“I saw something in their eyes.” The main campus of the Matheny Medical and Educational Center in Peapack, N.J., is home to 101 children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities. Most have cerebral palsy, and some have spina bifida and a wide range of other uncommon, but devastating conditions, as well as vision and hearing deficits, seizure disorders, and cognitive disabilities.
Showing his art at Matheny was a turning point for Lefens. “I could see by looking in their eyes how much they were still there, 100 percent,” he says. “They were really intense, but they were being spoken to as if they were infants, and it was really upsetting to me.
“There is something wrong here,” he recalls thinking. “They are being mistaken for being idiots. What if they could use a different language? Maybe painting, which I believe in so much, could be their way out. But how can you paint if you can’t move?”
Lassoing the power of technology. Lefens’ first answer to that question was to secure a large canvas on the floor, slather paint on it and cover it with plastic. Then he invited those in motorized wheelchairs to drive across it, using the power and weight of the chair like a big paintbrush to leave a mark. “The paintings were awesome from day one,” Lefens says. “They were ‘in there,’ just as I suspected.”
But this method excluded those who did not have power wheelchairs, and even those who did eventually wanted more of a challenge. Lefens decided to experiment with light. He bought a target laser at a local gun store and attached it to an old welder’s helmet, with the plastic visor removed.
Wearing the device, students were able to indicate their choices of color, texture, size, and brush type and to trace where they wanted the paint to go. Lefens trained able-bodied trackers, studio assistants who applied the paint exactly where the artists pointed the light on the canvas. Lefens likens the process to an architect directing builders. “The person is really choosing and the result has meaning,” he says.
Soon his eight students were painting large abstracts expressing the raw emotion that had so long been trapped inside. “The paintings look like feeling, real feeling,” Lefens says. He could see the painters “cross the line from stasis—nothing is happening, they are getting cleaned up by staff, they are being fed, being wheeled on the bus—to being ‘the boss,’ and everything is their vision.”
Launching a new venture. Lefens’ and his students dreamed of an art opening in New York. As a step toward that goal, Lefens organized a show at the School of Visual Arts at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., which drew art lovers and donors. Soon after, “CBS Evening News” featured the art program on an “Eye on America” segment.
The national attention was a public relations boon for the Matheny School, but when Lefens broached the idea of taking his technologies to people with disabilities around the country, the school’s president balked. A doctor friend took Lefens aside and said, “You could do this yourself.” Lefens replied, “I am a painter, not a business man. I’m terrified. It sounds right, but how can I do it?”
But he pressed forward with help from friends, setting up a nonprofit corporation called A.R.T., for Artistic Realization Technologies, in 1995. Roy Lichenstein sent the first $5,000, and then the second. Lefens hired an assistant, then bought a computer—“because all businesses have computers,” he says—and a program that enabled him to use it with his failing sight.
Then came that long-hoped-for gallery opening in New York, where the entire show of student paintings sold out. A seven-foot abstract called “A Bear,” painted by a man named J.R., sold to a Disney executive in California. “J.R.’s mother was told at his birth to let him go, to put him in the system, and not to follow up,” Lefens says. “He would be incapable of anything, period. He would just be a heartache … . That is a long way away from being incapable.”