Michelle Renaud is a young painter living in Calgary, Alberta. With a loving and expressive personality, she paints semi-abstract acrylics which she describes as reflecting her feelings. From a very young age, Michelle drew circles — she describes them as “doors.” She likes to layer her work, emphasizing and reemphasizing her favorite shapes. Alternately, she uses petal-like forms and stripes to indicate landscapes and spectrums of colour. Her favourite colour is red, which she says describes fire, the sun, and happiness. According to her friends and family, Michelle is a happy, bright and beautiful person. Michelle has Down syndrome.
Another young woman, Liz Etmanski, was the first I know of to graduate from a top art school–The Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada. Liz has gone on to teach art to disabled folks and has pioneered the use of the iPad as an art medium.
All this is of interest to me because our grandson, Beckett Genn, who has just turned five, also has Down syndrome. Beckett gets excited when we bring out his art materials and his outdoor easel. He takes joy in the sensuousness of paint, re-emphasizes shapes and motifs he has already established and seems to favour the warm side of the palette. Beckett is becoming fastidious about removing errant paint from his hands and fingers — a virtue his grandfather lacks. He works expressively and confidently from the center out. These days he takes his time choosing from a variety of his brushes and paints energetically using the full handle. Several of his works have been used as fundraisers.
Observing a trance-like state and the machinations of my own mind as I paint, I’ve been curious as to what might be going on in the minds of others. It seems the act of applying colours is deep-seated, perhaps atavistic, as if some humans are programmed to move pigment from one place to another. Do we, I wonder, have an innate need to plop and smear and modify? When I watch an artist’s tongue, flashing eyes and contortions of the mouth, I know that something is happening in the land of joy.
PS: “I like to paint and I like to draw because it takes me out of the crazy world. It makes me happy and it makes me laugh.” (Liz Etmanski — from her artist’s statement upon graduating)
Esoterica: Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. John Langdon Down, a British physician, first described the syndrome in 1866. The chromosomal nature of the condition was not fully understood until 1959. In the USA, one in every 691 babies is born with Down syndrome and its consequential delay in cognitive ability. In loving and respectful environments, many people with Down syndrome can achieve self-sufficiency and joyful, productive lives.
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
Your letter about Down syndrome triggered something I have dealt with for years; both as an artist and in trying to get others to ‘see’ art. It takes training to get past; what is it? What does it do? Why is it not straight and level? My business oriented students in the Visual Perception course often fight seeing the non-rational. There is a question on the final exam: A species does not long continue doing something which does not yield evolutionary advantage. Mankind has made art for most of its history. What evolutionary advantage does art give us as a species?
Modern society values left brain processes and the members of humanity raised in post Renaissance society are taught to under play the right brain; art, puns, poetry, ecstasy, feelings, empathy. Many creative people use alcohol, drugs (LSD), meditation, or other methods to reach the right brain and open its door. (I favor red wine and dance.) It sounds like your young people were given the gift of access to their right brains. In another age they would have been shamans, cave painters, etc. As long as they can adapt to society enough to live independent lives they may not miss out on much they do not, in the end, compensate for. They can find an agent to handle the business world!
Face it, nice seemingly normal people like Miro, Magritte, Renoir are exceptions among artists.
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People with disabilities
by Peg Richardson, Gainesville, FL, USA
Robert, thank you for this delightful letter. With a degree in Art Therapy and having taught creativity workshops off and on since the early 1980’s (and a professional watercolor painter), I marvel at the spark of imagination and creativity in ALL of us. At the risk of sounding negative, which is not my intent, thought you might want to know that instead of referring to “disabled people” we now say that they are “people with disabilities.” I often think that folks like Michelle and Beckett are more in touch with their creativity than the rest of us, because what they produce is pure expression, free of editing and intellectual criticism.
A new way to communicate
by Bonnie Moench, Lethbridge, AB, Canada
My brother Bruce, who has Down syndrome, is now 47 years old and he, too, is in love with painting and drawing. I have one other sibling, a sister that has Cerebral Palsy. Before my parents passed away they had arranged for both Bruce and my sister to be moved into care of others. With my parents passing I found that my life changed dramatically. I was living in Indonesia at the time and with my family, so when I came home to live I didn’t see a need to change things, as they were settled in with their life styles. Bruce has been very fortunate to be living with a young family for 15 years now. They are loving and kind and Bruce has grown up with their children. I never had a close relationship with Bruce; I am 17 years older and was living away from home by the time he was born. Recently I, too, took up painting and, although I am very new at it, for once in our lives we have something in common. We have a new way to communicate, and it has changed our relationship dramatically.
