Youth with disabilities display artwork throughout Delaware

Gallery featuring art created by students with disabilities opens to the public.

Lego men, fire breathing dragons, Dr. Seuss’ fish and brightly colored animals adorn the walls of a gallery at Delaware State University in Dover.

A group of students from Kent County Community School in Dover walk around the room to find the piece of art they created all by themselves.

Jaiden Andrews, 12, points to his colorful owl and the eye shadow he gave the bird to make her beautiful.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Ramariee Pride, 12, said he enjoyed painting flowers on his landscape painting, which he created using sticks.

While Davon Johnson, 12, points to his favorite painting in the exhibit (another owl created by a classmate), a fellow student says, “Aw, cute,” in approval.

The boys’ class is just one of 44 that produced art pieces featured in Celebration of Creativity—an exhibit of art created by youth, and some adults, with severe disabilities.

“Part of it’s (learning) etiquette, part of it’s the joy of seeing their artwork professionally presented,” said Jennifer Gunther, executive director of VSA Delaware, the nonprofit agency that runs the art program.

“It’s very rewarding when they come in and say, ‘That’s mine!’”

VSA Delaware educates individuals with disabilities on the arts. Experienced professional art teachers visit sites like schools and community centers and engage students either performance or visual arts.

The young students, who have autism, intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities, participate in the program for no less than eight weeks—usually an hour a week—during their school time. Older students who are transitioning from school into society also learn real life skills through internships, such as working in a gallery.

At the end of the program, their work is featured in an exhibit open to the public. Celebration of Creativity displays 250 works created by 347 students from 44 classrooms in 13 schools across Delaware, as well as three adult classes.

“So many of the parents don’t realize how good their children are. And I’m always blown away by the talent,” said Katja Lackey, a nine-year art educator with the program.

“It’s really important to show these kids, ‘Look what you’ve done and how special you are. It’s in a gallery. It’s not just in a classroom or on the refrigerator of your mom or dad’s kitchen. It’s in a special place the public can view and appreciate.’”

Gunther said the work helps students decrease behavioral outbursts, build self-confidence, learn how to work with others and gain independence.

“It’s a big thing when a student who has limited motor skills swats their parents’ hand away because they want to do it by themselves,” she said.

Students also learn an array of art skills, Gunther said—even something basic like color mixing can be valuable to the kids.

“You think in preschool they’re learning yellow and blue make green,” she said. “Students with disabilities are working on other things in preschool—those life functioning skills they need. There’s a certain joy in realizing, ‘I can make green.’”

Gunther’s favorite painting in the exhibit is “Blue Dog,” created by a student whose favorite color is blue, and had difficulty using any other color. His teacher spent several weeks encouraging him to explore other colors. The painting was successful, because he included a yellow sun.

“Sometimes you don’t realize, really that learning process that took place,” Gunther said. “She was able, through building a rapport with that student, to get him to get beyond that rigid focus he had on using the color blue, to integrate another color.”

There are some challenges along the way. Some of the children desperately want to wash their hands as soon as they touch the paint and other materials, Lackey said. She said she encourages them to wait until the end of class.

“Tin foil, if it’s loud, if it’s shiny, if it feels weird, if it’s sticky like glue—these are moments it’s uncomfortable for them,” Lackey said. “But they know I say to them at the end of the hour we’ll all wash our hands.”

In the beginning, the new kids also are a shy and unsure of what’s about to happen, she said, but they become less fearful when they learn there are no mistakes in art.

“If they spill something, let’s turn it into a positive,” Lackey said.

She said by the end of the series she notices positive changes in the children.

“The glorious thing is they’re speaking without having verbal communications. Through the art they speak—so ultimately that’s the best part about the job,” she said.

“To have an art show at the end of the year, there’s so much pride and they feel special in a very good way. To me art is a unique form of therapy and the results speak for itself.”

Celebration of Creativity is on display until June 24th, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Arts Center/Gallery (Library Building) at Delaware State University in Dover. There will be exhibit evening hours on May 25th and June 1st from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday hours on June 4th and 11th from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

The exhibit also will be on display at the following locations:

● Delaware Children’s Museum, Wilmington, September 2016-January 2017

● Wilmington Art Loop, Art on the Town, Wilmington, October

● Redding County Building Lobby Gallery, Wilmington, October

● ACCESS Wilmington Awards, Wilmington, October

● Biggs Museum of American Art, Dover, November 2016-January 2017

● Dover Art League, Dover, February 2017

● Wilmington University, Dover, March 2017

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal