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Artists walk a mile in classmate's shoes

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 4:13 p.m.

It wasn't an ordinary art project at Trafford Middle School.

Many of Stacy Thomas' students found it frustrating. A few wrote about feeling 'stupid' for getting paint all over themselves.

What the students really appreciated was the opportunity to experience for one session what classmate Kevin Troper encounters every day: the inability to use his hands.

Thomas, an art teacher at Trafford elementary and middle schools, had one of her sixth-grade classes paint self-portraits by holding the brushes in their mouths to create artwork.

Kevin, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, was her inspiration. Although he can use his fingers for an art program on a computer, she wanted him to do something different.

'I didn't want him to come into my class and be bored,' she said. 'I was looking for something fun and interesting and I didn't want him to feel isolated or different.'

Kevin's mother, Terri Troper, who is also his class aide, gave Thomas a packet of information about activities for the handicapped.

'There was something about an artist who had done mouth painting, and I thought it was a great idea,' Thomas said.

Kevin had never done it before, but he quickly caught on.

Thomas helped by drawing the subject (a frog), mixing the paints and holding the canvas board for him because he can't lean forward.

The other students, she said, were curious, supportive and fascinated with what he was doing.

'They were shocked when I told them that they were going to try it, too,' she said.

They were permitted to use their hands to draw self-portraits in pencil and mix the tempera paints by hand. But they had to do all the painting with the brushes in their mouths. Then Thomas asked them to write reflections on how the project made them feel.

Some appreciated 'the freedom' to use a variety of colors. Many thought the technique was difficult.

'Most of the time I felt like breaking the board in half because it was very hard to do,' Katy Gongaware wrote. At first the face in her painting resembled 'a giant blob' but eventually 'looked pretty good.'

Jordan Bergamasco found it hard 'to go up and down' while painting in the background, but that was easy for John Zwingler. 'I thought that the hair was hard to color because I was trying to stay in the lines but it was hard with our mouths,' he wrote. 'It was a good challenge for me.'

Jesse DiPietro admitted that he felt so 'stupid and embarrassed' when he got paint all over himself that he 'ended up cheating with my hand.'

Diana Thurston 'felt handicapped' and Lauren Urban noted that the project 'taught me how hard it is not being able to use my hands.'

Genna Frederick shared their observations and wrote that at first, 'I made so many mistakes but I tried to make the best of it.'

Elise Stirzel put herself in Kevin's shoes. 'I started to imagine what it would be like to be ... in a wheelchair all day and you can't even move your fingers. Kevin has had this problem all his life. He doesn't just have to do art projects with his mouth, he has to do millions of things that we figure everyone can do. I thought of all these things while I was painting and I started to see the way Kevin must feel every day. ... I started to see things in a new way after this art project.'

That's what Thomas had in mind. 'I think the whole class gained a newfound respect, understanding and appreciation for people who are less fortunate than they are,' she said. 'They gained insight into what their expectations were of themselves and what they are not limited to on a daily basis.'

Kevin, she said, had a lot of fun learning something new.

'I felt that my second painting was much easier than my first,' he wrote about his self-portrait. 'I knew I wouldn't mess up because I had the experience.'

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