Seventeen-year-old Keevon Howard has mastered one cardinal rule laid down by his high school art teacher, one that resonates beyond the classroom. “Don’t erase,” his teacher counselled — accept the mistake and weave it into your composition. Coping is a vital life skill, she said, so whatever you put on the paper, that’s what you deal with.
Keevon was at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) headquarters in Washington, D.C., for the opening of the 13th annual VSA exhibit, a joint project of ED and the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the Kennedy Center. His collage is on display at ED through December, along with the works of other students with disabilities from five countries. The opening, and the panel discussion, “Changing Lives Through Arts Education,” drew artists and their families, ED staff, representatives from VSA and the Kennedy Center, and arts educators and advocates.
“You can express yourself better with art than with words,” the Rhode Island teen said. In his collage, light and dark scraps of newsletter are crowded around the heads of a nuzzling mother and child. “The dark surroundings symbolize all of the problems in the world,” he explained.
Amid the chaos, however, the mother and child, illuminated by yellow paint, remain connected. Keevon’s mother, Kinya Howard, said her son has behavioral issues and created his artwork during a time when the two often clashed. Struggles notwithstanding, Keevon’s bond with his mother has blossomed.
The exhibit is titled “Ubuntu: Yo Soy … Je Suis … I Am … Because You Are.” A South African concept, “Ubuntu” colloquially translates to “my humanity is connected to yours.” Like Keevon’s work of art, all of the pieces in the show explore this relationship among humans via a variety of visions and of mediums. Click here for photos of the exhibit.
During the panel discussion, the hopes and goals of the student artists and people close to them came through forcefully: to develop a voice, to connect and to communicate.
“The world can be very hard and very harsh on those who are different from the mainstream,” said Jeannine Chartier, executive and artistic director of VSA Arts Rhode Island. Chartier has a personal link to her vocation; the limp with which she walks is the result of childhood polio.
Another panel member, 25-year-old Mara Clawson, a 2016–17 winner of a VSA Kennedy Center Emerging Artists with Disabilities award, has a neurogenetic disorder, as well as developmental delays. “Her first language was sign language, and we didn’t know if we’d get beyond ‘I want more,’” Mara’s mother, Michelle Marks, explained. When Mara was about 11, however, a teacher placed newsprint and pastels in front of her, “and the world came out in an amazing conversation of stories about eggs falling out of nests and bowling pins flying,” Marks added. “We had no idea that this was inside of her.”
The artistic capacities of special education students are often underestimated, according to panel member Carmen Jenkins-Frazier, a D.C. arts teacher at the School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens. “If you have patience and your children are able to trust and understand that you are there for them, and they feel secure in your space — then anything is possible in that classroom.”
The panel moderator was Mario Rossero, senior vice president of education at the Kennedy Center. From his experience in this role and as a former arts teacher, Rossero offered these thoughts: “When students create artwork it plays a critical role in their learning, growth, development, and ability to make connections; they are often able to communicate complex ideas that would be difficult to say through other means.”
Kimberly Richey, ED’s acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitation services, said, “Our partnership with VSA allows us to say to all of our employees and all of our visitors every day that arts education develops knowledge for all people, no matter their differences — cultural, geographic, abilities, age, gender — and that we each have a lot to learn from the artists, not least of which is about having the courage to be creative in our life’s work.”
Following the panel discussion and the ribbon-cutting ceremony by the students, attendees reflected on what they had learned at the opening.
“I liked the focus on artists with disabilities,” Kali Wasenko, an external engagement specialist at the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, remarked. Beyond demonstrating the importance of art as therapy, she added, “the exhibit is very validating of their talents as artists.”
Nancy Paulu is a writer and editor in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.
Chareese Ross is a student art exhibit program associate and editor in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.
Photo at the top: A ribbon-cutting signaled the official opening of the Kennedy Center/VSA exhibit.
All photos are by ED photographer Leslie Williams.
ED’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers with an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public space that honors it as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at Jacquelyn.firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.ed.gov/student-art-exhibit.
Click here for a Washington Post article on the exhibit.
Click here to find a teacher resource guide providing visual art lesson plans to engage students with disabilities.