When 19-year-old Deion Hawkins used to get agitated, he’d tear paper, leaving bits and pieces all over his bedroom.
“It was calming for him but annoying for us,” said Michelle Hawkins, Deion’s mother. “Now, instead of tearing paper … he’s doing artwork and that’s calming for him. And enjoyable.”
Deion is one of two students with autism enrolled in the Accessible Studio Program at the Art Works Now in Mount Rainier. Artwork from Deion and 13-year-old Rikki Moses is on display through Feb. 15 at the Art Matters Gallery in an exhibit called “What We See.”
Art Works Now is a community art center dedicated to making the arts accessible to everyone. The center offers art classes and community art events for children and adults of all ages. Art Works Now launched the Accessible Studio Program this year in conjunction with a partnership with the ARC of Prince George’s County, an organization that works with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Accessible Studio is really about opening our doors to folks with disabilities of all kinds and really tailoring our program to them,” said Leslie Holt, a teaching artist with Art Works Now. “We want to be accessible to anyone …”
Holt holds private lessons with both Deion and Moses in addition to teaching group classes with the ARC. She said Deion and Rikki each drive their own art curriculum.
“When we work with individual students no matter if they have disabilities or not, it’s about what they come to us with and what they want to work on,” Holt said.
From the beginning, it was apparent what Deion wanted to work on.
“With Deion … he was really clear,” Holt said. “He has a huge passion; one might say obsession, with Disney and some other characters like Tom and Jerry. He really wanted to learn to draw them.”
It was these characters that brought Deion to Art Works Now in the first place. After seeing a YouTube video of a Disney artist drawing one of the characters, Deion asked his mother to show him how to do the same.
“I said, ‘Deion, I can’t draw,’” remembers Hawkins. “I said, ‘Maybe I can find you an art class.’”
For Rikki, it’s all about “Blue’s Clues” and Thomas the Tank Engine. Holt said she’s also “fabulous with color …” and “fascinated by words.” Both are reflected in her work on display in the “What I See” exhibit.
Holt has also made an effort to push both artists out of their comfort zones.
“It’s been interesting to see [Deion’s] willingness to go along with our program to move away from the Disney characters,” said Barbara Johnson, Art Works Now founder and executive director. “It’s almost like getting to draw the Disney characters seems to be kind of the reward. Leslie will push him a little bit … and then afterward he’ll say, ‘Now can I draw Tom and Jerry?’”
Though their interests don’t necessarily overlap, Johnson said Rikki and Deion do share one important quality: joy.
“When Deion comes in, he runs up the steps … sometimes we’re in the gallery working and we hear him coming and he comes in and says hello to everybody immediately …” Johnson said. “We all feel better when Deion is in the room.”
Hawkins has noticed a change in her son since he began classes at Art Works Now.
“The arts make him feel important,” she said. “It boosts his self-esteem … People that don’t know about disabilities kind of focus on what they can’t do and this is something that he can do. It just gives him a lot of self-esteem, a lot of pride, a lot of joy.”
While art can be an excellent means of expression for any artist, Holt stresses the impact it can have in the life of someone with a disability.
“It’s a language for all our artists,” Holt said. “And I think for Rikki and Deion it feels sometimes more accurate than the verbal language they use … Art is pretty darn easy for Deion and Rikki; it comes out of them. Conversation, it depends on the day.”