Every night before drifting off to sleep, most people think about the activities they need to do the next day; taking out the garbage, going to the bank or cleaning the garage. But for Amanda Maltais, her imagination begins to spin with different ideas for her next painting.
“I have all these ideas in my head, and it’s so hard for me to pick what to do next,” she said. “Then I wake up the next day and I look at the blank canvas and I know what I want to do.”
Maltais, 32, is one of the artists at the Laser Eagles Art Guild, which started in 2004. It includes people with all types of disabilities and encourages interaction among the staff and artists. People with physical and/or mental disabilities are able to express their creative sides by becoming artists here.
“(This place gives me) freedom,” said Maltais, who has cerebral palsy. “It’s a place for me to feel safe and know that nobody is going to judge me in a bad way, because it’s my art. They may judge me in a good way and that’s fine, but I just don’t like negativity in my life.”
According to Adam Cohoon, an artist and volunteer for the management of social media at the guild, the eagle represents freedom.
According to the Laser Eagles website, the idea for the organization first came from the Artistic Realization Technologies program created by Tim Lefens, an American art activist and author of Flying Colors. Flying Colors, is a novel illustrating the importance of art as an outlet for people with disabilities.
Judith Snow and Franziska Trauttsmandorff, both advocates of art expression for people with disabilities, became inspired by Lefens’s program and created the Laser Eagles Art Guild in Toronto.
Now, two times a week, the organization holds two- to three-hour workshops where people with disabilities can gather in a non-judgmental, relaxing and social environment to let their expressive sides flow.
Virginia Ellen Cutmore, 60, joined the Laser Eagles as an artist two years ago. She says that for most of her adult life, she was excluded from various activities because of her weight, post-traumatic stress disorder and being in a wheelchair. Joining this program helped her become a stronger person, she says.
“It was just the atmosphere, the joy of being able to paint and feel like you belong to something that was really special,” Cutmore said.
The people who help many of the artists with disabilities create their art are called ‘trackers.’ A tracker is a volunteer who takes the artist’s ideas and physically puts them on a canvas, brush stroke by brush stroke, Maltais explains. Artists who cannot verbally communicate, have the option of using lasers to point to the exact place the tracker should paint.
This year, Cutmore has been working both as an artist and a tracker.
“As a tracker, I can learn to see something different through someone else and see what they’re feeling and what they want to show on paper and I can help them accomplish that,” she said. “They also teach me so much… not just about themselves, but about myself and my abilities to be able to communicate with somebody who has difficulty communicating.”
Ander Negrazis is the art co-ordinator at the 519 Church St. branch – one of the two branches of the organization. She says the goal of the program is to be inclusive, show that everyone can create a piece of art and emphasize the importance of an interactive environment.
“Art is communication. So art is one of the best ways to convey information, because it doesn’t require you to just define an issue, but you can demonstrate an issue, you can act it out or you can show it,” Negrazis said. “Creation, whether it be writing or painting or speaking, always happens in a collective manner. So even people who have no mobility limitations or who are able are always drawing on other people’s skills and collaborative efforts to communicate.”
Cutmore agrees. As a woman who was abused, she says the non-judgmental atmosphere has helped her express her pain through painting.
“It’s just you and the paper, and it’s just being able to see what’s inside you,” she said. “Just getting it out; because to talk about pain that women suffer through abuse and through exclusion, it opens up some of that ability to not be silent anymore about what’s happened.”
According to Cohoon and Negrazis, the Laser Eagles Art Guild is an idea worth spreading. At the moment, many of the paintings created through the program have been sold and hang homeless shelters, community centres, art galleries and libraries. One of the program’s ultimate goals is to eventually establish workshops in OCAD so students can become more aware of the inclusiveness model.
However, in the end, Maltais says she paints for herself and herself alone.
“(The program has) helped me realize that (this is) one of the only things that people can’t tell me how to do it, because I’m the only person that knows what’s in my head and what ideas I have,” Maltais said. “So it’s one of the only things that is mine.”
– Vida Korhani