On Saturday, February 20, the Yale Center for British Art and Chapel Haven, a residential school and independent living facility for people with cognitive and social disabilities, brought together groups of individuals of different ages and abilities to create art and raise autism awareness. The day’s activities included building a bird sanctuary with potted flowers and making free-form sculptures on the grounds of Chapel Haven. The participants also painted a mural that will be on display at Woolsey Hall on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, and subsequently in one of the Center’s classrooms. Linda Friedlaender, Senior Curator of Education at the Center, and Tina Menchetti, Art Director at Chapel Haven, organized the event with Mackenzye Smith (PC ’18), Lauren Tucker (ES ’18), and Zachary Williams (DC ’17) from Students for Autism Awareness at Yale (SAAY).
“This was a special occasion in that for the first time it combined outreach programs for children and students on the autism spectrum with residents of Chapel Haven,” said Friedlaender.
“One of the most unique aspects is how the art will be shown where the public gets to see the talents of these students. The art will be displayed with pride, not something that sits and stays at home, in a drawer,” said Menchetti. “The public gets to share in the experience of their art.”
From morning until noon, participants in the Center’s Exploring Artism program, which includes children who are five to twelve years of age and on the autism spectrum, joined members of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Fitness Center for the event. For the afternoon session, teenagers from Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross high schools were invited to come work on the art projects. Students from Out to Art, a weekly program for Chapel Haven residents and students hosted by the Center, were also a part of the weekend activities. While the Center has been closed during the last year for building conservation, this program has continued at Chapel Haven and other locations around the city. Members of the Art Club, run by the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale Child Study Center, also came to the later session. Kathy Koenig (Associate Research Scientist in the Child Study Center; Clinical Nurse Specialist in Psychiatry; and Director, Initiative for Girls and Women with Autism Spectrum Disorders) created the Art Club, a program for teenage girls on the autism spectrum. Members of SAAY volunteered throughout the day, and the Chicago sculptor Margot McMahon (Yale MFA 1984) led the creation of the site-specific aluminum sculpture on Chapel Haven’s front lawn.
The participants also painted wooden birdhouses with bright colors. They created planters, filling them with soil and flower bulbs to bloom in the upcoming spring. The planters were placed in an underground maze, surrounding a large tree, festooned with the birdhouses. The group built the centerpiece sculpture to attract birds to the garden.
Saul Fussiner accompanied his seven-year-old son, Angus, to the event. His family has participated in the Exploring Artism program for several years. His daughter, who is not on the autism spectrum, often joins her brother at the classes because art is her favorite subject. Fussiner said the program always offers something different. He recalled how in one class, after examining works by Matisse, the participants created their own paper cutouts. At the public art event, he watched Angus make a planter, sharing paints and a paint brush with another child, eleven-year-old Alex Bungiro.
Exploring Artism and Out to Art have attracted national attention, becoming models for classes in museum environments for people with special needs. The two programs have been presented at the National Art Education Association meeting and at the VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education conference.
Museums require focusing a certain level of attention on the art, and following social protocols. For Friedlaender, this represented opportunities for learning experiences, and making art more inclusive to a wider, more diverse audience.
Chapel Haven students have asked when the Center is reopening because they look forward to returning, according to Menchetti. “They feel safe in the museum. They know all the security guards and feel welcome,” she added. Friedlaender recalled unexpectedly seeing one of the Chapel Haven students at one of the Center’s Art in Context lectures. On his own, he had taken a bus to downtown New Haven to attend the talk.
Mike Storz, President of Chapel Haven, called the partnership with the Yale Center for British Art a priceless opportunity. He said a diagnosis of autism can sometimes strip parents of their hopes and dreams for their children. However, he believes the work in the Out to Art program helps restore parents’ hopes and dreams for their children to function independently. “Every child and every adult, no matter what, deserves to feel respected, loved, and part of a community,” he said.
Zachary Williams, currently a psychology and neuroscience major at Yale, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of four. Now, he plans to pursue an MD and PhD, and to become a psychiatrist. He currently works at the Yale Child Study Center for Dr. James McParland, who conducts autism research. For Williams, the best part of the day is when participants make connections. “The most fun thing is seeing families and people in the autism community get together,” said Williams.
Other Yale students active in SAAY who volunteered at the event included Nafeesa Abuwala (BK ’19), Lexis Anderson (PC ’18), Ludivine Brunissen (BR ’19), Genevieve Esse (CC ’19), Victoria Hall (TC ’17), Nicole Mo (BK ’19), Ladan Mohamed (BR ’19), Victoria Solomon (DC ’19), and Kelsey Walter (SY ’19).