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Flying Colors



Ten years ago, Tim Lefens was introduced to a group of severely challenged students living at the Matheny School in New Jersey. None of them could walk, only one of them could talk, and all lacked the use of their hands. As a painter facing the gradual loss of his own eyesight, Lefens had come to fully appreciate the power of art, and he was determined to enable the students to paint despite their ...

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Ten years ago, Tim Lefens was introduced to a group of severely challenged students living at the Matheny School in New Jersey. None of them could walk, only one of them could talk, and all lacked the use of their hands. As a painter facing the gradual loss of his own eyesight, Lefens had come to fully appreciate the power of art, and he was determined to enable the students to paint despite their physical limitations.

Flying Colors is an immensely inspiring story about leaping over obstacles. It is a story of friendship, courage, and the dream that brought a group of forgotten people into the heart of life.

"Tim Lefens captures the amazing spirit of a group of youth the world thought could not succeed, illuminating, as well, the power art still has in a world where healing is all too often impersonal and reductive. This book is a keeper."
-Lauren Slater, author of Love Works Like This and Prozac Diary

"Brimming with enthusiasm . . . this wonderfully rich portrayal of student artists is a celebration to join."
-Enicia Fisher, Christian Science Monitor

"Art transforms the lives of a group of profoundly disabled individuals. . . . A vivid reminder that one teacher truly can make a difference."
-Kirkus Reviews

"An intensely moving memoir . . . unsparing and inspiring."
-Publishers Weekly

Tim Lefens is the founder of A.R.T. (Artistic Realization Techniques); he lives in Belle Mead, New Jersey

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Editorial Reviews

The audiobook is reviewed in this issue of KLIATT. To quote from that review: "Ten years ago Tim Lefens ...met eight handicapped young people who were eager to try their hand (wheels, really) at creating modern art. By spreading acrylic gel on canvas on the floor, students could make pictures by driving their wheelchairs across the surface. Eventually the students were featured on "Eye on America" and had art exhibits all over the country... The A.R.T. (Artistic Realization Techniques) program founded by Lefens is still providing an important outlet for handicapped children. Now children of four, five, and six can express themselves using lasers. Some use video camera, create music, and make sculptures. This book is the inspirational story of the power of art to change lives." KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Beacon Press, 216p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Janet Julian
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786193448
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/1/2002
  • Pages: 6

Meet the Author

Tim Lefens is the founder of A.R.T. (Artistic Realization Techniques); he lives in Belle Mead, New Jersey.
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Read an Excerpt

Flying Colors

The Story of a Remarkable Group of Artists and the Transcendent Power of Art

By Tim Lefens Beacon Press

Copyright © 2003 Tim Lefens
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780807031032

Chapter One

When you get to the top of the hill there are two ways to go: straight, which will take you into the woods, and left, which will take you to the hospital.

I had been told it was a school. The car slows to a crawl past the fancy wooden sign. It seemed like a nice enough thing, an abstract painter being invited to a school, but I, like you, am not anxious to go into a hospital, no matter what the reason.

The last acres of rising fields behind me now, the building appears; low, one-story, brick. It sits up on the top of this high hill: alone; quaint little towns and farmlands in the valley far below. A cardboard box under each arm. I wait outside the automatic glass doors of the main entrance. With a pneumatic exhale, the door rumbles open, and I step into the building. The receptionist is on the phone. When she gets off, she places a piece of paper and a blank ID badge on the counter, pushes them toward me.

"Fill these out," she says, then turns back to her work. Clipping the blank ID badge to my shirt, I hoist my slide projector and portable screen. Halfway down the main hall, fluorescent lights, gloss white cinderblock walls, shining linoleum floor. I have to step quickly to my right. Three doctors in white lab coats sweep past, behindthem a child on a stretcher. The doctors, the child, and the man pushing the stretcher make a hard right turn and disappear.

The kid had not been on the stretcher the normal way. The stretcher had been rigged so it stood vertically, pushed ahead on a set of four wheels, the child lashed to the stretcher by a wide nylon belt that ran across his chest, up under his armpits, the little arms extending out and away from his body, fingers splayed, eyes glazed, tiny feet hanging above the rushing floor.

My stomach tightens. Further down the hall, two women stand together. A third, younger, sits in a wheelchair. As I move past them I hear their conversation.

"You're going to see a movie today." One of the standing women speaks singsong to the woman sitting in the wheelchair. "A movie. Yes, you are. Do you like movies?"

The young woman in the wheelchair stares vacantly at the floor.

"Anyway, like I was saying"-the standing woman turns to her coworker-"I am definitely getting that place down the shore this year."

