Style points: Judy Gittelsohn (left) helps Tristan Bence, Hannah Paley and Alan Lee with a project.
Cycle of Life And Art
At Art for Wellness in Palo Alto, Judy Gittelsohn uses creativity to draw out ar-risk and challenged youth
By Marianne Messina
IN HER brand-new art space, artist Judy Gittelsohn prepares four workstations of pushed-together desks for the arrival of about 10 developmentally challenged children. This after-school program sponsored by Palo Alto's Community Association for Rehabilitation (C.A.R.) is one of many groups for whom Gittelsohn teaches art.
At each workstation, she has placed a plant sprout in a cup, her outline drawing of the plant divided into six panels and neatly filled palates of colored paint. The children will paint one square each in this composite picture that Gittelsohn likens to quilting. "It's about the cycle of life," she explains, just before the children arrive in a flurry of activity.
With two aids in tow, they chatter, sit, stand, explore, sit as Gittelsohn explains the objective through the din. Colors flow; paints, papers, brushes are in disarray, and it's over in a matter of minutes. Watching the kids interact with the project at hand, you see moments of intense concentration, of delight, of being engrossed in the hand-to-eye experience—but the majority of these moments are measured in seconds, split seconds.
Gittelsohn is not disappointed. Surveying the finished paintings, she marvels at the unique personality each student has contributed. "Just like a thumb print," Gittelsohn comments, "our marks—our application of paint, marker, pencil, chalk—are precisely our own. Amazing."
The miracle of Judy Gittelsohn is fluidity. An award-winning painter with an architectural background, Gittelsohn provides a structured (often elaborately so) template, then she lets go, come what may. Once a finished product is in front of her, goal orientation shifts to "What can we make of this"?
The groups Gittelsohn teaches—at-risk youth, developmentally challenged children, adults recovering from illness or injury—must all overcome huge hurdles to paint. According to C.A.R.'s Wendy Kuehnl, Gittelsohn seems to say just the right things to unlock the students' strengths.
One of her students was a highly paid professional before he fell ill and lost his career to debilitating seizures. "He wanted to draw with perspective, but he couldn't get his mind around it." Gittelsohn recalls his breakthrough moment. "I said look at the corners of the room and see if they are an 'A' or a 'V.'" He got it. And she still remembers "watching him smile and begin to rework his brain."
In the case of illnesses, she points out, sometimes it's just a question of helping the brain to approach old tasks ("something difficult that used to be familiar") in new ways.
In her at-risk-youth program, Gittelsohn devised a project for young girls from East Palo Alto to interview and then paint important women in their community. She compiled the paintings in a booklet simply called A Book About Women by Girls and has saved up nearly half the money needed to print 1,000 copies of the books. She believes that it is important for these artists and their contributions to be part of the community at large.
One of her most ambitious projects, an elaborate composite built from the paintings of 207 children (called A Clear View), is on display, right over the large aqua-therapy pool at C.A.R.'s Betty Wright Swim Center in Palo Alto. When the complex of Plexiglass panels was unveiled, Gittelsohn introduced each child, pointing out his or her contribution while the audience applauded. "Each kid getting that reception was so proud—I cried for each one."
These artists' proud sense of accomplishment is the reason Gittelsohn plans to celebrate the new space and gallery for her "Art for Well Beings" programs (thanks to support from Early Learning Institute president Charles D. Bernstein) with a grand opening and all-inclusive art exhibit (May 6, 3-5pm).
The work of Gittelsohn's students can be seen around the South Bay, and at least one of her developmentally challenged adult proteges, Mike Jennings, has sold a number of paintings. With several paintings on exhibit at "Art for Well Beings," Jennings' youthful style captures an essence of raw delight. Gittelsohn says he always greets her the same way: "'You are Judy and I like art—I really like art.'"
Art For Well Beings, the Emerson Center, 2800 W. Bayshore, Palo Alto. Openings is Sunday (May 6), 3-5pm. (RSVP to 650.776.8297; see www.artforwellbeings.org for details.)
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