NORMAN JACKSON, a student at Dundalk Middle School, is typical of the young artists whose work is represented in the Baltimore County Special Student Art Show. He dares to be different.
"A lot of people like to copy things, but I like to make up my own designs," he says of his collage-type renditions of outer space that use paper, paste, paint, pencil and chalk.
Norman was one of several art students who demonstrated their abilities during the opening of the multimedia show at the Dundalk Community College gallery last week. The exhibit, which continues through March 21, showcases the work of special education students from public schools throughout the county.
Ramsey Mahmoud's specialty, and that of his classmates at White Oak School, is sand painting. The 9-year-old exudes the enthusiasm and confidence of one who has mastered a skill as he and classmates Brian Martuszewski and Billy Engelbach interrupt one another feverishly to explain to a visitor the American Indian tradition of drawing pictures with fine grains of colored sand.
"OK, first you start with cardboard and you draw shapes on it," says Brian, who is 11. "And then you put some glue on the paper and you put some sand . . ."
"It has to be big shapes," interrupts Ramsey, "and you have to be careful with the sand," he says, explaining that sand dropped on misplaced glue will stick and not give the artist the effect he wants.
"The colors are up to you," adds Billy, 10. "I mostly like to use black because it stands out," he says, pointing out the black feathers he pasted around the edge of his circular painting.
The boys learned the ancient art form from Elizabeth Brown, who teaches art to students of all ages at White Oak, a school devoted exclusively to special education. The art lessons on sand painting were planned to coincide with a social studies unit on Indian culture, as well as to work on the students' fine motor skills.
"A lot of our kids have reading problems, so we try to emphasize reading and vocabulary along the way," says Brown, pointing out that an art lesson might range from learning the meaning of the word "symmetry" to reading instructions for a design project.
Many of the students participating in the countywide art show have learning disabilities in areas of reading and math. Others are physically or emotionally handicapped or have intellectual limitations that keep them developmentally a step or two behind others in their age group.
"This show gives them a chance to excel at something," says Pauline Schwing, an instructional specialist with the county who organized the exhibit. "Many of them are very talented," she says, and might even show promise for careers in art-related fields.
David Austin is one such student, says Bill Albanese, an art teacher at Dundalk Middle School. David's precise, symmetrical drawing of a spaceship looks like a blueprint that might be rendered by an architect, which is just what the youngster says he'd like to be some day.
David's favorite medium is colored pencils, and his only model for a spaceship, he says, is in his head.
"I just have a picture in my mind," he says, noting that he doesn't care to copy photos or illustrations. "I start with a small rectangle and build out from there, to give it perspective," he says.
David, Norman and their classmates have learned to mix enamel paint and water to get a "marbleized" surface resembling a planet. It serves as the basis for their two-dimensional "space scenes" that create an illusion of three dimensions.
Such special-effects techniques tie in nicely with the students' study of science fiction, says Albanese. Once a student's interest in piqued through art, there's no limit to what other subjects you can introduce, he says.
"A writing assignment might be given, for instance, to describe the planet you've created and what life is like on it."
Young students of Paul Pavik at Hebbville Elementary have let their new knowledge of insects spill over into their favorite art form -- papier-mache.
Tammy Baquol's specialty is ants. Giant ants. The 11-year-old proudly created a table full of the creatures at the exhibit opening using crushed aluminum foil, wet paper towels and paste.
A few household items can be used to stretch students' interest to subjects that might otherwise be difficult for the learning-disabled to tackle, says Pavik. Shaping ants and grasshoppers has stimulated conversations about "all kinds of things associated with spring -- the seasons, growth, warmth, flowers and plants," he says, noting that to sub-teens the concept of giant bugs is rather exciting.
"Artistically, papier-mache is fun. They can use their hands. They can see the things taking shape. They can even imagine themselves as insects," he says.