OCEAN CITY — Asked what she likes to paint, Canary Taylor turns in her wheelchair and gestures to her mentor and “ma,” Pat Walsh, a 72-year-old with a buoyant laugh and a broad smile.
“I paint her,” Taylor said.
“She had me on a boat with — Who was that? — me and Brad Pitt,” Walsh said.
Taylor, 55, of Pleasantville, shrugs nonchalantly before dipping her brush back into a glob of paint, intent on finishing today’s piece: a black dog with big floppy ears. The pair are part of a unique program that uses art to give the developmentally disabled a creative outlet and improve their self-esteem.
The tight-knit group of art lovers from the Ocean City Fine Arts League have formed a unique bond with the students, all clients of The Arc of Atlantic County, they’ve instructed during the past 10 years. Many have been in the program since it began, sharing in setbacks and triumphs
“Every once in a while, we’ll get someone new,” Walsh said as she watched Taylor work. “But we’ve been seeing most of them once a week for 10 years. They become like family.”
When Walsh joked that Taylor is sharing her entire life story, Taylor retorted, “Shut up, Ma.”
Kreg Scott, who coordinates the program for The Arc, said the weekly classes — and the regular art shows in which student work is exhibited — serve as an incredibly effective therapy.
“It is fulfillment in their lives,” he said. “It helps them develop as individuals, and it’s also fun.”
Next week, the group of about 10 students will attend a “Meet the Artist” function at the league, kicking off their annual monthlong showcase there. They will get to meet potential buyers, and the proceeds help fund their transportation to class and other activities.
Thelma Snyder, a Somers Point artist who has participated in the program since its inception, said the students get a great deal of satisfaction from the spotlight.
“They get so excited for the little red dot, which means a painting is sold,” she said. “And they communicate with the people there. They know that when they do that, there’s a better chance it’s going to be sold.”
While the developmentally disabled tend to go unnoticed or unrecognized in their own communities, the art class has given this group a regional and even international stage.
The artists have had their work displayed at Atlantic City International Airport and Shore Medical Center. The Arc’s Egg Harbor Township headquarters is full of the group’s artwork, including a recently completed mural in a training room.
Five of the students had pieces included in a 2008 traveling art exhibit sponsored by a German organization featuring the works of people with developmental disorders from 25 countries.
“I couldn’t believe it ended up going there,” said Ellen Moskowitz, one of the artists selected for the traveling exhibit. “I loved it.”
Today, she’s trying out pointilism, a style developed by Georges Seurat that makes use of dots of pigment to form an image. Moskowitz, 50, of Mays Landing, uses dots of blue, gray and purple paint in her dog painting.
“Sometimes, I ask them for help with the colors, but I try to do it myself,” she said.
“You’ve done very well,” chimed in Susan Rau, a 64-year-old artist from Upper Township. “You usually mix your own colors.”
Rau, who joined the program about seven years ago, said seeing her students evolve as artists and take ownership of their work is rewarding.
“They have a natural ability, like a child using color,” she said. “Some of them are incredible. They see things very differently and are very abstract.”
Snyder said a lot of the instructor’s job is intuitive, gently encouraging students to try new things based on their own interests. She tries to let them make their own decisions about their art.
“Art helps me relax, and I can see what it does for the students,” she said. “It makes them feel confident. We’re very much alike.”
They need to relate to what they are painting, Snyder said, which explains why so many of their subjects are animals.
And many of the students have developed distinctive styles or have adopted certain symbols that appear in much of their work.
Timothy Jones, 46, travels 45 minutes from the Collings Lakes section of Buena Vista Township to attend class. He often incorporates a shamrock into his paintings. He is also known for drawing two suns in his landscapes.
“I like the two suns, because one is for nighttime and one is for daytime,” he said.
Walsh said the classes are just as rewarding for the instructors.
“I’m not really an artist,” she confessed, “so I do the birthday thing.”
Every year, Walsh organizes a Christmas party for the group, with a DJ, a Santa Claus and presents for all of the students. She also keeps track of the students’ birthdays, so they have cake and a few gifts during class.
“I buy things all year long for them and keep them in my attic,” she said. “I keep a list in my pocketbook of everybody’s sizes.”
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