Well past the women, I am drawn for some reason to stop, to look back, and am startled to see the young woman in the wheelchair watching me. She smiles, her eyes warm with the pleasure that we, at least our eyes, have met. Turning away, I blink. One moment the young woman looks brain-dead, the next completely alive. A little light-headed, the experience becoming surreal, I order my legs to move.

At the end of the hall, a set of glass doors with a warning: Emergency Exit Only, Alarm Will Sound. Salida de Emergencia Solamente. Alarma Funcionara. To the right of the fire-door alcove, a short unlit corridor. At the end of the corridor, an open door. I look back at the landscape outside the emergency exit, then turn to step into the dark.

In the center of the small room sits a-a something, a person, his head held upright by a network of stainless steel wires that run like spokes 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. Totally disarmed by the force of this contact I look away. Disoriented, my eyes dart nervously around the room: a recessed window. On its sill mounds of objects made from chunks of torn Styrofoam, doused with diluted red paint. In the left corner, an upright piano beneath a sheet of transparent plastic, broken Styrofoam piled on top of it. In the far right corner, a sink full of black water. Against the side wall a metal desk, a rolling office chair, a white telephone attached to the white cinderblock wall, the receiver smeared with red paint. Bits of the brown linoleum floor show between layers of dried poster paint. Above, a dropped ceiling of acoustical tile, two banks of fluorescent lights that buzz and hum.

The young woman I had seen in the hall is wheeled into the room. Her head thrown back, she faces the ceiling, mouth open, large irregular teeth and gums exposed. Her arms extend sideways away from her body at right angles. One points down, the other up. The man who wheels her chair is the doctor who invited me here. Parking the woman between the window and the sink, he takes the handles of the chair of the man with the wired head and maneuvers him so that the back of his chair rests against the side wall between the sink and the metal desk.

"Well, look who's here," the doctor greets me. "Where can I put this?" I ask, nodding to the slide projector. "Oh, anywhere," he says, looking up from his clipboard. When I do not move, he looks at me. "I think there's a socket over there someplace." He points with his chin at a section of wall behind the man with the wired head.

I avoid the man's eyes, but in kneeling see his shoes. The toes point in at each other. With the projector plug pushed in, I get to my feet, wipe my hands on my jeans. The woman with the angled arms watches me.

"Hi," I say.

The woman's body explodes. Her arms and legs flapping wildly, they bang hard into the chrome tubing of her wheelchair. As suddenly as she had exploded, she is still. Her head rolls forward onto her shoulder. She smiles. Her eyelids lower very slowly, her big brown eyes close. Then smoothly, slowly, they open.

In the doorway, a boy. Maybe thirteen. Very white skin, short red hair, skinny, pointy nose. His forearms are lashed to the armrests of his wheelchair by wide black bands of Velcro. The woman who pushed him into the room leans to set the chair's parking brake, then turns and leaves without a word.

"Right on time," the doctor says to the boy.

"I"-the boy separates each of his words-"do, not. want. to. be. here."

"Well," the doctor says, "if you don't want to be here, you can wait in the hall."

The boy rises up against his restraints; his face turns bright red, his fingers draw into little fists, the knuckles showing white; he screams.

"I don't want to be here!"

The clipboard falls to the doctor's side.

"Like I said," he says, "if you don't want to be here, you can wait in the hall." The doctor releases the parking brake, takes the handles of the wheelchair, and maneuvers the boy against the wall next to the man with the wired head.

"Are we about ready?" the doctor asks me, then moves to the center of the splattered floor. Beneath the fluorescent lights, his lab coat glows white. "Tim," he addresses the class, "is a professional artist. He has had shows in New York City. He is here today to show us some of his work and to share his ideas with us."

What ideas? I ask myself. Getting free of the limitations of the physical world? That was the point of my paintings. I'm supposed to share this zeal for freedom with them as they sit strapped in their wheelchairs? The urge to get back outdoors is overwhelming, if not for my exit at least to clear my head. I glance at the redheaded boy. Livid with anger, he glares down at his Plexiglas laptray. Feeling my eyes on him, he glares up at me, glares out the window, then back down at his tray.

The doctor pulls the door shut. The room goes black. My mind hovers.

Plip, plip, plip, droplets fall from the tap into the water in the sink. I hear the wrenching sobs of a child out in the main hall, muffled by the closed door.

"Tim?" the doctor asks.

I feel for the projector's on-off switch. A bright rectangle of light illuminates the white field of the portable screen, the same my father used to show us home movies. Flickering images of us kids, my brother, sisters, and me, swimming splashing laps in the sun-crazed swim-club pool.

