The canvas holds splashes of dark neutrals, browns, purples and blacks. Sarah dips her brush in neon orange and carefully dabs a small blotch into the bottom left corner. She smiles and flicks her paint-stained hands outward to sign, “finished.” Her long-time signing teacher, Debbie Lawrence, asks her to describe her artwork and Sarah places her hands near her shoulders, bends her fingers twice, signing, “animal”. The tangerine splotch is apparently a carrot. Her face breaks a broad grin, complete with dimples and eye twinkles. Pride. Debbie takes photos and messages them to Sarah’s mom, who sighs with relief knowing her daughter has finally found her voice in the world.
This was Sarah’s experience day, last spring, at her new adult day program at Interact Center for Performing and Visual Arts in St. Paul, a creative program with a nurturing atmosphere that refers to and treats their special adults as working “artists”. It’s the perfect place for Sarah, a moderately deaf, nonverbal, 21 year old young lady with Down syndrome who has spent most of her educational life struggling to fit in to a “typical” and hearing world that didn’t understand the way she communicated best, visually.
Her teacher, Debbie, has partnered Sarah in her journey to adulthood for over eight years and has seen her grow, through the use of sign language, in her ability to communicate with others. Now with her new program, one that supports her language and embraces her individuality, Sarah has discovered another mode of self-expression, that of art. Sarah’s blossoming creativity has given way to greater confidence, independence and a productive place in society. Once resisting the early morning bus to school, Sarah now wakes up each day excited to go to “work” and paint.
Throughout her life, Sarah has always been a quiet observer with an affinity for the intuitive, the experiential, and for the visual. She even chose her language of signing, definitively and early on -- refusing speech therapy and turning off her hearing aids -- well before the rest of the world seemed to get on board with her. But Sarah knew who she was, even when her parents were worried she wouldn’t find her place after high school, lost in a world that was too loud and moved too quickly. So from the moment she first stepped foot into the visual art room at Interact Center, and beheld all the color and creativity on the tables and easels in front of her, she started signing, “happy”. Now, Sarah claims her place in the world each time she points to herself and signs “art” with one pinky finger drawing a line onto her palm, and then slices down the air in front of her with both hands to signify the mark of personal identity. She signs it and she knows it. She is an artist.
Another photo pops up on Sarah’s mom’s phone. These texts are a daily highlight. This time her daughter is standing in what the program coordinator calls “Easel-Town”, holding, across her chest, a large stretch of white cotton knit with brilliant curly strokes and stamps of rainbow-colored swirls. Sarah’s head is cocked to one side, mouth grinning ear-to-ear. Her voice, clearly painted on the fabric, is one full of color and creativity, independence and identity, purpose and pride.
Update: After nearly a year now at Interact, Sarah has already completed dozens of different paintings using multiple mediums of acrylics, pastels, canvas and fabric. She is also learning Japanese Saori loom weaving. Sarah has had her artwork on display at the St. Paul Art Crawl, and most recently her piece "The Train" was showcased at the University of Minnesota's Institute for Community Integration's art showing called "Changing Landscapes". At home, she is starting her own business (with her mom) of homemade hair accessories, specializing in hand-painted fabric headbands.