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Kindred spirits — Children with special needs learn to express themselves through art

Barbara Flinn was searching for more opportunities for her wheelchair-bound daughter, Masha, 12.

Their home state of Wyoming didn't have much to offer, so the Flinns moved to Utah. Only a few months later, their desire is coming to pass, thanks to an art program Barbara and Masha enrolled in, Kindred Spirits.

"I just like meeting new people and learning about the art," Masha said. "I like the creativity of being able to plan (the art projects) and do them."

Barbara said the program has been so beneficial for her daughter.

"I've seen lots of happiness. She's really had fun and really enjoys it," Barbara said. "She doesn't get a chance to just relax. This has been amazing (and) ... she really looks forward to it."

Kindred Spirits is an integrated fine arts organization where children with and without disabilities work side by side, accompanied by parents or other caregivers, to learn about art and each other.

"To feel like you are helpless and you can't cure your kids (is a difficult thing)," said Kindred Spirits founder Alice Perreault Steubing. "You feel like you're isolated and don't fit into the real world anymore."

Perreault has had her own experience of what a life-changing event having a disabled child is. When her son, Julius, was born, he became trapped during birth without sufficient oxygen, which left him with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

Having been an artist for her entire life, Perreault knew she had to find a way back into the art world, and whatever she chose to do would involve Julius.

"I've been an artist my whole life, and to have that taken away from me, I had no definition of who I am," she said.

Finding the way back

Perreault's artistic career began at a young age. She earned her bachelor's degree from California College of Arts and her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Utah. Prior to Julius' birth, she taught at several universities.

With the birth of her son and all the unknowns about his condition, Perreault's entire world was altered. She spent the first two years of Julius' life researching so she would know how best to care for him.

"I needed to know what happened to him. He had a seizure disorder. It was intimidating. How could I ever understand that, and yet I began to," Perreault said. "With a brain injury, no one could tell me what to expect."

Having grown up with her sister, Renee, who has Down syndrome, Perreault was well aware of the stares and jeers that accompanied her sister wherever she went. She wanted to protect Julius but also to expand whatever project she chose to do to include more than her son.

"I knew that when I went back to the arts and education and when I worked with Julius I would not create that space just for him," she said. "It had to be integrated. Things had to be changed so those cruelties didn't happen. You can't do that through separation. You have to do it through integration. One of the founding purposes of Kindred Spirits was that it wouldn't be segregated."

With guidance from the Utah Arts Council, Perreault created Kindred Spirits, where her son could participate with other children in a setting that empowered people of all abilities.

A different approach

Kindred Spirits takes a teamwork approach to art by pairing a child artist with an adult apprentice.

"Kindred Spirits is not a drop-off program. You don't leave your kid and come back. It has so much to do with the relationship between the child and an adult caregiver," Perreault said. "The work that's created is a work of collaboration. ... It becomes these very unique, special things that couldn't be duplicated."

Tools and seating are adapted to meet the needs of children. Paintbrushes are placed in a PVC pipe contraption so those who struggle with fine motor skills can hold them more easily.

Perreault said the lessons she teaches are the same type she used to teach at the university but on a level everyone can understand.

"Kindred Spirits is not babyish. It's not like kindergarten or day care," she said. "It's really about quality art and arts education."

Oftentimes the subjects Perreault teaches in class overlap with those taught in school curriculum, she said. Guest artists frequently participate in the sessions.

Classes are offered on a quarterly basis with four eight-week sessions each year. Past projects have ranged from making pop-up books to digital photography to a class all about papier mache. In the winter session, which ended March 2, Utah artists Lenka Konopasek and Cordell Taylor guided students through processes involved with history, design and construction of mobile art. Each child-adult partnership built one original mobile.

In the spring session, which begins April 12, participants will design and construct their own self-portrait doll or action figure. Perreault will teach the history of dolls and dollmaking from around the world. Several techniques on building the self-portrait dolls will be covered with samples provided.

Once an art project is completed, Perreault searches for a venue for the youths to display it in so they can feel like a professional artist. The mobiles from the winter session will be exhibited in the Access II Gallery of Art Access in Salt Lake City from Sept. 21-Oct. 12 with an artists reception and gallery stroll Sept. 21. This also allows the youths an opportunity for some exposure.

Parents and children bond

Detlef Steed, 9, has a dream of becoming an artist. After completing his first session at Kindred Spirits, he is closer to his goal. His mother, Frederika Steed, said she enrolled her son, who doesn't have any type of disability, because of his interest in art.

"Detlef has expressed interest in wanting to be an artist," she said. "It's a wonderful situation to have him in with the diversity of artists so he can see what everybody else can do."

Michelle Grutter is also new to Kindred Spirits. She brought her two children, Gabe, 8, who has a developmental delay and seizure disorder, and his sister Leah, 7. She loved everything about the program.

"For my son, he has severe disabilities and is intellectually disabled," she said. "I can help facilitate him doing art. ... They have really cool adaptive tools for him to use."

Just having an activity to do with her children was beneficial, Grutter said.

"As a parent I just love being able to share an activity with my son and make something too," she said. "I love the art. I've never taken an art class just for the sake of creating something. It's a way for siblings to get involved and be part of the disabled brother or sister's life."

Such is the case for Sarah and Sam Weyrich, 8 and 6 respectively. Sarah said she helps Sam, who is disabled, with some of the things that are difficult for him to do, but she also likes Kindred Spirits.

"I have enjoyed the program because I use a lot of what I do in school," she said.

Celina Wollsieffer, 7, loves the friendships she has formed in the program.

"(I enjoy) the friends, the loving and caring, and we get to make art," she said. "We have great teachers, great students, and I mean this is a great experience for me."

The Kindred Spirits art studio is located in Sugar House at 974 E. 2100 South. For more information or to enroll, call Perreault at 232-1430 or visit Tuition for each session is $100 per child with $10 off for siblings. Supplies are included in the tuition cost. Classes begin April 12 and 13 and run through May 17 and 18.