Healing Through the Arts

Creativity can alleviate autism symptoms while expanding horizons…

Art can play an important role in the lives of many children, teens, and adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It can be therapeutic, and gives the individual with autism an avenue of creativity and self-expression.   The activity of art can quell many of the stimulatory behaviors caused by the disorder and be a soothing and calming exercise for the participant.  Since many young children with autism have deficiencies in their gross and fine motor skills and are adverse to learning new things, teachers and parents should explore the options art offers as a therapeutic tool.

Teaming Up with Parents

Despite skyrocketing rates of autism over the past two decades, few opportunities and activities exist outside of the school setting for this growing group of students.  Mothers of children with autism are legendary for banding together and pioneering new opportunities where a void exists. This was the case when a group of local, noted artists had the desire to begin an autism art program for children. The artists were Carol Lombardo, Cynthia Walburn, and Holly Green who were also mothers of children with autism.

Carol Lombardo and I became friends through our daughters who were both on the autism spectrum. I had co-founded a local non-profit foundation, The HEAL Foundation (HEALing Every Autistic Life) with my husband Bobby Weed and Dr. Julie Buckley. Carol’s daughter Lara, an artist, had become somewhat of a local celebrity in her own right by illustrating several children’s books. Carol saw how therapeutic it was for Lara to paint and draw and felt this could inspire so many children like her daughter. Carol knew art could make a difference and would open up a new world for those who had never been properly exposed to painting and drawing.

A Unique Partnership

The HEAL foundation was at the time in its infancy and was providing grants for autism camps and educational programs throughout the greater Jacksonville Area in northeast Florida. Carol approached me to see if The HEAL Foundation could provide a grant to begin art classes for autism at MOCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville). I was thrilled with the prospect and as luck would have it, the director of MOCA at that time, Debbie Broder, was interested in hosting an art program for kids on the autism spectrum.  Debbie asked Carol to assist her art educators on staff in developing a special art program specifically designed to meet the needs of those with autism. It was the perfect opportunity to begin a unique partnership between The HEAL Foundation and MOCA to begin an autism art program from scratch.

In the spring of 2007, The HEAL Foundation awarded its first grant to MOCA to begin a “Spring Break Art Camp.”  The students were selected the first year by Carol Lombardo, who contacted the public schools/autism coordinators to get recommendations of kids who had an interest in art who would also be good candidates. The camp was free, and we limited it to eight students so as not to overwhelm the museum staff. By limiting the number, and selecting students who showed an obvious interest, we were setting up the program for success.

Expanding the Options

The artist moms continued to volunteer their time and worked at the camps to ensure the museum staff was prepared and supported. After the first year, the staff –who had never worked with kids on the spectrum –felt competent with their efforts and was ready to continue another year of art camps. The second year, they added more students, but still hand-selected them. After the completion of year two, the staff was so confident and comfortable, they decided to take it over and open it up to students anywhere on the spectrum.

Getting to that point is very important, because the museum staff needs to feel confident working with the students without outside supports in order for it to succeed. By year three the Museum had taken ownership of the program and called it their own. They named the program “The Rainbow Artist Series” and it grew each year, generating interest and funding from other sources. Eventually, the program was fully funded and became a regular museum program. It is staffed by the art educators and by volunteer parents of children on the autism spectrum to offset costs.

Very Special Arts

Once “The Rainbow Artists” became a success, the Executive Director of HEAL, Scottie May, and I visited Hope McMath, Director of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens to inquire if they too would be interested in hosting camps for students with autism. The Cummer Museum had experience working with children with disabilities, hosting an annual event each spring called the “Very Special Arts” Festival (VSA). The Cummer Museum’s VSA program – a nationally recognized event designed specifically for school children with disabilities-spans over a three-day period hosting nearly 3,000 ESE students. The students are bused from four surrounding counties and spend an educational afternoon of art at the museum.

There are eight art stations meandering all through the stately museum and out into the beautiful gardens situated along the scenic St. Johns River. Live music with guitar and drum ensembles fills the air and musicians invite the children to join in. The students visit each station, engaging with volunteers to create art projects including many different art mediums from sculpting to watercolor painting in the gardens.

Through the VSA, The Cummer Museum director and staff had experience working with special needs children, but at the time did not offer a specific art class or camp for children with autism.  After hearing the success of the MOCA autism art program, Hope McMath and her staff welcomed the opportunity to offer art camps for students with autism. HEAL awarded The Cummer a grant to get the art camp classes going and they continue to be a great success.

The Butterfly Project

By 2009, both MOCA Jacksonville and The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens were gaining recognition for their superb work in hosting camps for kids with autism. Carol Lombardo and I brainstormed on many ideas to create a HEAL art project to get the students’ art into the public arena so we could share the successes we were seeing. We decided to bridge the museums together with an art project which could also raise money for the art programs. By exhibiting and auctioning off the art created by the students, we could generate money to off-set the costs of the camps. This would also allow the students to exhibit their art in our community, making them proud of their accomplishments.

