An extra-wide, blank canvas lay out on the concrete. A crowd creative minds arm themselves with 250 water balloons full of paint to splash across the white space, and dowels and stirrers to flick like magic wands. Most splatter paintings are hung up when the color is unleashed, but this one is on the ground so painters in wheelchairs can work alongside standing ones. All the artists have some kind of disability, and the splatter painting is part of the art therapy program provided by the Arc of Tuscaloosa.
The Arc has been meeting the needs of adults with intellectual disabilities since 1957, starting in Minneapolis, Minn. and branching out into a network of state and local chapters. Tuscaloosa County’s chapter curated a gallery exhibition of artwork made in the weekly art therapy that is open at the historic Bama Theatre until Sept. 26.
“The choir sang, the food was wonderful,” said Donna Callahan, the Arc of Tuscaloosa’s interim executive director. “It was such a good night for it, and so many people stuck around to enjoy it.”
The gallery debuted full collections from four artists from the Arc, Matthew A., Curtis D., Gloria H., and Anthony W., along with individual works and team efforts from other art therapy consumers. Will Yates, the art therapy instructor, said all the artists were confident in their work and appreciated all the good feedback.
“They just want people to see what they’ve done,” Yates said. “They’re able to make something on a professional level so they love being recognized just when someone says they like their painting.”
Anthony W., one of the Arc’s most prolific painters created the popular piece “Five Minutes of Funk” and another painting depicting the Twin Towers in New York.
The art projects at the Arc have hit every corner of the creative world, from Christmas ornaments with swirling glass to vibrant, dyed silk scarves. The scarves were a project conceived by Carol Woodard, the Arc of Tuscaloosa’s bookkeeper, who played her own part in the art therapy group.
“It’s a collaboration,” Callahan said. “We all contribute whatever we can.”
The goals of art therapy sessions are usually sensory stimulation and personal expression, both engaging the senses and communicating what someone is feeling. Of course, everyone wants to get festive during the holidays, so seasonal projects are popular.
“For Thanksgiving we might paint a cornucopia,” Yates said. “They really went crazy for the gingerbread houses. We tried to make a neighborhood but once everything was laid out it was free rein.”
Sensory stimulation can be an important part of someone’s routine if they have an intellectual or sensory disability. Art therapy participants often open up and become more relaxed and social when they have an opportunity to work with their hands or vibrant color, Yates said.
“We have one guy who is deaf and blind in one eye,” Yates said. “He’s very in tune with his fingertips, so once he gets into a project he’s interacting with everyone in class, having a good time.”
Other projects focus on bright, engaging colors. Making dye patterns on t-shirts is a favorite because of how every shirt comes out unique. Sometimes, though, just the chance to express oneself is enough to brighten their day.
“One guy is obsessed with Nascar,” Yates said. “No matter what we do, whether it’s a sculpture or an ornament, there’s going to be a racecar.”
Whatever the medium, creativity always shines through when the group has time to get the hang of something new.
“I’ll give them something to work with like stamps and see what they come up with,” Yates said. “I’m always surprised at how many different ways they work. We’re creating a unique perspective. That’s what Creative Expressions is all about.”
The Arc’s main services are rehabilitation programs and supportive employment. Job coaches talk to businesses about the benefits of hiring someone with a disability and pair up positions with the right workers for the job.
“They prove to be such good employees,” Callahan said. “They’re always there on time and they work as hard as anyone.”
The Arc also organizes the Sounds of Joy choir, a singing group that performs popular songs like “Lean on Me” and “America, the Beautiful” all around the state. The group is often requested in schools, churches and nursing homes, and they have travelled to Mobile and Birmingham to sing.
“They sing those heartstring-pulling songs that people love to hear,” Callahan said. “They’re in very high demand, and now is there busy season.”
Overall, the Arc aims to make adults with disabilities feel welcome and accepted, all while trying to improve their quality of life.
The art therapy team splatter painting sold for $300 in the show’s first weekend, and all the proceeds go right back to art supplies for new projects. From paint and brushes to clay or fabric, the Arc’s resident artists’ primary goal is taking on new forms and mastering the ones they know.
“They always come up with their own process,” Yates said. “They’re creative minds with something to communicate, so they’ll always have something to get out there.”
The Creative Expressions III exhibition will be on display at Bama Theatre through Sept. 26.

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