Therapy a work of art

Class: A Howard County program offers people with disabilities a place in which to learn new skills and explore their creativity.

October 23, 2002|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Crystal Bowen is not an artist, but Saturdays find her handing out crayons, markers, paints and paper to a class of 14. This week, Bowen's students are making watercolor collages that will have them painting their work and then tearing it into pieces.

When they glue the torn paper onto another sheet, it will create a colorful, three-dimensional work of art.

These activities - painting, tearing and organizing bits of paper - are important skills for Bowen's students, who range in age from teen-agers to adults. Each of them has a developmental disability such as autism or mild mental retardation.

"They can be completely expressive in what they choose to do in the art class," said Bowen, who lives in Ellicott City. "For students who have trouble with fine motor skills ... it's good for them to work on that as well, holding a paintbrush or crayons."

This is Bowen's fourth "Exploring Art" session. The class, which meets for six Saturdays at Owen Brown Middle School, is part of Howard County Recreation and Parks' Therapeutic Recreation program.

Cathy Vigus, supervisor of Therapeutic Recreation and Inclusion Services for Recreation and Parks, asked Bowen to run the art class because of her experience with the disabled.

"It makes a huge difference when you can understand their thought process and how to adapt the activities to their individual needs," Vigus said.

Vernette Peels, a counselor who provides assisted-living help for one of the students, said her client enjoys the social aspect of the class. "I think she loves seeing them," Peels said.

When latecomers enter the room, everyone greets them. For Bowen, there are hugs and playful jokes from her students.

"Any of the programs that the county offers are huge in promoting social interaction, because so often those clients and students can't get the social interaction in normal society," Bowen said.

The classroom is windowless but bright, with student art on the walls and shelves. Every session begins with free drawing, with participants sitting in groups of two or three at high wooden tables.

Tytisha Wall is assistant to Leon Spell, one of the students. While she is here, Wall participates in the free drawing, using crayons to sketch a castle in the clouds.

"We sit here until 11 o'clock, so I just draw with the class. The more I do, the more he [Spell] does." Wall said.

"I think the colors, the independence" are what Spell enjoys, Wall said. "They don't feel like they can't do it because it's their own imaginations."

Midway through the class, Bowen collects the free drawings. Some are birthday cards, others have a Halloween theme with orange skeletons, ghosts and cats.

Bowen is full of praise: "I don't know why it took you so long to get in my art class," she says to one man.

As the class begins the watercolor project, Bowen and an assistant help some students hold or manipulate paintbrushes.

"You're actually taking a particular skill and breaking it down into smaller steps," Vigus said. "It gives them an opportunity to do art, but to do it in a much more structured environment."

The projects created here won't end up on refrigerator doors.

Each summer, the Howard County Council runs the No Boundaries art show in which the students display their work.

A gallery is filled with art from the previous year's "Exploring Art" sessions. Every participant has at least one work professionally matted and displayed.

"It's a huge self-esteem thing to have your artwork hanging in a gallery," Vigus said. "It's been amazing to see ... a lot of them coming out of their shells through a program like this.

"Arts also provide lifelong leisure skills," she added. "They're noncompetitive; they're something people can do for the rest of their life. That's something we're trying to teach ... lifelong skills."

Bowen agreed. "I get to help improve the quality of life for kids and adults who are disabled, and I get to see that they are very unique individuals," she said. "I get to see how they express their different personalities even though they have a disability."

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