Episode 3 – Tim Lefens Author of Flying Colors

In this episode, Dawn talks to Tim Lefens, author of Flying Colors and the founder of A.R.T. (Artistic Realization Technologies). They discuss why he gave up a solitary life creating art to create technology to give disabled students the ability to create their own art.


Tim Lefens
Executive Director
11 Whippoorwill Way
Belle Mead, NJ 08502
phone: (908) 359-3098
See A.R.T. in action (2 minute video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5v1XCyKSwNY

Below is an article about Tim and A.R.T. from the Chicago Reader

Locked-Out Syndrome

An innovative art program for the severely disabled can’t find a home

in Chicago.

By Deanna Isaacs

July 10, 2008

Fifteen years ago, Tim Lefens accepted an invitation to make a guest
artist appearance at the Matheny School, a New Jersey residential
facility for kids with disabilities. Lefens, a painter, wasn’t
prepared for what he found there. The kids, mostly quadriplegic and
unable to speak, faced extreme physical challenges. Here’s his4
description of the first of three students who showed up for his
lecture, from Flying Colors, his 2002 book about the experience:
“In the center of the room sits a—a something, a person, his head held
upright by a network of stainless steel wires that run like spokes4
from a metallic headband to aluminum armatures bolted to the back of
the wheelchair. His underdeveloped body sits rigid, symmetrical as the
chrome wheelchair. His brittle stick arms are strapped to the
vinyl-padded armrests, his hands dangling off the ends, the fingers
twisted, bent backward, welded into knots. From the immobilized head,
his eyes meet mine. A burst of voltage passes from him, through his
eyes to me.”

The kids were captives, serving life sentences in their own
dysfunctional bodies. But what disturbed Lefens even more was the
disconnect between the glimpse he got of the fire inside them and what
he’d seen of their existence at the school—strapped into wheelchairs
and parked in front of the TV watching Barney, for example. Again,
from Flying Colors: “It is difficult to imagine anything harder than
the restrictions they endure. But there is something worse—if they, as
it appeared to me, are as alive as you or me and they are being
treated like idiots.”

Shaken by his brief visit, Lefens offered to lead a weekly art class
at the school. Though he’d never done any teaching, he was determined
to find a way for these kids to express themselves.

Rejecting the hand-on-hand method that was standard—and that results
in art created by the teacher, not the student, he says—Lefens began
with a wheelchair technique. He taped canvases to the floor, lathered
them in paint, covered the wet paint with a sheet of plastic, and then
let the kids roll across, turning the wheels into a tool. When they
quickly exhausted the possibilities of that cumbersome approach, he
came up with a much better one. Recognizing that his students needed
equipment that would be fast and precise, Lefens jury-rigged a gizmo
similar to the face guard worn by football players, and attached a
laser pointer to the front of it, at about nose height. Sit before a
canvas wearing this contraption and your slightest head movement will
direct the laser beam. Add an assistant (a “tracker” in Lefens’s
lingo) who follows the beam in whatever pattern it describes, using
colors and tools chosen by the artist, and you can wind up with
paintings by kids who not only can’t lift a brush but probably haven’t
executed a plan of their own in their entire lives.

Lefens says he had to battle the Matheny administration for the entire
seven years he spent as a part-time teacher there. But his class,
which served a large number of the school’s residents, became a
high-profile success. The students turned out striking abstract
paintings that were shown—and sold—in galleries in New Jersey and New
York, bringing them recognition, respect, and their first earned

The Matheny program was the subject of a feature shown on the CBS
Evening News, and, Lefens notes, spurred a multimillion-dollar capital
campaign that eventually built the school an art center. But when he
wanted to expand beyond Matheny, to share his techniques with other
organizations so that more people could benefit from them, Lefens
says, he ran into opposition from the president and their
long-standing differences came to a head.

He quit his job at Matheny in 1999, and wrote the story of his
wheelchair warriors and their minirevolution. Published by Beacon
Press, Flying Colors became a Reader’s Digest choice for best
nonfiction. Now Lefens works through a small nonprofit1
organization—Artistic Realization Technologies or A.R.T.—and has an
anchor program at Princeton University. He’s also joined the ranks of
the disabled, in a way that makes creating his own art especially
difficult: afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa, Lefens is now legally

For a tiny organization (2006 budget just over $200,000), A.R.T.
boasts a knockout board of directors. Members have included John
McPhee, Willem Dafoe, Roy Lichtenstein’s son David, and Neil Young.

Though Lefens says he still has to hustle to raise money, funders like
the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation are backing him, and A.R.T.
has programs running in about 20 locations around the country.
His references are raves. Gail Lesko, a manager for Manasota ARC, a
day program in Bradenton, Florida, says they’ve had an A.R.T. program
for a year with 12 artists and four trackers, and “it’s one of the1
best things we ever did.” Lesko says paintings have sold for as much
as $1,500 (split 60/40 between the institution and the artist), and
that the proceeds, along with grant money, cover the cost of the
program. “But,” she says, “the most important thing is what the
artists are getting out of it.”

The T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability at Mississippi
State University, Starkville, has had a program for three years, and1
case manager Judy Duncan agrees that it’s had a tremendous impact on1
people “who do not make a single choice in their lives.” Says Duncan,
“It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen.”

A.R.T. is launching programs in a half dozen east coast locations this
year, but Lefens has been frustrated in his attempts to bring one to
Chicago. He says even though he can deliver funding there are no
takers among the organizations here. He’s been turned down by the
Misericordia support facility (they’d like to see a demonstration
first, they told me), the Walter S. Christopher School (which says
they don’t currently have any suitable students), Access Living (which
doesn’t offer art classes), and the Rehabilitation Institute (a
hospital, and therefore not appropriate for an ongoing art program,
they say). The only glimmer so far: the Rehab Institute might host a
demonstration in the fall.

Lefens says demonstrations are dangerous: people watch for half an
hour and think they’ve got it. But if trackers aren’t properly
trained, the program gets botched. He’ll do a demo here if he has to,
he says, but he’s puzzled by the resistance. “There seems to be …
a sort of fiefdom thing going on,” he observed in a recent e-mail.

“Free money, free training, all my secrets of the breakthrough, better
more prestigious vetting than any group they’ve ever worked with and
we get the straightarm . . . I simply don’t get it.”

The potential artists are here, he’s sure of that. How can it be, he
wonders, that no one in Chicago wants to set them free?


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