an infinite point and it’s

you. Well, they did save me, but when I came back, everything was

different. My toys, my room, looked like props from somebody else’s

life."

Lefens says that from that point on he kept searching for things that

reminded him of that feeling. "For example, it would be evening with a

darkening sky and I would see white sheets flapping on the clothesline

and the whole thing was an abstraction that other people couldn’t see,

but it was how I started seeing the world."

Although Lefens quit painting for a while when his vision really

started fading, he says he’s getting back to doing some. But he’s

realistic about just how much longer he will be able to paint, and

he’s pushing out a new frontier.

His new form of creation is music. "I want to create soundscapes, a

musical version of an abstract painting," says. "While it won’t be

classical Beethoven it will have a quality just as good." He has an

electronic grand piano and plans to use the latest in music

technology, lasers, mixing boards, and synthesizers that will appeal

to people of all ages, including the same kids he’s helping with art.

People understand the difference he’s making with his work, and no one

perhaps appreciates it more than his family. His mother still lives in

the area. An older brother and younger sister live in Chicago, and

another younger sister lives in Minneapolis. He says that they are

still giving him grief as siblings tend to do, but now in a way that

expresses their admiration for how he’s adjusted to the twists and

turns his life has taken.

"When I was just painting, doing the artist thing in Manhattan, they

thought I was the most selfish person in the world, pursuing a life of

complete hedonism," he says. "Now that I’m helping transform

children’s lives through art, they’re calling me Mother Theresa. They

can’t believe it."

There is some irony in an artist going blind teaching others to see

disabled people in another light. Lefens admits that while he’s not a

saint, he is opening the eyes of others to something to which they

were blind before. And some might call that something close to a

miracle.

— by Euna Kwon Brossman

A.R.T. Space. gallery open house, Friday, November 29, noon to 8 p.m.,

reception with wine, cheese, and live music. 53 Hulfish Street.

609-924-7644.

For information on A.R.T., call 908-359-3098 or visit

www.artrealization.org.

Also see www.princetoninfo.com/200411/41124f02.html


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