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Guiding Hands

An innovative arts program for the severely disabled fights to stay alive with help from Art Works.


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Tracker Jennifer Harris assists Virginia Home resident and artist Vernon Garletts as part of the artistic realization technologies program created by a VCU alum.
  • Tracker Jennifer Harris assists Virginia Home resident and artist Vernon Garletts as part of the artistic realization technologies program created by a VCU alum.

The inside of Studio 150, a cream-colored concrete room with yellowish overhead light, looks like any other studio for rent inside the labyrinthine Art Works building in Manchester. The space is cluttered with paint-splattered buckets, lightly stained brushes and stacked reams of cotton canvas that fill nearly half the room.

But it's Monday afternoon and something unusual is happening.

Larry Watson, a severely disabled man from the Virginia Home, sits slumped in his motorized wheelchair, staring at a small canvas against the wall. There, Sarah Hutchinson patiently follows the red spot emanating from Watson's laser pointer with a paintbrush. They're adding golden-yellow hair to a painting of a baby boy that Watson wants to give to a pregnant employee who works at the home.

"I'm just going to call it 'Baby'," he says. "I forget the boy's name."

Watson's body involuntary twitches violently at nearby movements. But he can mostly control his head, on which he wears a golf-putter laser pointer attached to a headband like a headlamp.

"I like painting. It keeps me occupied and away from the home for awhile," Watson says between musings about the foundering season of his beloved Washington Redskins. "I do not want this place to shut down," he says, sighing.

The nonprofit program known as ART, which stands for artistic realization technologies, was brought to Richmond two years ago by its 32-year-old coordinator, Hutchinson, who continues to run it even after losing funding from Easter Seals last January.

A Richmond native, Hutchinson started off in child development centers. After working with autistic youth, she began working part time with Easter Seals summer camp, as well as with Richmond's Project Success, which also lost funding. But she couldn't stand to let ART go once she saw the results for the residents of the Virginia Home, most of them immobilized and unable to speak intelligibly.

"Seeing how the artists were fully able to create and continually progress was amazing," she says, noting that the artists gain confidence exponentially once they see their true vision realized and appreciated. "Until you see it, it's hard to explain."

One reason the program wound up in Richmond is because its original creator was Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus Tim Lefens. The 1977 graduate was a successful abstract artist stricken with retinitis pigmentosa, a debilitating eye condition, during the prime of his New York art career.

Lefens began working with the disabled and came up with the artist-focused system. His nonprofit started with a seed grant from a family friend, renowned artist Roy Lichtenstein, and later received national media attention as well as a critical Community Health Leader grant in 1998. Now there are 27 programs in 11 states, he says by email.

One challenge is that many services and programming win Medicaid dollars which fuel the organization, but not ART.

"It's like a head count," Lefens says. "But with ART, the participants pay nothing. This made it cost ES rather than bring in cash. ... It takes a lot more heart and mind to push forward for new good things that will really change the lives of those with profound physical challenges."

The core model remains unchanged: A pointing system uses concrete points and shapes while the person designated as a tracker slowly moves a ruler around the canvas, frequently asking questions, while the laser pointer allows for more abstract work. Richmond trackers, who initially were paid hourly but now volunteer, receive two days of training during which they learn the process of asking "yes" or "no" questions. Every mark, every angle, every shade of color is dictated by the artist.

"The biggest thing [for a tracker] is the ability to not give your own input," Hutchinson says. "Some people can't do that."

Participants' work has been on display at Positive Vibe Café for a year, and the group occasionally holds fundraisers at various venues — with a portion of the proceeds going to the artists and the rest back into the program. But none of it would have been possible without the help of Art Works, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in November.

"They've connected us with the community and they helped us set up a fundraiser and advertise," Hutchinson says, adding that Art Works also sponsored its rent for the month of July when funds temporarily dried up.

Art Works co-founder Glenda Kotchish, a cheerful personality who walks the hallways with her Yorkie, Patty, on a leash, opened the facility with hopes of providing space for fellow artists who were put out when the Shockoe Bottom Art Center closed. They were one of the first groups to see potential in Manchester.

"It was deserted, there was nobody on the streets," Kotchish says. "Now you see young people walking babies and there are more businesses opening."

Kotchish and fellow artist Paula Demmert purchased a fourth of the former MeadWestvaco Plant No. Zero building with developers Tom Papa and Rick Gregory, of Fountain Head Properties, handling the rest of the building cost. Since then, Art Works has survived by diversifying its business model, renting out 75 studios for all manner of artists and functions, from various monthly meetings for groups such as the James River Writers and casting calls for director Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

"When the big crunch came in 2008, we created studio shorts which allowed short-term leases of studio space with no security deposit," Kotchish says. "And we do a lot of the daily stuff ourselves. Our biggest challenges are fixing a roof or one of our 11 air conditioning units."

Just as Art Works holds major auctions and a New Year's Eve fundraiser, the ART program is surviving from a silent auction of its work at the end of July. Hutchinson says that it's pursuing nonprofit status and hopes to apply for grants soon — before the money dries up again.

Juan Fagalde, another middle-aged participant from the Virginia Home, originally is from Bolivia. His body appears painfully contorted, his breath labored and his slurred speech is difficult to decipher. But his eyes show the hint of a smile when he says that he has "somehow sold four paintings," and he came here because his home country "had government overthrows every other week." He adds that he's been through many changes in life, and that painting has given him "the freedom to express [himself]." He's also working on a book.

Today he's finishing a simple painting of a table with a box of flowers set against a crimson background and what looks like a floating window.

"It's called 'God's Table,'" he says. "It came to me in a dream." S

Art Works 10th anniversary will be held Oct. 25 from 7-10 p.m. at Art Works with work by Milenko Katic, Tanya Tyree and other artists. Free.


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