Innovative Visual Arts Programs in Hong Kong and North Dakota

Two VSA affiliates are challenging students with disabilities to explore new mediums and perspectives through their innovative visual arts programs. At VSA North Dakota, glass art classes offer students with disabilities the opportunity to explore a new artistic medium in a safe environment. The Artlink program at Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong allows students to create and exchange their artwork with peers from around the world.

Two boys painting their dream vehicles as part of an Artlink project.

Artlink participants draw their dream vehicles on the theme “The Elements of Art, the Elements of Life.”

Artlink is Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong’s (ADAHK) international art exchange program. Through the program, Hong Kong students with disabilities learn about arts and culture by exchanging their artwork by mail with students in another country who are creating art under the same theme. According to ADAHK Executive Director Myra Tam, the semi-annual exchanges have been happening for several years and received great responses from both the Hong Kong students and their international partners.

The most recent Artlink project concluded in December 2015. The theme was “The Elements of Art, the Elements of Life,” and included exchange partners from Germany, Tennessee (USA), and Kentucky (USA). In addition to the exchange of artworks that happen via mail, the Artlink team maintains a blog so students can share their creative process digitally. Other recent Artlink themes have included “What We Wear” and “With Art and Letter, We Share Lives.”

Students open a package of artwork with their teacher.

Receiving the parcel from overseas friends is always the most exciting moment in Artlink.

There are three levels of students who participate in Artlink: 4-6-year-olds, all of whom have disabilities; 7-14-year-olds with and without disabilities, from both special education classrooms and inclusive classrooms; and adults with disabilities. ADAHK Arts Education Manager Jessie Chung says that Artlink facilitators adapt the themes and lessons so all students can participate, from providing appropriate art-making materials to incorporating movement activities.

Adaptation is also an important part of the glass art program at VSA North Dakota. The classes are the brainchild of VSA North Dakota Executive Director Linda Olsrud and Charles Van Zee, a professional glass artist and autism specialist with the Anne Carlsen Center in Bismarck, North Dakota (VSA North Dakota recently became a part of the Anne Carlsen Center). Olsrud said when she first met Van Zee and learned of his artistic background, she inquired about his interest in leading a glass art class, and both she and Van Zee became very excited about the idea.

A girl spreads glasss pebbles wth a spoon into a mold.

A girl participates in a VSA North Dakota glass art class.

Together, they launched a pilot glass art program last year with great success, and repeated another session before Christmas with plans for another in Spring 2016. Most participants were children with autism, ages 5-12, and students each received two or three classes of 30-60 minutes in length depending on their individual attention span. In the pilot program, Van Zee kept the process simple, allowing students to scoop glass pebbles and sand into a mold, arranging the glass themselves for a free form design. Van Zee then fired the designs in his kiln and the students received the small glass dish they created.

According to Van Zee, the number one accommodation that was made for the class was ensuring safe materials. Since the students would be working with cut glass, Van Zee spent a significant amount of time before each class grinding the sharp edges of glass so no one cut themselves. He also picked activities that students with fine motor control deficits could participate in, selecting the forms and styles in glasswork that would be easiest.

A boy holds two glass Christmas ornaments, one circle and one triangle, on either side of his head.

A VSA North Dakota student displays the Christmas ornaments he made in a glass art class.

Van Zee says a lot of the preparation for their classes is about engineering the art-making environment. He recommends setting up in a familiar location, choosing tools that are easier to handle (for instance, a big spoon for scooping out glass pebbles), and selecting types of art with low margins for error.

The pilot glass art program at VSA North Dakota concluded with an art show at the Impact Gallery in Bismarck. The students displayed their glass pieces, and the student artists, their friends and families, and local press attended the event. Olsrud and Van Zee say the students were very excited to celebrate their work with the community, and that it was a meaningful endnote to the program.

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