Martin Center program 'expresses' importance of creativity

STARKVILLE – Shannon Herod looked at the sky blue and grass green canvas with a giant rainbow and a wooden cabin and knew her art piece wasn’t finished.
She had envisioned an old log in the foreground, with flowers growing near it.
“I’ve got more to do to it,” said the painter and poet. With an artist’s sensitivities, she embraces her unique perspective.
Born with cerebral palsy, Herod understands that many people can’t appreciate her traits because they tend to focus on what she is unable to do. Transported by motorized wheelchair and unable to use her arms, the 47-year-old Columbus native resides at a local facility for people with developmental challenges – and few opportunities to showcase her special creative spirit.
Fortunately, through Express Yourself, a program at Mississippi State’s T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability, she and others with severe disabilities get to do what the name implies, express themselves as artists.
Judy Duncan, Martin’s case manager, has come to know many people with more severe challenges. She said she sees them all as treasure chests, just waiting to be unlocked.
“Many of our artists are told how to do everything in their lives,” Duncan explained. “Express Yourself allows them to explore their independent, creative sides.”
The university center has helped dozens of people connect with their “inner artist” who otherwise couldn’t. The program follows principles developed by abstract artist Tim Lefens more than a decade ago to involve able-bodied people acting as “hands” for disabled people.
Often, an artist uses laser lights to guide a “tracker,” who is acting as the painter’s hands. Many who participate in the program cannot verbally communicate with their trackers. While each relationship is different, they typically develop a unique communication to produce the finished work.
Duncan started MSU’s program about five years ago after Lefens spoke on campus. While Lefens-inspired, Express Yourself at the Martin Center remains an independent operation.
MSU’s program currently receives funding from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Members of the public also are permitted to purchase the work, with proceeds from each sale split between the center and the artists. Dozens of their paintings line the center’s hallways.

Robbie S. Ward/Mississippi State University