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A circle of clay.

Art, being one of the universal modes of communication, can be a viable means for individuals with special needs to communicate their inner selves. It can also be a means to put individuals in touch with the world at large. In addressing some of these needs through art education, it is possible to see that problems which may seem particularly difficult to a special needs population may not be unique at all. Problems such as communication and alienation are, indeed, problems which exist for all populations on various levels.

Art programs for special needs students, as with "normal" populations, arc often focused on the individuals and the art they produce. This can be very therapeutic and cathartic to the individual. Art has been used also as a means of providing ethical and social education in the form of community involvement and service by bringing students into the mainstream of the community and creating public art. Such projects can create situations where the students are connected to their community in ways that are not only personal and social, but profound.

We initiated a project that will hopefully serve as a model for bringing art and students out of the school room and into the larger context of society. The project was complicated by the size and numbers of organizations involved, but the fact that it was achieved should inspire others who would dare bring together groups of people, whether they be young, elderly, disabled, deaf, or perfectly able-bodied individuals.


In the spring of 1988, an educator from CDC, the local Child Development Center, asked if the Rhode Island School for the Deaf could help beautify their environment. In September of 1988, the art teacher and four senior class students from the school proposed a year long project to the directors of CDC. The project had three goals. The primary goal was to create a more interesting child-centered environment for the children and parents who come to the Child Development Center, as well as for the professionals who work with them. The second goal of the project was to give the senior class a leadership role in a large project which would benefit the community outside the School for the Deaf. The project would also give the youngest students at the School for the Deaf a chance to create something beautiful for others. The most important goal of the project was to bring together many students with special needs, and give them an opportunity to work toward a common goal. A unique "mainstream" situation was created in which the participants, with various and different needs, worked together and became aware of each other's limitations and capabilities.

In-school project

A chalkboard in the shape of a whale had been in the waiting area of CDC for many years. The first part of the project was to create a mural of fish and aquatic life behind this "whale" chalkboard. Students of all ages at the School for the Deaf made underwater designs. The art teacher acted as designer, taking details from these drawings, enlarging them and putting them together in a collaborative design. The finished design was made of elements taken from all levels of the school. A cartoon (full-size drawing) was made and the detail areas were traced onto rice paper, formed out of clay, fired and glazed. While older students worked on the fish and other details, other students made hundreds of "water" tiles and glazed them. By December, the tiles for this part of the project were completed.


The second part of the project involved students at the School for the Deaf working with other students with various limitations to create a stripe of tiles that would run the length of the 155 foot hall at CDC. Letters were sent to all the Special Education Directors in the state asking for about 200 students with whom the seniors could work. The response was overwhelming. If it had been possible to include all the children whose teachers responded there would have been over 800 children making tiles for this project, not including the 160 students at the School for the Deaf! As it was, over 500 students worked on the project at various times.

The seniors and Upper School students went out to different schools to do workshops with these other special needs students. Many small "mainstreamed" special education classes are islands of alienation in schools. In one such class, where the teacher was unable to have an art specialist work with the children because of their "handicaps," the principal was asked to come and see deaf students "teach art" to the learning disabled class. Later, this experience gave the teacher the leverage needed to have an art teacher work with her students on a regular basis.

At one of the tile workshops in a school for physically handicapped children, the seniors who were giving the workshop found a group of students their own age with severe mobility limitations. The deaf students were moved by the determination of these students with physical limitations, and the students in wheelchairs were overwhelmed by the communication limitations of the deaf. Clay became the common language which brought them together and the exchange of ideas between these students was one of the most rewarding parts of the project.

In the course of repeated visits to dozens of schools, over 300 tiles were made. These field trips required small groups of students being released from classes by cooperating teachers. By the end of February, 521 7" (18 cm) square tiles and over 2,000 small border tiles had been made. These tiles represented the work of children of all ages: children with talent, with emotional problems, with mild to severe learning problems, with mental retardation, with mobility problems--blind, deaf and hearing. Clients at the Boston Aid to the Blind heard about the project and wanted to be a part of it. In a ceramics workshop, they made 40 tiles and sent them to the School for the Deaf all glazed, fired and ready for installation.

