PEAPACK NJ - When Michael Martin was born nearly 40 years ago, he was diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic.  All four of his limbs were compromised, and he would never be able to speak. “We were told he would be a vegetable,” says his father Alan.  “We recognized, though, that he had a nice personality. Even though he couldn’t talk, he was capable of smiling.”  Adds his mother Linda: “We knew he understood us. He would react to things we said.”

That ability to react would be significant when Michael reached the age of 21 and was enrolled in the Matheny Medical and Educational Center’s adult day program. Matheny is a special hospital and educational facility in Peapack, NJ, for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities. Its Arts Access Program was created in 1993 to answer the question: “Can people with disabilities create fine art?” Michael, whose parents, Alan and Linda Martin, reside in Morris Plains, NJ, is living proof that the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Arts Access enables people with disabilities to create fine art by having professional artists act as facilitators. Michael paints by responding “yes” or “no” to a facilitator. He looks up for “yes”; does nothing for “no”. Typical questions from a facilitator would be: “Do you want me to go up? Do I need to move to the left? To the right? Is this the spot? Spray it now? From this distance? Closer? How many times?”

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Through the years, Michael’s visual artwork has been exhibited at venues such as the Monmouth Museum, Bernardsville, NJ, Public Library, Johnson & Johnson headquarters in New Brunswick, NJ, and the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. His work includes large and small acrylic works on canvas and digital paintings, and his style is very recognizable. “At the exhibit at the Bernardsville Library,” Linda Martin says, “We walked in, and, immediately, I said, ‘That’s Mike’s.’”

According to visual arts facilitator Stephen Haluska, Michael’s style, “is very intricate and detailed, with lots of steps and layers. He uses all sorts of different tools to create all kinds of effects. He has a strong aesthetic that he knows and desires. And, you can almost always tell a painting is a Mike Martin.” 

Andrew Edge, Arts Access visual arts coordinator, describes Michael as “very detail oriented. He seems to know when he is done with a painting. He has worked on some for years, but, like any artist, may have multiple pieces in progress. He may get excited to work on one for awhile and then stop working on it to work on another, or start another.” His digital works, Edge points out, have “some very complex images that he has created with shapes and colors overlapping other colors, and some could be described as being a little more bold.” 

Linda Martin recalls a painting that Michael spent 3 1/2 years working on, but “he wasn’t happy with it because he wanted a purple background. So, he asked the facilitator to paint over it and then spent another 3 1/2 years on it.” The facilitator working with Michael on that painting was Keith Garletts, who remembers that the painting “was very detailed and visually could have been considered complete, had he said so. One day, Mike chose the color purple from our charting system and indicated he wanted to use a roller to apply it in a flat and smooth manner. I dug further to see if Mike needed to create anything new on the canvas in which to apply the paint, to which he responded, ‘No’.

“After another series of questions, I had determined that he wanted to cover the entire canvas with the purple paint. Knowing that there would be no going back from such a move, I needed to make sure that I was absolutely understanding Mike and what he wanted. I ran over all of the choices that he had made to dictate the next move and mentioned that everything that was on the canvas would no longer be able to be seen except the underlying textures, and asked, ‘Is this what you want?’ To which he responded with a very big eyes up ‘yes’.” At Michael’s direction, Garletts wiped out the underlying painting. “I began to cry on the inside,” Garletts recalls, “because I was assisting him in wiping out a beautiful work of art. When the entire canvas was covered, I checked again, as we do in facilitation. ‘Is this exactly how you want it?’ He responded with a huge eyes up and an even bigger smile. Three-and-a-half years later, I brought Mike into the painting station, unrolled the canvas and asked if he would like to continue to work on that canvas. ‘No’. I asked the follow up question: ‘Is the painting finished?’ Eyes up…’yes’. He had created a masterpiece.”

That painting, Garletts believes, “was really the emergence of Mike Martin the artist. Since then, he has a slew of canvases started and will work on each of them intermittently. He uses the same color palette across the board  -- using the same color mixes on all of his paintings  -- which really ties all of the works together as a collective body of work.”

When Arts Access was created 25 years ago, it was only a visual arts program. But the facilitation process used for paintings has been adapted to other art forms, and now artists with disabilities can choreograph dances; write poetry, prose, and drama; and dance and act onstage. Michael is an active participant in the writing program and is choreographing his first dance.

 Sonya Kimble-Ellis was hired as Arts Access’ writing facilitator in 2010. “When I arrived,” she says, “the writing program wasn’t fully developed. I came up with a system, using action words and photos. Michael actually helped me design the system. We started with picture graphs, and now it’s all computerized. And, Michael is now becoming a poet as well as a prose writer.”

 His dance number is a duet, with one male dancer and one female dancer. “Mike doesn’t always like to choreograph to music,” says dance facilitator Shannon Johnston, “so his dance will be accompanied by two of his poems and one short prose piece. There is only one other instance when someone has created a cross-disciplinary dance, using the choreographer’s creations from another medium. He is a trailblazer in many ways”

Alan Martin, recalling when he and his wife first learned that Michael was born with a serious disability, says, “We realized what his condition was, and all of our energy was on caring for him. Of course, you also realize you won’t have some of those normal moments you would have with your children.  Years later, out of nowhere, comes his artistic ability. This young man  -- his future looked dim. All of a sudden, he’s famous, popular. His art has been displayed in several places. I can sit there like a proud Dad and say, ‘That’s my son.’”