In the light that escapes the ventilation grate on the back of the projector, I see the intense face of the boy. The incandescent light plays off the stainless steel wires that hold up the man's head. The young woman appears in silhouette, backlit by the dim light of the gray sky outside the recessed window. No sound now other than the water droplets and hum of the projector's fan.


I reach out to press the button, the first of my paintings drops into view. It is tall, and quite narrow. A randomly slathered coating of cream-colored acrylic gel, three inches thick, had been laid down first, then in the bottom left corner the outline of a square, crudely brushed in wide strokes of metallic rust and crimson. Rising up off the square is the furtive outline of a rectangle painted in four wispy thin strokes. It claims the greater space above the square, it is looser, freer. The awkward square, held down by gravity; the tracery of the thin rectangle, above it, dancing in the wind.

I glance down at the red-haired boy. How intensely he is looking at the image. I mean, he is really staring at it.

Stripped down, his life is raw, his energy: keen.

"Can you tell us about your painting?" the doctor asks.

I clear my throat. "Well," I say, "it's not always such a hot idea, talking about your own paintings. You make paintings to say something you can't say with words. But, well, if I had to describe what I was thinking about when I made these, it might be about being held down, and getting free. Like the little squashed square down there in the left-hand corner is a body, and the looser, bigger shape rising out of it is the thing that can't be held down. A thought. A feeling. Our spirit."

I reach for the projector. The second painting drops into view. As the rest are shown I manage to say a little something about how each was made. When the last one has been up for a few minutes, I say, "That's it."

A switch clicks, a buzzing sound, the fluorescent lights turn pale blue, then fill the room with white light. I know the doctor is speaking, but I do not take in his words. I look at the woman. Her head sways gently from side to side, her eyes holding mine.

"... thank Tim for coming up today," the doctor is saying, "and maybe he will come up and see us again. What do you say, Tim?"

I look at the floor, then up at the man with the wired head. When our eyes meet, he nods, an inch, the metallic spokes of his wire crown drawn downward with this slight movement of his head. I look at the fierce little redheaded boy. I look at the three. They look at me.

"See you," I say.

Down off the hill, through the countryside with its horse farms and wealthy estates, down the highway around the traffic circle, through the town of strip malls and condos, the drive back is less than pleasant. Incomplete thoughts, disparate, unfamiliar emotions lash about inside me. At a red light, ears from a gas station, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts vie to enter the intersection. Music pounds from a car with its windows tinted black.

Home, I rest my forehead on the kitchen table. For some time, I think of nothing. Then I see the man with the wired head. Not so much his body, but his eyes, that look he gave me when I first saw him. Clear, with a steely light, not at all sad or weak as you might expect. He had a second or less to connect with me before I looked away. He gave this second everything he had; his gray eyes open to me as he hoped I would be to him. This stays in my mind.

Making a drink, I sit back down at the kitchen table. I wonder what it is like for him not to be able to talk with anyone. As I sit here, he sits up there, on top of that hill, in that building, silent, motionless, looking straight ahead, at whatever wall they parked him toward.

I think of the young woman. She was flirting with me. She was not the zombie I saw in the hall. And the angry little red-haired kid. Fierce and determined as a wolf I had once seen, in a dog's pen. The next few nights, I lie awake. I think about the richness of a million things they cannot do. Like: open a window, hug a dog, climb a tree, call to a friend, scratch an itch, turn the pages of a book. Cordoned off from the outer, physical world, they do not even touch the earth. I try to imagine never feeling bare feet on wet grass, burning sand, tilled soil, immersed in a cool and flashing stream. All the pleasures we enjoy are as far away from them as the moon. All out of reach, like all the things they must see going on around them without them. They live inside themselves.

There is something worse than their bodies not working. 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.

On my way down the main hall, leaving the school, I saw six older students in wheelchairs in a classroom. They sat parked close together, side by side, facing a blaring TV. A purple dinosaur standing upright sang a saccharine children's song. Harmless and round as a velour hippo, it gestured with its little arms, the voice coming from the great toothy grin, "I love you. You love me. We're a happy family." The students looked as stupefied as you would expect from "vegetables," or as you yourself would look if you were strapped in a chair unable to speak your mind for fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years.

Trapped first by their bodies, then again by the people around them. One massive barrier wall stacked on top of another. Quite a height to overleap. The isolation must be crushing. Yet there is that light in their eyes. How had they kept their spirits alive? What would they tell us if they had the power?

In the morning after a cup of black coffee and some walking around, I call the school.

"Matheny School and Hospital. How may I help you?"

"I, I, I'm not exactly sure."

"How may I help you?"

"I was up there, at the school ..."


Excerpted from Flying Colors by Tim Lefens Copyright © 2003 by Tim Lefens. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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