Coloring outside the lines

These creative students disabled their critics

Brimming with enthusiasm, "Flying Colors," by Tim Lefens, tells the story of his artistic odyssey with a group of young adults who have physical disabilities. Lefens, an abstract painter, vividly describes his journey through a maze of automatic doors, sterile hallways, rude personnel, and maddening red tape to discover the unique, colorful talent of passionate artists at Matheny School in New Jersey.

Unlike the brisk and inattentive personal care attendants who treat these students like needy furniture, Lefens looks into their eyes. He finds an intensity and intelligence overlooked by those who only see the students' severe physical limitations. That requires seeing past drool, spastic movements, and even slumber to engage with each person he meets. Most of the students have little or no control over their bodily movements; most cannot even speak, though they have access to state-of-the-art communication devices.

Lefens wastes no time sizing up their limitations. He casts aside a bunch of identical Styrofoam craft projects left by the previous art teacher and sets up his own "real" art supplies. After he devises a technique in which the artists select colors and drive their wheelchairs over prepared canvases, the students respond with artistic expressiveness that blows Lefens away.

Determined to find a way for the artists to have as much control over the process as possible, Lefens rigs a laser-pointing helmet and introduces his students to a wide variety of professional techniques and materials.

Uninhibited by the skepticism and even harassment from the school staff, or the indifference of family members, the artists surprise themselves with the height of their success, including a sell-out New York show and a feature on CBS Evening News. But they find their greatest joy in the transformative act of painting itself: a rare moment in which they transcend physical limitations and express their untamed spirits.

In some places, Lefens's writing seems coarse and unrefined, but that may be yet another reflection of his effort to scrape through the sentimentality that too often obscures the work of handicapped individuals. Interspersed with his own artistic journey, including a friendship with famed Roy Lichtenstein, this wonderfully rich portrayal of student artists is a celebration to join.

Enicia Fisher is a freelance writer in Idyllwild, Calif.

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