News Column

Very Special Arts lets exceptional education students create in Cummer's galleries

May 9, 2014

By Dan Scanlan, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville



May 09--Bartolomeo Compagni's image gazed down benignly from his spot in the portrait gallery at Jacksonville'sCummer Museum of Art and Gardens as Michael Swain Jr. took pencil in hand and began his own self-portrait.

Compagni's 16th-century painting was done by Pier Francesco de Jacopo Foschi.

Michael, a Lighthouse Christian School student, is one of about 2,200 exceptional education students who drew their own portraits as part of this week's 19th annual Very Special Arts Festival at the museum.

"Good job," museum volunteer Luis Colon told the 9-year-old. "But you have more hair than that."

Michael knew that. But he was interested in being part of the hands-on project at a museum, surrounded by paintings and other students.

"There is great art and there are different great activities," he said. "But I am not a great drawer like that."

Very Special Arts was founded 40 years ago to increase access to arts and education for people with disabilities. The Cummer's first festival had 225 exceptional education students doing art at the museum with 40 volunteers. This week's festival saw Duval, Clay and St. Johns county pre-kindergarten through middle school students working with 1,415 volunteers.

"The idea that children, especially those with special needs, can create their own works of art while surrounded by master works from many eras is a very unique experience," museum director Hope McMath said. "I would argue that it is an experience that most of us as adults have never had. There is a very intentional connection between what those students are doing with crayons and paper and what they are surrounded by the artwork."

Students from 49 schools are greeted by mimes and musicians before they head to eight art stations. They assembled geometrical collages inspired by artist Piet Mondrian and painted clay pots in the main garden lawn, then watched adult artists painting nearby.

"They could not wait; this morning and yesterday they were asking, 'Are we going on the field trip?' " Mamie Agnes Jones Elementary School teacher Holly Franco said Wednesday. "I hope they will walk away with an appreciation of art and just have fun and open up their minds to what they can do."

"There are a lot of fun things here, and plus, I get to see stuff I have never seen before," said student Greg Villarreal, 9.

This was volunteer Sonya Welch's first time helping at Very Special Arts.

"I love it. They were happy and they made me happy and it was fun to chat with them," she said with a broad smile.

Beauclerc Elementary School student Saniyah Wilcher was having fun making prints after doing a clay sculpture.

"I can get my hands dirty," the 8-year-old said.

Students also listened to musician Ajamu Mutima play his 21-string kora. The Atlantic Beach man has done 14 Very Special Arts festivals and said he gets as much out of it as the students do.

"I feel very special to be a part of this," he said. "I see beauty, I see power, I see freedom."

Each year artwork done by some of the students are displayed at the museum and some of it used on event banners and T-shirts.

Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549

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(c)2014 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com

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Source: Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)


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