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University provides studio space for innovative A.R.T. organization

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Twelve years ago, artist Tim Lefens visited a residential rehabilitation center in New Jersey to talk about painting with a roomful of students who had cerebral palsy and other conditions that confined them to wheelchairs.

art studio

On a recent Saturday, Nefertiti Lancaster (right) painted a picture with the assistance of Jonathan Becan (left) at A.R.T.'s temporary gallery space on Hulfish Street as program founder Tim Lefens observed. Beginning Oct. 1, the program for physically challenged artists will have a studio in the University's fine arts facility at 185 Nassau St.

Lefens was so moved by the experience that he volunteered to teach an art class at the center, and he launched the course by envisioning what the students were capable of instead of dwelling on their conditions. First he had them spread paint on canvases laid on the floor by riding their wheelchairs over them. Next the students donned headbands with lasers attached to them and indicated to art assistants exactly where they wanted which shades of paint to be applied to their canvases.

“I was introduced to a lot of kids who couldn’t walk, talk or use their hands, and they were living in a void, unable to express any sophisticated thought or feeling,” said Lefens. “I asked the question, ‘If someone couldn’t move, how could they create a painting that had perfect fidelity to their vision?’ We figured out techniques so the students could create precisely what they wanted in a painting. It’s about giving them personal power.”

Lefens’ techniques allowed the youngsters to express themselves through art, and in the last nine years his nonprofit organization, Artistic Realization Technologies, known as A.R.T., has brought painting to hundreds of other students all over the country.

Now Lefens’ innovative approach to art will have a home at the University. Starting Oct. 1, his program will occupy a third-floor studio at 185 Nassau St., the building that is home to Princeton’s Program in Visual Arts as well as the programs in creative writing and theater and dance.

“We are honored to have this project at 185 Nassau St., and we look forward to learning from the artists and having our students interact with them,” said Eve Aschheim, director of the visual arts program. “The A.R.T. project is a very innovative way to liberate the creativity of physically challenged artists. The works I have seen are fresh, expressive and direct.”

Those who enroll in the A.R.T. program will be able to spend an hour a week at the studio creating paintings. The artists communicate exactly how they want their paintings to look by nodding their heads or blinking their eyes in response to yes or no questions posed by studio assistants, who actually apply the paint to the canvas according to the students’ responses.

The program will start with a small group of students, with plans to expand it later in the year. It is open to people of any age who do not have articulate use of their hands, and funded by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kessler Foundation, Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

The students’ art has been displayed in shows at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, the Newark Museum and galleries in Manhattan, among others, and paintings have sold for thousands of dollars. A.R.T. is showing its students’ work on a temporary basis in gallery space on Hulfish Street that was donated by Palmer Square Management.

Last year Lefens wrote a book called “Flying Colors: The Story of a Remarkable Group of Artists and the Transcendent Power of Art,” which describes the way that painting transformed the lives of his students. The book was awarded the New Jersey Council for the Humanities honor book award.

For the past several years Lefens has brought the program, which he runs out of his Belle Mead office, to schools, hospitals and other sites, but what he most wanted was a studio for A.R.T.

“The ideal model is to get the students out into the community,” Lefens said. “We wanted to create an independent site where young adults could break away from their institution and come to us.”

Getting the studio has breathed new life into the organization, Lefens said: “Once we became associated with Princeton University, doors that wouldn’t budge before are flying open.”

For more information, contact Lefens at (908) 359-3098 or visit his Web site at <www.artrealization.org>.

“We look forward to learning from the artists and having our students interact with them.”