Young Artists Embrace History And Themselves

The Very Special Arts program helps kids with disabilities explore creativity and develop self-esteem

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PRESIDENTS Washington and Jefferson would be astonished at the scenes created by children across the country who competed in the Very Special Arts contest.

Their views of life in the White House included such illustrations as "The White House Goat," by Carlos Carnejo of Washington, in which a yellow-eyed goat is chased around a red room by Tad Lincoln, as his father stands by in a stove-pipe hat.

In "Abigail Adams Makes Good Use of East Room," Tabitha Skinner of Kinston, N.C. pictures her hanging wet wash on a clothesline. In "White House Reflections" Marcus Wright of Winter Haven, Fla., places the White House against an American flag's stripes in a composite that includes a giant teddy bear (for Teddy Roosevelt) overseeing the marriage of Grover Cleveland (the only president married in the White House) while President Carter's daughter Amy in braids swings next to two huge red roses.

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Lots of imagination, color, and originality characterize the Very Special Arts 14 winning entries, which are on display at the Smithsonian Institution's S. Dillon Ripley Center here as part of the White House 200th Anniversary Art Exhibition Program. Presented by the White House Historical Association and Very Special Arts, the works originally hung on the White House walls before being moved to the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda, and then to the Smithsonian, where they are on view through Jan. 1 7, 1993.

With a "Call for Art" in fall of 1991, the program not only encouraged kids to put their images on paper, but it also stretched them to expand their knowledge of White House history and culture.

The following spring, a national jury put on their art-critic hats and began reviewing the submissions, eventually choosing one from each state, D.C., and the US commonwealths and territories.

THE woman who founded and has chaired Very Special Arts for nearly 20 years, Jean Kennedy Smith, speaks with inspiration about what it's like to see children come out from the label "retarded" and express their special gifts. She tells this story about a child in Italy at a Very Special Arts festival (the organization is now international).

"In Italy, there was a little boy who had a book of poetry that he had kept. He was non-verbal, but he had written, and he showed me this book of poems that he had written when he was at the festival. And I think it was a tremendous release for the little boy and gave him a feeling of accomplishment and esteem.

"So I think it makes people very proud, and it should, because it's after all unique. That's what I love about it ... there will never be another picture like that, no matter how hard anyone tries. [She tells them] `They'll never be able to do what you can do.' And I think that's a very exciting thought to a lot of people. It is to me. If they don't do it, then it will never be done. The individual is the only one who can do it."

Stressing the educational benefit of the program, she says, "The White House project is exciting, too, because it is also learning history at the same time, which is a perfect arts education project."

Ms. Smith's plans for next year include another art contest - this one commemorating the anniversary of the Capitol.

This slender woman in a delft-blue dress explains how she got involved 20 years ago as founder of this effort: "My sister Rosemary was retarded, so I've always been interested in [helping] handicapped people. It's been a family interest; we have a foundation that was started, the Special Olympics...."

The art connection came in when she was a trustee and the first chairman of the education department at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here.

"They were interested in art education. I've always liked the arts, tried painting myself - unsuccessfully," she laughs. "It just seemed a natural fit to find out what was going on with the disabled people in the schools."

CREATING art could be a morale boosting activity for children who might not be able to fully participate in sports, she and her co-workers realized.

"This could be a very good bridge for for children who might not be able to do sports or might be behind in some way.... Through the arts they could enjoy things with their peers. And that there is neither a right nor a wrong way in the arts, it's something where everybody's equal."

The Very Special Arts program includes festivals in all 50 states, involving nearly 2 million children annually.

In addition to painting, the kids and their teachers join in wheelchair dancing, playwriting, and music.

It has also expanded into international programs backed by private funding in Taiwan, Japan, India, and the Philippines.

Very Special Arts has drawn support, too, from well-known artists: Robert Rauschenberg who donated a festival poster, Jamie Wyeth, Frank Stella, Romare Bearden, and others.

Is Jean Kennedy Smith a fan of her Very Special Kids' paintings? Her words, "I've got a house full of them," say it all.

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