Amy Leff's drawing of her favorite movie character, "Woody," from "Toy Story."

As with so many others, Amy Leff was faced with being a shut-in during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her work was closed, and Leff says, “I got bored at my parents’ house. So I taught myself to draw.”

Now, Leff is one of a dozen congnitively disabled adults taking a nine-month art class called the “Masterpiece Project,” which culminates with an exhibit on March 11 and 12.

Artist Valerie McCune, from the outreach group Art Encounter, teaches the class, where it’s less important for participants to stay within the lines than it is to help them break outside of the lines that others may assign them.

Teacher Valerie McCune with class at Noyes Cultural Arts Center. Amy Leff is on her (R).

Those taking the course have a variety of cognitive disabilties, such as autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. Some are non-verbal.

“Art kind of levels the playing field,” McCune says.

“You don’t know who is behind the art. It doesn’t matter.”

Program participants are involved with the Center for Independent Futures, a group that helps those with disabilities build life-skills, from finding housing to getting a job.

In fact, about half of those involved with the Center are employed.

“Remember we are part of the population,” says a poster-in-progress, which is part of a class project.

“Believe in yourself!! Be confident!!,” is the caption on class member Alan Cohen’s drawing

Alan Cohen’s artwork.

Jeff Monthorst, the Center’s program director, says socialization and making friends is a significant part of activities such as the art classes.

“For some folks, it’s the difference between being home alone tonight and not having anyone to connect with, versus going out and having fun,” he says.

Art Encounter, now in its 45th year, has a mission of bringing people to art, and bringing art to the people, with activities ranging from studio visits to classes for all ages.

This particular class, Pinsky says, is a way of “giving individuals with disabilities some support to help live independent lives.”

Part of being independent might be the ability to try something a bit different. Allen Cohen not only went outside the lines with his painting, “Spontaneous.” There were no lines at all.

Artwork by Alan Cohen.

“I was consciously thinking of one of my all-time favorite artists, Jackson Pollock,” Cohen says.

Teacher McCune says there’s a sense of bonding with her students, the same sense that developed a decade ago, when McCune started teaching art at her mother’s nursing home.

“I saw this emotional lighting up as soon as they picked up a brush,” McCune recalls.

It’s the same with the current class.

“It’s community and it feels terrific.”

You can see this community’s “Masterpiece Project” at Space 900 Gallery, 816 Dempster St., on March 11 and 12, from 1 to 5 p.m. each day.

And there’s a good chance the artists whose work is shown will keep drawing and painting even when the class is finished.

“My family loves my work,” says Neff.

“Some people can’t believe how good it is.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. I’ll be sure to attend the art exhibit. Too often people with disabilities are hidden in the shadows, left out of D&I agendas, not considered for many work opportunities which they are qualified for with a reasonable accommodation, and much more.

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