PEAPACK  -- Joe Matousek, a resident of Bayonne, NJ, graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and has constructed props and sets for such venues and attractions as the Hasbro Toy Show, the Orlando Science Center, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure . . .

Sonya Kimble-Ellis, who lives in Union, NJ, received her BA in English at Rutgers’ Douglass College, has written articles for such publications as Black Enterprise and the New York Daily News, and is the author of children’s activity books . . . 

Shannon Johnston, a resident of North Plainfield, NJ, has a Masters Degree in Dance Education and a BFA in Dance from Rutgers and runs a dance program for children with special needs at the Family YMCA in Wyckoff, NJ . . .

Sign Up for E-News

Mike Christie, who lives in Tewksbury, NJ, earned a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and has interned for various local and regional theatres.

All four of these artists have also been trained to be the arms and legs of adults with disabilities who create fine art as part of the Matheny Medical and Educational Center’s Arts Access Program, which empowers individuals with disabilities to create art without boundaries.

Matheny is a special hospital and educational facility here for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities. Arts Access was created in 1993 to answer the question: “Can people with disabilities create fine art?” The answer was a resounding ‘yes!, and the program will be celebrating its 25th anniversary at Full Circle 2018: Then and Now on Saturday, November 3. 

When Arts Access was created a quarter century ago, it was primarily a visual arts program. The facilitation process used for paintings was gradually adapted to other art forms, and now artists with disabilities can choreograph dances; write poetry, prose, and drama; and dance and act onstage. 

Facilitators must be professional artists, and, once they are hired by Matheny, they must complete a training program emphasizing that they maintain a sense of neutrality throughout the creative process. Being a facilitator is a challenging job, because it’s so important that all decisions are the artists’. In some cases, this is particularly difficult because some artists are non-verbal. But they all have a way of indicating ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It might be by looking up or down or shaking their heads in a certain direction.

Johnston recalls starting training in September 2016. Some of the Arts Access choreographers and dancers “were asked to start a new piece with me so I could practice asking about music, patterns, and movement.” One of the dancers, Cindy, “was so excited when she completed one of the ‘training pieces’, and so was I. She was the first artist to start and finish a piece with me, and that was really special.”

When Matousek started the training process, “I felt kind of tongue-tied  -- I wanted to ask so many questions, and I was not sure where to start. The training process was rigorous, and, if I did something wrong, the seasoned facilitators definitely let me know. But that’s the way it should be  -- it’s an important job to bring someone’s creative vision to life with absolutely no mistakes. Getting it right is the hardest thing.” Each artist, Matousek says, “is so individual and needs something different. I adapt to who they are and what they want.” 

The greatest challenge for Kimble-Ellis occurred during the early stages of working as a facilitator. “There were a few people who didn’t think or feel they could write. But, once presented with a process that would enable them to write relatively easily, they were all in. What I like most about facilitating is seeing the excitement or joy once someone finished a piece of writing, hears their piece read at a reading, when it’s included in Full Circle, or when it’s part of a book compilation or a book of their own.” Kimble-Ellis developed a system using action words and photos. “We started with picture graphs,” she says, “and now it’s all computerized.”

Christie first learned about the Arts Access Program when he was a junior at Gill St. Bernard’s School in Gladstone, NJ. He recalls “responding to an online posting looking for a volunteer to help with a drama group one night a week. My first impression of the program was that it was unique, innovative, and liberating for the participants. Initially, I was a little apprehensive because I had never volunteered with people with disabilities before, but that feeling immediately vanished once I got to know the artists. The program gave me a deeper appreciation of how the arts can enrich and empower lives.”

Johnston finds it challenging to “clarify all the details, especially in body part movements. When a choreographer wants to make up an arm movement, for example, they are looking at how the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and fingers can bend, curve, or rotate. They select the starting position of the arm, the ending position, and how the arm will travel there. There are a lot of options to look at, which requires the facilitator to keep the line of questioning clear.”

With drama, Christie emphasizes, “each artist has a different style and approach toward playwriting. While some artists are inspired by television shows or movies and just like to have fun writing short scenes, others are inspired by serious, personal experiences that they want to better understand and/or share with others.” 

“These artists,” adds Kimble-Ellis, “amaze me all the time, with their dedication, consistency, and patience. Many of them know all the hard work it takes to complete a piece of writing or book. They also know what it takes to finish a piece of choreography or painting. But they continue to do it until their creations are done. Many of the ideas and concepts they come up with for their art are so unique. Some are shocking, and others are funny. But they’re always true to who each one of them is as an artist. The results are creations that defy what the general public may think is possible from this population.”

People who attend the Full Circle celebration on November 3, says Johnston, will see how “the facilitators’ skills bring these artists’ work to life. I recommend people come to see Full Circle for themselves; it is better than any explanation could possibly be.” This program, adds Christie, “is a window into the lives of people who, though they are viewed as existing on the peripheries of society, have voices that are relatable, exciting, and profound.”

For those who come to Full Circle or visit Arts Access to meet the artists and see their work, it will, in Matousek’s opinion, be, “enlightening, empowering, and mind-blowing. The art is in them; we’re just here to help them get it out. You really have to see and experience it to get it.”

To learn more about Arts Access and the 25th anniversary Full Circle program, log onto www.artsaccessprogram.org.