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