Finding Beauty at Their Fingertips

Betsy Calvert gives her special education students at Kilmer Center the challenge of replicating famous paintings to expose her students to "as much beauty as possible" in their lives. Video by Betsy Calvert and Jenifer Rhame of Kilmer Center
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Betsy Calvert gave her special education students at Kilmer Center the seemingly daunting challenge of re-creating a painting by Claude Monet.

Four students, all severely disabled and some visually impaired or blind, sat in a circle around a print of the French impressionist's "Irises" and a blank canvas in their Vienna classroom on a recent morning. In the course of a few hours over two days, they and their teaching assistant filled the large, white paper with long, wispy leaves and delicate flowers until it resembled the historic painting.

Three years ago, Calvert and teaching assistant Hye Chae sought a way to introduce famous artwork to students with limited cognitive and visual abilities and decided students might understand them and learn best by painting the works themselves.

Now, their students have re-created more than 30 works, trying their hands at reproducing paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O'Keefe, Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera. Their efforts have resulted in a classroom full of beautiful works, many bearing a striking resemblance to the originals.

Calvert said her goal has been to expose her students to "as much beauty as possible" in their lives. "These are kids that can't go to museums. . . . What they can see and do in their lives is very limited," she said.

But their experience with painting shows that students who cannot hold a brush "can certainly be part of a profound creative experience," she said.

Their creative process as a class has evolved over time.

On the morning they tackled Monet, Odessa Lewis, 16, was the first to paint. Chae took the student's hand, which was clenched from cerebral palsy, and began to warm and massage it. Once Lewis's fingers were more flexible, Chae dipped them into tempera paint and guided them onto the blank page, drawing the leaves and stems of the flowers. Within seconds, Lewis was grinning widely, her fingers a paintbrush.

Calvert said it is often hard to know what her students are experiencing because they cannot talk and have limited control over their motions. But she often sees cues in their facial expressions or in the way their muscles relax when they are painting.

After Lewis was finished, Calvert turned on the stereo, and the other students took turns adding to what Lewis had done as the Beatles played in the background. Courtney Lenaburg, 15, added an elegant touch with long, slender fingers. Adriana Reynolds, 18, her eyes shining, sighed after her fingers filled in the leaves. Katie Roy, 21, was the first to fill in the flowers' lovely blue petals.

Around them the instructors and assistants hovered, dipping in to help with a practiced efficiency. Assistant Maria Castro helped hold the paper steady on students' laps as they painted and wiped paint from their fingers when they were done. A volunteer from a nearby private school held the plastic foam paint tray, and another volunteer, from the neighboring middle school, took pictures of every step.

Calvert explained the photos, saying she makes sure that the production of each painting is recorded, to show how her students created them, "because otherwise people would not believe it." She displays the paintings along with the documentation of how they were made.

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