Fourteen-year-old Mike dips a long asparagus spear into a cup of red paint. He transforms the vegetable into a paintbrush, carefully making bold crimson lines on a pristine white piece of paper. He then takes a turn with broccoli, stopping to ponder the texture in his hands before bouncing it contentedly to create splashes of vibrant purple.
"Art is a really great way for him to express himself, relax, unwind and just go for it," said Sara Martello, an instructor in Perkins Deafblind creative arts program, who orchestrated the painting-with-vegetables-and-fruit project.
Mike isn't the only one enjoying the art-making process. All of his classmates are exploring the materials as well, discovering textures that they may not have encountered before.
"Art class is about the whole experience, rather than the finished product," Martello said. "It's all about touching different mediums and experiencing something new."
At a nearby table, Alexis, 7, grins with delight as a teaching assistant guides her hand to roll a blue-hued ear of corn across a page. She giggles as she feels the kernels and oozing paint beneath her fingers.
Making art tangible
Perkins art teachers are frequently asked by the public, "How do you teach students who can't see to make art?"
The answer, they say, is simple: make the art process a tactile, multi-sensory experience. Use materials that a child who is blind, deafblind or visually impaired can explore through touch or smell. That can mean working with clay, making textural collages and quilts, and even finger painting with pudding.
"Art instills in the students a sense of self-esteem, and they enjoy being able to work with their hands to create something," said Lower School art teacher Rocky Tomascoff. "In here, we're working on many of the same goals, skills and objectives that they are in other classes; it's just with different materials."
Nowhere is the diversity of materials more plentiful than in Tomascoff's classroom. The cabinets are chock-full of neatly stacked containers holding art supplies of all colors, shapes, sizes and consistencies. One shelf is devoted to a range of fine-grained colored sands; another contains a variety of split peas, macaroni, seashells and smooth sea glass. One cupboard is filled with birdseed, pinecones, fragrant dried flowers and aromatic herbs. There's even marshmallows, for when art projects – or a student's imagination — calls for that spongy, puffy texture.
On one particular morning, Lower School students Amalia and Ethan, both 11, work on artistic journal entries about their week. Noting recent ferocious thunderstorms and unpredictable weather, Amalia decides to cut a piece of smooth, shiny mylar to create a lightning bolt.
"I'm going to make the lightning big and long!" she said enthusiastically, leaning in close to examine her work. She cuts out shapes for the sun and glues on lightly teased, billowing cotton balls for the clouds.
At a nearby table, Ethan recreates on paper a new route that he recently learned to navigate across campus. He chooses red felt to represent a school building and thick silver tape to construct the sidewalk. Tomascoff initially guides Ethan's hand as he uses the scissors, and then she stretches the cloth out for him to divide down the middle. Following her instructions, Ethan trims a few inches of fabric.
"Good!" said Tomascoff encouragingly. "And cut!"
Ethan, completely focused on the task at hand, snips away until a large square is cut out. He feels around for the sticky glue, and laughs with Tomascoff as he presses the felt flat onto the page.
Although Ethan and Amalia are working on art projects, they are practicing important skills along the way. They make their own choices, communicate ideas and gain independence while using tools. Both think about spatial concepts and solve problems that arise.
Students in the Lower School, Secondary and Deafblind programs all benefit differently from art classes. Teachers have found that nonverbal students are especially motivated to use symbols and gestures to communicate while making art. Other students experience the soothing, therapeutic nature of creating artwork, they said. It helps anxious students to relax, breathe and just focus on the task at hand. For many, art class also happens to be a lot of fun.
For students to have a successful and positive experience, teachers adapt art projects to fit each child's abilities. If a student is unable to maneuver a paintbrush against a sheet of paper, an instructor may encourage him or her to flick paint and fluffy shaving cream on a canvas instead. Students with low muscle tone also can develop stronger hands and fingers during the creative process.
"It's great when you are working with clay, because you have to squeeze it, roll it and pinch it," said Tomascoff. "You strengthen those muscles. And there's the added bonus, because at the end of the day they have an art project that they can feel proud of."
Students often take their projects home to share with their families and friends. But in addition, the Lower School and Deafblind Program each host an annual art show where everyone is invited to celebrate the young artists' creations.
Exhibit-goers are dazzled by hand-drawn superhero comic books, endearing sculptures and textural paintings in every shade. Each piece of artwork expresses the maker's personality, and highlights students' imaginations and abilities.
"People are very impressed that our students are able to produce such wonderful artwork," said Martello. Most importantly, she added, students feel a great sense of accomplishment. "You can see in all of their faces that sense of pride. ‘Look what I can do!'"
Student talent is also gaining recognition off campus. Perkins students recently received top honors at "A Different Vision" art exhibit, a juried tactile show held at the Plymouth Center for the Arts in Plymouth, Mass. Judges from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts selected Perkins' student work from more than 90 submissions by sighted and non-sighted artists throughout the state.
Among them was Matthew, 16, a student in the Deafblind Program. He wowed the judges with "Feel the Rainbow," a meticulously constructed mosaic that earned him first place in the mixed-media category. Matthew had diligently worked on the project for two weeks, often carefully arranging the composition with a huge smile across his face.
"It was wonderful for Matthew to have that moment with his artwork hanging on the wall with the big blue ribbon," said Martello, beaming with pride as she recalled the exhibition's award ceremony. "Everyone was cheering for him, and he was over the moon."
Instructors celebrate students' every accomplishment, whether he or she wins an award or reaches out to touch a floret of broccoli for the first time. It's all personal growth.
"Art is a great way for students to express themselves and show what they are capable of doing," said Martello. "It offers them a chance to shine."