The Rhode Island School of Design offered to help fire tiles since the school's kiln was being overtaxed. For three days in March, a RISD graduate student helped load, fire and unload 3,000 tiles in three kilns. Reportedly it was the single largest firing that has ever been done at RISD!

Several individuals had generously donated money to help fund the project but other monies promised by organizations were not forthcoming. In the meantime, the project had taken on a life of its own and was much larger than originally planned. In March, Very Special Arts came to the rescue with a $2000 grant, allowing the installation to be completed. A photography major at RISD documented the project so that those who saw the finished work would understand that the real work of art is not the clay tiles but the sharing of time, talent and experiences by the young people involved.


In March, the three week installation began. On the first day, we installed the fish and figures on the wall behind the whale. The 521 tiles were arranged on the floor and then put into boxes in the same order that they would be put onto the walls. Wood molding was applied to the wall with an adhesive, the wallpaper was stripped from the area within the frame and tiles were adhered to the bare plaster wall. On one side of the hall the line of tiles was at eye level to children, the opposite was at eye level to adults. The seniors came to the hospital (ten minutes away) each day with a different group of students from the School for the Deaf. After three hectic weeks, all the tiles were on the wall and grouted. Starting at the elevators where the clients are first greeted, the entire floor of the hospital was circled with the border of tiles.

A logo used for all correspondence on the project became the design for the stained glass window which hangs next to the elevators. The design was taken from a drawing by Adriane Resmini, age 7, and translated into stained glass by the art teacher. This logo has since become the official symbol of CDC. An alphabetized list of over 600 names of students, teachers, schools, doctors, organizations and other individuals who participated in the project either with artwork or donations was hung in the lobby without title or indication of profession or handicap. Thus, teachers, doctors, deaf, Down's Syndrome, physically disabled, blind individuals, etc. are all equal on this list of honors!


On June 2, 1989, a celebration for those who participated in this project was given by Rhode Island Hospital. Three hundred students from various schools which had contributed to the project came together to celebrate their creation and place the last tile on the wall. The last tile was put on the wall by the mother of an eleven-year-old boy who died only three weeks prior to the completion of this project. One of the seniors who began this project noted later, "Mother put tile on wall. Then mother touch where fingerprints were. Boy died but mother touch his fingers. He now eternity, but still can touch!"

There were many other extraordinary/situations these students experienced. Each student created an individual tile which then became a great social encounter, a work of art that was greater than the sum of its parts. "Talents and limitations shared ..."--this was the heart of the project. Sharing one's own talents and being in service to one's community, seemed to address the two-fold handicap of social alienation which comes from personal limitation.

A poem about the project hangs on the walls of the Child Development Center. In part it reads:

Thousands of clay tiles each made by hand.

Hundreds of children wanting to make a mark,

have come together to teach and learn from each other.

In the universal material of clay a blind woman creates a house,

a deaf child made Nike, the goddess of victory and sneakers,

a retarded girl made a face with a smile,

a child with emotional problems created a prehistoric monster

and a boy with only a finger to use pressed sea shells into his


One boy put his hands on the clay, and made a star.

A few weeks later, he died.

Thousands of pounds of clay have encircled us and left moments

of childhood

which will be seen and heard for years to come.

Signs for those who come here in the future,

that other children have lived before.

Joy, hope, and fear,

Talent and limitations


Peter J. Geisser leaches art at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, Providence, Rhode Island.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Davis Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:includes poem about the project; Rhode Island School for the Deaf project involving students with various disabilities
Author:Geisser, Peter J.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:Pablo Picasso - Bull's Head.
Next Article:Proud achievement: the Fontana, California high school ceramics program.

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