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Innovative arts program at Southeast Works

Art Works

I met with Jen Barton, the art activities facilitator at the Southeast Works day habilitation facility in Depew. In a year’s time, Barton has managed almost single-handedly to put in place a comprehensive visual arts program for the structured day program’s developmentally challenged participants, including painting, clay sculpture, and video where before there was little more than dittos and crayons.

Coming from an art and psychology background, Barton started as a job coach but soon saw a strong need for more meaningful and productive activities in the four-times-weekly art sessions. Initially focusing on the most immediately interested participants, she now hosts art activity sessions for more than 60 individuals.

When we met at the Albright-Knox’s Art Education Gallery, where Matter at Hand art program and community art exhibits are displayed, there were lunch-bound troops of middle and high school students filing through the hallways on field trips past exhibit walls filled with brightly colored paintings neatly matted above a sturdy glass case with painted ceramics. A pedestal supporting a monitor showing computer-generated video art stands at the entrance to the exhibit. Along one wall are recycled spools from some pre-vocational training work—cutting regulation lengths of cordage for airline passenger oxygen masks. These have been painted and turned into mixed-media wall sculpture. The five participants with Barton are represented in the show, and the personal pride and pleasure they take in seeing their artwork exhibited in a public space is obvious.

Art can bridge prejudices, build friendships, change people’s vision of who they are and what is possible in life; it can even change abiding myths. Noted mythologist Joseph Campbell said one significant image can render insights beyond speech. At a time of ever-increasing financial pressures at all levels of societal support, questioning the validation of the arts in healthcare is still a drag on the agenda of progressive agencies like Southeast Works, Starlight Studio, Autistic Services Inc., and People Inc.’s Art Experience. These programs for developmentally challenged participants have made substantial advances in the public perception of the validity of visual arts programs, offering compelling evidence of improvement in participant satisfaction, regulation compliance, and staff retention—as reflected in an increasingly significant contribution of the visual and performing arts to the healthcare environment and the role of restorative political support for cultural arts organizations.

Coming to Western New York with more than 25 years experience managing nonprofit agencies for individuals with disabilities is Pamela Hayes, beginning the new year as Southeast Works CEO following the retirement of Judith Shanley, who during her 10 years directing the agency oversaw six-fold growth, expanding it from a small works program into residential, advocacy, and support services, while achieving strong fiscal stability and excellence of service.

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