When James, a student at the Southwest Alabama Regional School for the Deaf and Blind, painted his watercolor angel, he made sure to give her a big heart.
"No evil can touch my angel," he told his art teacher, Nancy Raia. "See the size of her heart!"
His angel, along with other artwork by students at the Mobile school, who range from age 3 to fifth grade, will be on display and for sale at the Danielle Juzan Gallery inside the Mobile Arts Council on Dauphin Street in downtown Mobile starting this Friday at LoDa ArtWalk, from 6 to 9 p.m.
This will be the first time the school has exhibited artwork in a gallery outside of its own annual show held each spring. In fact, the Regional School doesn't have a formal art program. For the past 10 years, Raia, an artist who is the community outreach director at the Eastern Shore Art Center, has worked with the students once a month.
She has learned just as much, if not more than, her students.
"I feel like I'm immersed in learning," says Raia, who started teaching many years ago as a volunteer in her children's schools. "I learn from the way they problem-solve."
When one Regional School student in a wheelchair couldn't reach the cardboard cutout she was trying to paint, Raia whipped out a fly-swatter that gave her the extra length she needed to complete the project.
"She has a way of communicating with our kids," says Amy Hess, the school's orientation and mobility specialist, who, after working with Raia for years, recently started painting, too.
Sometimes, Raia says, the art instruction is no more than letting a child feel the wet paint underneath her fingers. The students usually use their fingers as paintbrushes - and when they get one "brush" dirty, they move on to the next.
One of her tricks is to use black roofing paper, because the contrast is easier for the visually impaired students to detect. She's also become an expert in recycling and dollar-store finds to turn into art projects.
Often, Raia will outline an object, such as a vase full of flowers, or a jellyfish, in puffy paint, which creates a raised line the students can feel with their fingertips. "Let your fingers take a ride!" she'll tell them, and the students follow along with their paint, as they add color to the tentacles.
"I don't clean it up because I love the way they do it," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "It's perfect the way it's made, because it's from their little soul."
Last week, a group of fourth-graders from St. Paul's Episcopal School visited the Regional School, as they have done annually for the past five years as a service project. The students were paired up to paint their own poinsettias, and they worked together on a collaborative project.
"It takes a village to raise a child, and we have our village we call on to help us raise these children," says Hess. "I feel our program is a national model."
What the students create is much deeper than it might appear. They are expressing inner thoughts and feelings that they might not otherwise be able to share. "We call it multi-sensory miracle-making," Raia says.
For example, she was working with a student who was completely blind. She let him feel a three-dimensional Santa Claus, then helped him paint his own Santa. He wasn't sure what color to paint the background.
"What kind of music do you like?" she asked him. He said he likes "jazz and blues," so she helped him paint it blue. For other vision-impaired students, she might remind them that they love coming to school, so they should use yellow, the color of the school bus. Or a student might run down the hall with his cane, so she'll tell him he's "red, like a fire truck."
Art helps them tell their own stories, she says. "I love to let them know we see and hear their information."
"Nancy helps them share their inner vision with the outer world," Hess says. "She opens a new world for them of self-expression."
"Children with different perspectives on the world teach me every single day how to see the beauty in all things, and to be grateful I am here and sharing this world with them," Raia says. "It is a gift to me every time I see them walk or tap (the cane) or roll (a walker) into the classroom."
In addition to the artwork for sale through the end of the month at the Mobile Arts Council, Hess is selling Christmas cards and everyday note cards in packages of six for $5. The cards are available for purchase at the Regional School, the Eastern Shore Art Center and the Mobile Arts Council.
All proceeds will help fund the school's art program. "We struggle every year to fund our art program, so we can show the community what our kids can do, instead of what they can't do," Hess says. "Art is the language of love."...Read more