For blind students, a place where art and life skills meet

When Cory Kadlik, a talkative 10-year-old at the Perkins School for the Blind, visited a suburban Boston mall recently, it wasn't to go shopping. He and other students were participating in the school's first off-campus arts festival.

In addition to musical performances, the event surprised many mall patrons with an impressive display of student artwork - paintings, sculptures, and quilts.

As Cory strolled the corridors after singing, he always knew when someone was enjoying the truck sculpture he had crafted out of recycled materials: The sound of the horn he had attached to it was unmistakable and brought a wide smile to his face.

At Perkins, the joy of self-expression is just one part of art's value. The projects also boost self-confidence and problem-solving skills.

And contrary to what one might expect, some Perkins students also have an interest in two-dimensional drawings and paintings, even though these provide less-touchable results than do three-dimensional projects.

"A lot of our students have never had the opportunity to explore their creativity," says Terry Werner, a sculptor who teaches students in the Perkins Secondary Program. "They've been asked to sit quietly and don't walk around. They don't have the experiences that other children have because their worlds are so much more confined. They're not given time to explore things, not given time to try to create something out of their own thought."

At first, Ms. Werner says, students who have been taught the importance of following directions are often reluctant to try things. But in her classroom, she says, "We celebrate failure," and students are encouraged to get mucky. "Some of them hate that," she says, "but after a few years, they get better at mucky."

Two high-schoolers who are comfortable getting their hands dirty are Stephen Yearardi and Yegue Badigue. During a recent high school class, both applied the finishing touches to ceramic projects.

With their fingers covered in glaze, they checked for spots missed by a brush: Stephen on two bowls, and Yegue on a van crafted to resemble one the school uses to transport students.

Stephen says the public school he attended before Perkins "lacked knowledge of how to teach visually impaired persons. They didn't try that much."

Massachusetts towns unable to provide an appropriate education for blind youths - including those, like Stephen, who have very limited vision but are legally blind - pay for them to attend Perkins. Chartered in 1829, it is the oldest school for the blind in the United States and counts Helen Keller among its graduates. The 200 students range from kindergarten age to 22. Some are from overseas, including Yegue, a Chad native.

Art classes are small, because the pupils need individual assistance and are at various stages of ability.

Rocky Tomascoff, an art teacher in the Lower School, says she usually has two pupils per class, and sometimes works with just one. On this day, she has two boys, Cory and Anton Sviridenko, who are packaging greeting cards that students made for a fundraiser.

Using jigs, the boys mount melted-crayon images to cards, place them in plastic bags, stamp them, and insert a card explaining how the art is done. This is mechanical work, but the boys enjoy it and are diligent.

Learning routines is important in their daily lives. "I want them to be paying attention," Ms. Tomascoff says. "The students are part of the quality control, and there's problem-solving that has to go on."

Doing art, she says, also helps children who may be tactually defensive.

"Especially with younger kids, there is a lot of tentativeness and hesitancy," she says. "They can be anxious about moving and reaching out, since people often say, 'Be careful, you might run into that,' or 'Watch out, that might be sharp,' so they start pulling back."

Art is a nonthreatening opportunity for them to experience the world with their hands. Students constantly manipulate different materials, wet and dry, hard and soft, rough and smooth.

They also work the bobbin and the foot pedal of the sewing machine in assembling the patchwork quilts. Feeling safe using tools with supervision is a goal, too, although Tomascoff does the actual sewing.

Older, advanced students like Luis Marquez become very adept studying the feel of things, such as the stuffed animals in the school's large collection. With feedback from Werner, who tells him when he's got the proportions right, he quickly fashions a realistic rabbit from clay, and adds a carrot as an afterthought.

For work on a landscape, students may head outside to study trees, touching their trunks and feeling the crevices.

Skies and colors can't be touched, of course. That's when the teacher talks concepts, such as warm and cold colors, summer and winter skies, or foregrounds and backgrounds.

These are important for students who try two-dimensional art. It doesn't appeal to some children, but others want to do two-dimensional work "because that's what the world is," Werner explains. "If you could see out the window, you would see a landscape even though everything is three-dimensional."

Adding sand to paint gives colors individual textures and helps the blind artists with placement. But the students also tap the teacher's vision.

"I'll look at a painting and say, 'What are you trying to accomplish?' " Werner says. "I'll tell them what I see or don't see. I'll ask, 'What's really important in this picture? The trees? Well, I don't see the trees. How can I see them better? Maybe use more color.' "

A student determines when a work of art is finished, and it varies widely. Some may be satisfied after two days. Others can work on a painting or hooked rug for practically the entire school year.

Even if students can't paint realistically, they can do expressive mark-making. Werner can identify each student's work when they decorate window panes with splashes of color, because the marks are so different.

The important thing, she says, is to find what a student is "jazzed about." For one verbally challenged student it was channeling her love of music into the creation of a beautiful mosaic table. She drummed and beat to music as she smashed tiles and then painted them. The finished piece won a national award.

E-mail: atkinr@csps.com.

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