Best man is friend
by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA
I am pleased to tell you about a friend of mine. Tyler Carr is his name, and he has Down syndrome. He’s moving on towards thirty now, and these things I can say about him. He has integrity in amounts I find astonishing. He is loyal to a fault, and a good judge of character. He loves deeply and freely, relates in a way that engages. He knows right from wrong and always makes the right decision about it. If a friend of his suffers an injury, he’ll visit home or hospital to help them to feel better, and somehow believes he failed them somehow that they got hurt. In short, he is one of the very few best men I have met, and I am proud he regards me as his friend.
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by Rebecca Skelton, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
I had the good fortune to work with a differently-abled artist in a program called ArtLink — Creative Clay. I was
supposed to be her mentor, but she taught me so much. I had forgotten about the pure joy of moving paint around. In art school/training, we learn so much about the “how to” that the “why” is neglected. We get so caught up in becoming “good” that we often forget to enjoy the physical process.
Painting through and out of grief
by Nancy Dusenberry, Atlanta, GA, USA
My “breakout” year in painting was 1997. After a year of studio work I held my first exhibition. I retired from my career of 25 years to paint full time. A nice party was planned. Instead, we had a funeral, celebrating the life of our 34 year old son, Tommy, which he ended. Pretty soon, it was clear to me that this ability was going to be my way through and out of grief. First, I painted hoped-for and imagined endings of his life. I imagined him with me as I painted and listened for his pulse.
Today, I still call him to my easel when I am vexed and channel a “high five” when I am satisfied. Painting was the relief for me because it seemed to use up all of me. I had to engage both sides of my brain so there was no room for guilt or loss to grab hold.
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by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I have a very special place in my heart for children with Down Syndrome. When I was a teenager, I worked as a camp counsellor at a summer camp. The camp was wonderful and two weeks each summer, we specialized in Down Syndrome Kids. I remember being so terrified and didn’t know what to expect. What I found were the most wonderful and loving happy children I could ever hope to meet. If you told them to line up, they lined up; you didn’t have to ask twice. After a long day, playing and having fun, they would go to bed early and exhausted and fell asleep right away. They flourished at arts and crafts. While they could not always make what the regular kids made, they would explore colours and textures and were always so excited to show us what they had created. That and swimming were their two favourites. To this day, I remember working with several of the children and can still remember their names and faces. That was over 35 years ago, but writing these words I remember it like it was yesterday. I think now they had more to teach me than I could ever have hoped to teach them.
by Diane Doehring, New Plymouth, New Zealand
You may be interested in the work of my son Andrew, who has Down syndrome. It has not been updated for a while but gives you a sense of the work he does.
In my own work, I have done a series of collages and mixed media about prenatal screening for Down syndrome. Attached is one of the collages done on the iPad, titled “Coded lives.”
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Art from the Heart
by Cheryl Bailey, Oakville, ON, Canada
I am a Director of Joshua Creek Heritage Arts Centre in Oakville, Ontario. Our founder, Sybil Rampen, is an art teacher who has a son with Down syndrome. She is therefore very interested in art for the differently-abled. Last fall, we were made a grant by the Oakville Arts Council to help in funding the first 6 week long show of “Art from the Heart.” Differently-abled artists’ work was displayed in our 1857 barn-turned-art gallery. The Opening Tea Party was an incredible success with many of the paintings being sold to those attending the packed gallery. We had artists showing including, but not limited to, those with Down, autism, blindness, developmental, brain trauma and Alzheimer’s. I have to say that it was probably the ‘happiest’ looking exhibition that we have mounted. Most Sundays during the show, we had a Tea Party on Sunday afternoon with a speaker focusing on one of the areas with relation to art. It is to be an annual show now, in January.
The power of colour
by Mary Helen Garvin, Innisfil, ON, Canada
Reading your last letter, The Joyous Mind, made me think of a CBC Ideas program I heard on the radio yesterday. It is a 3 part series on The Power of Colour which aired last November and is on again Aug. 13, 20, & 27th at 2:00 p.m. here in Ontario. Not sure when that might be in B.C. and you may already know of it. But if not, I’m sure it would be of interest to you. I spent a week working under the tutelage of Art Cunanan this summer at the Haliburton School of the Arts, Fleming College. Very challenging, and in the end, rewarding. As we used to say during my psychotherapy training, “No pain, no gain!”
Enjoy the past comments below for The joyous mind…
Featured Workshop: Sharon Rusch Shaver
Lake and Cathedral Sunset (Geneva, Switzerland)
oil painting, 50 x 70 cm
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Xelisen Isthmus who wrote, “Non verbal communication is so simple, joyful & honest. Feels like plop/smearing is like eating blueberries fresh off the bush, compared to eating a cooked meal that may be tasty, but requires a lot more steps.”
And also Tony Angell of Seattle, Washington, USA, who wrote, “In many of us there is an innate inclination to create, whether we’re pushing color, a pencil, shaping clay or carving. The endorphins are kicking in when we do so and we’re quite soon spirited away from the mundane and swept up into the possibility of giving order to chaos and form to our feelings. What a blessing.”