‘My Art My Way’ program empowers students with disabilities to explore artistic potential
by Russell Nay
Jefferson High School freshman Avant S. enjoys drawing pictures of dragons in his free time. But seeing a painting he completed hang on the wall of the University of South Florida’s (USF) Contemporary Art Museum (USFCAM) was an impressive experience.
“Everybody’s art is amazing,” he said, as he explored the artwork of his classmates that was also on display in the USFCAM. “Seeing everyone’s work is mind-blowing.”
This project, Avant said, helped him improve his skills as a beginning painter.
Avant and his classmates’ work was on display in the USFCAM from May 14-17 as part of an exhibit titled “A Wave of Change,” an exhibit that included the work of Jefferson High School students after a field trip to the CAM to see Climate Change: Cuba/USA.
Led by teaching artist Michelle Ramirez, the students participated in eight one-hour art sessions throughout the spring semester. In these sessions, the 22 student artists each created a painting of their first names in a visual style reminiscent of the art featured in Climate Change: Cuba/USA.
“(The students) responded really well to that exhibition,” Ramirez said. “We created a canvas that looks like a flag with two colors and a center color. And we designed their names very much like some of the paintings on the walls (at the exhibition).”
This opportunity is one of many artist in residence experiences developed as part of “My Art My Way,” a program created by VSA Florida for students with disabilities to explore their artistic skills and to express themselves creatively.
VSA Florida is a discretionary project of the Florida Department of Education’s Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services and a nonprofit organization housed in the USF College of Education. It focuses on providing arts education and cultural experience for and by people with disabilities.
Before the students’ brushes ever touched canvas, Leslie Elsasser, the USFCAM’s Curator of Education, worked with Ramirez to determine which pieces in Climate Change: Cuba/USA would be best for the students to respond to. Centered on key artwork that students would likely resonate with most, Elsasser developed a customized field trip for the students and discussed with them which parts of the exhibition they enjoyed most.
“We all love this event, and we love the work,” Elsasser said. “When it was first hung, everyone remarked how unique the work was and how it hung together so beautifully. We were so impressed.”
The program helped students build not just painting skills, but social skills as well. Jennifer Tripolino, an ESE teacher at Jefferson High School and USF graduate, said she felt the program allowed her students to not only creatively express their own personalities through their paintings but that it also helped them grow socially by encouraging them to interact and help one another.
One program session that stood out to Tripolino was when one student, who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty holding a paint brush at times, insisted on painting on his own without the help of his teachers or aides.
“He was able to accomplish a beautiful piece of art that he’ll have forever, and he’ll be able to look back on that as an incredible experience,” Tripolino said. “I think this is a fabulous program, and I’d love to integrate it into part of the curriculum if possible.”
VSA Florida offers its “My Art My Way” artist in residence program to K-12 self-contained ESE and inclusive classrooms in each of Florida’s 67 counties. The organization coordinated 208 residencies during the past school year alone. The program is one of the organization’s many activities, events and partnerships that serves students and adults with disabilities.
VSA Florida’s Director of Education Dee Miller said the arts can help provide students with disabilities with a new means of communicating and developing social skills.
“Children with disabilities sometimes have trouble communicating,” Miller said. “We’ve heard really wonderful stories of children that have spoken for the first time in their classroom because they were so excited about their art project.”
However, in a time when many arts programs in the state of Florida continue to lose state funding, programs like “My Art My Way” continue to be an uncommon sight in many of Florida’s public schools.
“Residencies like these add another dimension to the program by inspiring students with the work of other artists,” Miller said. “It shows students that their artwork is valued by others and gives them a chance to present their work to their families.”
“It’ll be a moment they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” she added. “Sometimes this is the one thing that will really bring them out of their shells.”
Learn more about VSA Florida’s programs, events and partnerships at the organization's website.