Tim Lefens has opened a new world for the severely physically challenged. As Founder and Executive Director of A.R.T.(Artistic Realization Technologies), he has pioneered new ways for this population to express themselves creatively through art. He has cognitively freed them and watched their self-esteem and sense of purpose blossom. Tim’s own book, Flying Colors, is a testament to the power of his work. At 57, Tim has been blind for years but his passion and dedication to the A.R.T. mission remains at full throttle.
I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to talk with him.
Before you started A.R.T, you were actively involved in your own art as a painter. Did you have formal education and/or training in Art? Can you talk about your art now?
Yes, I went to art school and had a long string of great mentors including artists Roy Lichtenstein and Walter Darby Bannard as well as the renowned art critic Clement Greenberg . These were professionals who adopted me and helped tune in my understanding of art.
I won the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award for Painting and continue to paint. My shows have been in the New York Brooke Alexander and Farah Damji galleries as well as in New Jersey galleries. Current work can be seen on my website.
I’ve almost always been close to monochrome even when I had 20/20 vision. Also I have never really been into color but more focused on drawing and tactility. By just using your hands and imagination, you can feel the shape of the painting and know where you’re placing the built up paint. When it comes time to add color, I simply talk to someone to get the color I want.
What areas of the creative process does A.R.T. address? How are the components designed?
There is Painting, Sculpture, Music Composition, and Photography. The A.R.T. artists are in wheelchairs; often quadriplegic with limited speech so they need mechanisms that can adjust to them. In the painting program, they will wear headbands with a laser in the front. They direct the laser to a wall area where they can then select the brush size and color paint and a "tracker", (an able bodied assistant) facilitates their choice on the canvas at their direction which is again laser driven. In this way, painting is the least technical area because it only uses a laser; it’s a core basic program and the not expensive. The Music program works with our light actuated synthesizer with light sensitive diodes and costs thousands of dollars.
By interacting directly with an A.R.T. artist, I get ideas of how things should be done technically; for example, how the sculpture should move, how they can select the music notes. And I think about how that can be done with power. I have been fortunate to find engineers who have offered their services at very modest fees and have been able to develop the device. There are no patents for these devices; there are only prototypes and they have never been replicated.
Your A.R.T program involves recruiting physically challenged people to participate in the creative process, seeking financial sponsorships, and harnessing technology. Where are the greatest challenges?
After about 17 years of being on the road, our biggest challenge is in the perception of the able bodied. We manage to get some funding to keep going and have solved the problems of the population we are serving. However our challenge is not the quadriplegic non-verbal people; the challenge is how they are seen by the able bodied. So we are always working on this. If the physically challenged are thought of as incapable, then they are treated as incapable and there is no way out.
Who are your funders?
My funders include
the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which gave us both their Community Health Leadership and President's awards
The Kessler Foundation
The New York Community Trust
Johnson and Johnson
The Llura Gund Foundation and
The National Endowment for the Arts
Your book, Flying Colors, talks about your personal and professional journey with A.R.T. It's quite extraordinary.
I was fortunate to have success with it; the book has now been translated in Chinese.
The A.R.T. program is now running in multiple locations around the country. Can you talk about that?
There are about 27 fully functional satellites including the UK, Canada, and New Zealand. Once we saw the breakthrough in 1994 and how easy it works and profoundly effective; we had a goal to be global. Our first trip was to California and then we went to New Mexico, Florida, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio. We will go anywhere we can. Some of these states have multiple sites. For example, in Florida, we have 7 sites, in Pennsylvania there are 2, Ohio has 1; each state is different.
We want the people running the sites to bond with us so we can provide guidance. Those who have realized that benefit have succeeded big time especially since talking to us does not cost them.
The sites sell paintings to help fund their programs but they also need grants. For exhibitions, I urge them to aim high; to have a show in a museum rather than a café. Art shows tend to move people who have the capacity to fund and successful examples are Little Rock, Arkansas and Jacksonville Florida which are selling hundreds of paintings. At both sites, we are in touch weekly.
For new sites, they find us or we find them. Then we assess their situation; they need a minimum of 5 people to launch the A.R.T. program. After months of pre education, once they’re ready we fly out. Then after we do the workshops on site, it is not unusual to hear the staff sobbing and leaving the room because they have been working with these people forever and now all of a sudden they’re alive. It’s very intense.
In A.R.T. exhibitions, some artists sell their work for substantial sums of money. How are they priced and do you court collectors
Pricing is tricky and basically it is what the market will bear. A high selling mark is about $2400. Our collectors include a former governor and other serious buyers. One collector, a marine supply company, has purchased over 70 paintings from our Jacksonville site to fill offices at corporate headquarters. Then once they were filled, they started shipping art pieces to their sister headquarters in the Netherlands. Now they are moving to Houston so we hope to open that market.
You have suffered with a vision problem and are now totally blind. This must be an extraordinary challenge for you to manage your work. How long had it been progressing and how do you manage A.R.T?
They don’t really know what the condition is but have labeled it retinitis pigmentosa. I was diagnosed in 1988 and had no visual aids. However, the miracle was the talking computer because I wrote the entire Flying Colors book without a computer screen. Window Eyes was the software I used to write; it was very fast and the editor did not change one word.
I do not accommodate or embrace my condition. I do not deny that I am blind but I do deny its presence. I also work in an absorption mode which is when you have something so fascinating in your life that it displaces thoughts of having a disability. So my approach is a unique combination of denial and absorption.
In a perfect world, what would you imagine for A.R.T ?
That A.R.T will be universally accepted and embraced. That we give the population that we work with and love not only respect, joy and freedom but it also wake up the able bodied. Everyone would realize that you cannot judge a person from the outside. Period.
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