Art on the Spectrum

“To me, art is very important. Every school should have it. It allows students to express themselves . . .

It builds up confidence.”

It’s a balmy night for November as my friends and I make our initial stop on the First Friday Art Trail. McPherson Cellars is wall-to-wall with people, one of the FFAT trolleys having disgorged a large group mere minutes before our arrival. I wander the large reception room where artists have set up tables around the periphery. At the east end, I am greeted by a hulking young man with an easy smile—the top of my head reaches the middle of his chest—as he declares, with a Vanna White-like wave of his arm, “These are my paintings. I painted this one and this one. I also created these.” He sweeps his hand across the table on which rest various Christmas ornaments, pieces of handmade jewelry, and printed Christmas cards. Then he turns to me, his gaze resting somewhere just above my forehead. “Which would you like to buy?” He waits expectantly after this refreshingly brief and to-the-point sales pitch. How could I resist? I dutifully choose two boxes of Christmas cards and an ornament.

This is the third year that the Burkhart Transition Academy for Autism has participated in the First Friday Art Trail at McPherson Cellars, thanks to an initial connection through artist Chris Ramos, a Learning Specialist and Job Coach for the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research on the Texas Tech University campus. The Transition Academy branch of the Center has an active art education component, taught by artist and job coach Maggie Vasquez. The Transition Academy itself has been around since 2005, where it was endowed—within the College of Education—by Jim and Jere Lynn Burkhart, in honor of Collin Burkhart, their grandson. Janice Magness, a long-time special educator, formerly with the Lubbock independent school district, serves as Director for the Transition Academy, the purpose of which is to support successful transition for those on the autism spectrum from high school into vocational or other settings.

To this end, the Burkhart Transition Academy provides classes and activities, rotating job internships, leadership training, nutrition and fitness courses, and community involvement. It also offers a strong visual arts program, which meets every day for one hour, and two hours in the stretch leading up to their annual First Friday Art Trail sale. “Hands-on visual art classes promote artistic self-discovery, self-discipline, constructive criticism, and craftsmanship,” notes a Burkhart Transition Academy brochure. Maggie Vasquez has directed the art program full-time since 2010, after first becoming acquainted with the Academy through teaching their camp art classes over four summers. During that time, Vazquez served as a special education assistant at Whiteside Elementary, but her heart was always in art, a love fostered by her father since she was four years old. “He wanted to study art,” Maggie tells me, “but the war intervened.”

Why has art played such an important role in the Transition Academy curriculum? I ask her.

“Some students have a hard time expressing their emotions,” Vasquez points out. Art serves an important role in communication for students on the autism spectrum. “However they’re feeling,” she adds, “They can put it on a canvas.” Art, Vasquez feels, is a communicative outlet into which students may tap, no matter where they are. “A lot of our students don’t have confidence in themselves [when they arrive at the Center] . . . To me, art is very important. Every school should have it. It allows students to express themselves . . . It builds up confidence.”

Maggie gives me an example of one student who was having a difficult time adjusting to the new surroundings at the Burkhart Center and his recent move. “Let me get some paper,” she told him. Returning with a pad and pencil, she asked him, “What do you love?” Travel. Vasquez asked him where he’d visited, and the student recalled a recent trip to New York. Let’s draw New York, she suggested. “I don’t know how,” the student protested, but she could see he was intrigued. Maggie talked him through the first drawing—What’s in New York? Buildings. . . The student is still drawing, still sharing his experiences of travel through means of visual expression.

Students at the Burkhart Transition Academy have collaborated in the arts throughout the community. An article, by Mark Charney, in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of ampersand, the alumni magazine of the Texas Tech University College of Visual and Performing Arts, describes one such project between the School of Theatre and Dance and the Burkhart Center, resulting in the BurkTech Players. Together, students in Theatre and Dance and students at the Burkhart Transition Academy perform plays they’ve written and dance pieces they’ve choreographed.

Recently, Lubbock Christian University pre-service art educators and students from the Transition Academy collaborated in a series of art classes in which students worked in clay, painting, drawing, and collage. At the end of the classes, students exhibited their finished art in the LCU Galleries for family and friends. Their most high-profile art gig, though, remains the First Friday Art Trail. “The students are excited” when November rolls around, Vasquez notes. Each student paints at least three canvases and makes jewelry and ornaments in the weeks leading up to the event. Proceeds from the sales benefit the art program at the Burkhart Center, including the costs of art supplies. Students are encouraged to attend the trail, too, to be present to talk with the public about their artwork and what their art means to them. Ten students participated in the most recent Art Trail. “I jump for joy,” Vasquez says, as she thinks about her students sharing their work with the community.

I happen to comment to Maggie about the large turnout of Burkhart Transition Academy staff and students that I noticed at the November FFAT and, later in the month, at the art exhibition at Lubbock Christian University. She smiles, shrugs, and says simply, “We’re a family, the Burkhart family.”

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