Within the HEAL logo is a butterfly which signifies change, joy, love and metamorphosis, something we hope for our children with autism. Using the butterfly theme, we created “The Butterfly Project: art interpretations of the butterfly” to encourage collaborations between noted local artists and the students who attended the art camps. Small teams of students were paired up with artists to create their interpretation of the butterfly. The outcomes were amazing:  some of the paintings were abstract, some full of vivid color-one in particular had the handprints of the children within the butterfly—and all were stunning and beautiful.

The Butterfly Project turned out fourteen paintings which “migrated” across Jacksonville to different venues for residents of the city to see. Months later, the butterfly paintings eventually made their way to the TPC Sawgrass Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, to be auctioned at The HEAL Foundation’s “Valley of Dreams” gala. Thousands of dollars were raised through silent auctions which were invested back into MOCA and Cummer museums via grants from HEAL for continued support of their autism art programs.

A Rainbow Artist is Discovered

Dozens of amazing stories have emerged out of the MOCA and The Cummer Museum Autism art camps, but one of the most riveting is about a young girl who is non-verbal, full of stimulatory behaviors, and could rarely ever sit and attend.  Profoundly affected by autism, Gentry Groshell was at the time twelve years old and her mother Amy had witnessed Gentry painting at school one day.  Amy noted that when Gentry had a paint brush in her hand and was painting, the constant cacophony of stemming began melting away.

Amy had heard about the program at MOCA and called to see if Gentry would be able to attend the classes if accompanied by an aid. The staff agreed to give it a try and the result was stunning: each session found Gentry attending to the task of painting for longer periods of time, and her art ability progressed rapidly.

Transformation and Freedom

One day while visiting the art camp, I observed Gentry painting. It was the most unbelievable transformation in a child with such severe autism that I’ve ever witnessed.  The staff put out paints next to a huge canvas and Gentry grabbed a brush, honed in, and began a masterpiece with vibrant colors sweeping across the canvas. Sometimes she would abandon the brush and use her hands to create the image of her self-expression.  The act of painting became a symphony of movements, bouts of giddy laughter, and deep intense focus producing vivid lively paintings in colorful hues. Abruptly, she would smack the brush down and leap out of her chair which signaled she was finished.

After Gentry had completed a painting, she seemed calmer and more at ease.  The act of painting physically and mentally freed her of the stimulatory behaviors which had such a firm grip on her. During the painting process, she took full rein of the out-of-control impulses and endless energy, allowing her to hyper-focus on her creation.  Gentry’s parents had her paintings professionally matted and embellished with elaborate frames which they displayed throughout their beautiful home. When visiting the Groshell home, I would rave over Gentry’s paintings and could tell that she took great pride in her work by the immediate shift in her behavior. There was a certain twinkle in her eye-an indicator she had cued into my positive compliments regarding her paintings.

Before long, Gentry had produced so many paintings they were stacked up all over the Groshell home. It was then that Amy’s husband Howard found a venue in Jacksonville to have an exhibition of Gentry’s paintings. Hundreds came out to attend and support this first exhibition.  Next, dozens of her paintings donned the Duval County Public Library in an exhibition featured throughout the library.

Lasting Effects

Fast forward:  Gentry is now 16 years old. A few weeks ago, local art gallery Gallery 725 featured dozens of Gentry’s paintings. The event was a huge success, raising over $5,000 to benefit the MOCA Rainbow Artist Series. Amy has also created a jewelry line using Gentry’s art with the proceeds going to Autism art programs.

 Through art, Gentry discovered and unleashed her creative spirit and self expression. This wonderful story transpired because of the ingenuity of the artist/autism moms and the collaboration between The HEAL Foundation, MOCA and theCummerMuseums. A child’s life was forever changed and through this discovery, Gentry has found her gift in the arts. Gentry’s future has many great paintings yet to fill massive frames to be displayed proudly in homes and galleries.

The HEAL Foundation:  HEALing Every Autistic Life, was founded in 2004 by Bobby and Leslie Weed in collaboration with pediatrician Julie Buckley, MD, all parents of daughters with autism. The HEAL Foundation is a local non-profit organization in northeast Florida serving individuals and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Foundation serves as an outreach organization and has awarded nearly one million dollars in grants to support camps, education, community programs, ESE classroom enhancements, educational seminars, and also hosts several fun recreational and social events for families.

Find out more

The HEAL Foundation  -   healautismnow.org

Gentry Groshall Paintings  -   peaceofheartjewelry.com

Leslie Weed

Leslie Weed, Co-Founder of the HEAL Foundation, HEALing Every Autistic Life, has helped change the world for children with autism.  Her pursuit has been inspired by her own family’s struggles in raising her daughter, Lanier, who is non-verbal and profoundly affected by autism. For more than ten years, Leslie traveled to Washington, DC, advocating for children with autism on a national level. Since 2007, HEAL has awarded nearly one million dollars in Leslie’s community through grants, providing autism classrooms with enhancements, and educational programs and camps tailored to the needs of those with autism. Leslie resides in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida with her husband, Bobby and her three daughters Haley, Carley and Lanier.


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