She can’t see—I’m told—she’s legally blind. I sit down next to her and pick up a pink piece of tissue paper. “This is a pretty color,” I remark. “She doesn’t communicate either,” says the staff person across the table. But I sit down and she cranes her neck to look at me. I sit down and she senses that I’m there. She has dark skin and wide eyes; the kind of eyes that see through you.
She holds a glue stick in one hand—it hovers inches away from the white paper plate covered with a mess of colorful squares. With her free hand, she reaches for my hand, finds my wrist, and guides it toward the edge of her glue stick. I tilt my wrist upward so that glue meets paper. She feels the pressure of the paper on the glue and peers down at it, at the glue, or at the plate, and pushes my hand forward. Pink tissue paper collides with white paper plate and she’s glued her first piece of the rainbow.
I don’t believe that she can’t see, or understand me when I comment on the fusion of colors. So I let her find the next square and only prompt her with words she may or may not hear—wanting this project to be hers.
That is the mission behind FEGS Haym Salomon Arts; to provide the paper plates and the tissue paper, but to let you decide which colors to glue and where to glue them; to lead you to the table, but to let you sense why you’re there, despite or because of the tenacity it took to get there.
Ownership, pride, dedication—these are the words that come to mind when I think about the people and projects I’ve encountered this summer. Witnessing the array of inventive submissions to the Annual Arts Awards Competition and handling unique after unique piece enlightened me one-hundred-fifty times over about what it means to celebrate color. Meeting artists who didn’t know they were artists until now and artists who knew they were artists their entire lives but had not been formerly recognized for their work revealed to me what it means to take risks; to allow yourself to devote your time to creating beauty, and to let that beauty fall into a stranger’s hands.
In the workshop I was fortunate to facilitate in Brooklyn PROS Possibilities, I asked participants to tell me stories, to share stories about their names and their favorite places, to converse with each other. In an introductory exercise, I asked each participant to announce his or her name, complemented by an action. We went around the circle. I asked if anyone could remember the names or the actions of everyone in the group. One of the deaf participants, without hesitation, mastered the entire group’s actions, clapping, bowing, waving, climbing on cue, as if she had choreographed the routine. I was impressed, musing whether her experience using sign language strengthened her memory for movement. My workshop, which I had dubbed “Creative Storytelling,” became more creative than I had imagined, with participants communicating in unique ways.
Another participant complained when he discovered the title of the activity, confessing that he couldn’t read or write. He had suffered a head injury that limited his literacy and short-term memory. Yet his power over words and recall of detail remained stunning. He spoke of God and faith and religion, reciting Bible verses and ethos as fluently as the ink poured from the pens around him, unable to put pen to paper, but to make me wish he could. When I asked him if I could write what he said, certain phrases, to share with the group, to internalize, he thanked me. I envied him for his memory, his clarity of focus on beauty and truth. He didn’t need to read or write to internalize—he listened, and heard, himself and those around him. His words resonated, eternal, as they came from deep within.
While we shared details about where we were from, train rides it took to get here, old checkered seats and cigarette butts littering the floor, pining for lakes and Puerto Rico, remembering a mother’s love for flowers…I felt a tangible gratitude toward everyone around me. Like tissue paper in the hands of a woman who is questionably blind, these fragments of beauty were handed to me.
We paste a translucent lavender square onto the plate, when the staff member announces it is time for lunch, time to clean up. I try to draw the artist’s attention to the collage that we’ve created, holding it before her like a mirror, like she can see her own reflection in the art. She gazes at it. I don’t know what she can see, and I don’t ask. Then she turns and looks at me, her eyes as wide as when the hour began. They seem to say something. I tell her it’s beautiful, what she made, that I’m going to hang it up on the wall. And then she turns, gracefully pushing away a chair that impedes the aisle, clearing my path to the montage.
Not only is she an artist, but she knows it. I write her name on her collage.