This February, special education students in Work Exploration Life Skills (WELS-South) have been traveling to India from the comfort of their own classroom, exploring northern India’s rich cultural and artistic heritage through a two-week artist-in-residency program. Funded by a grant from the 916 Education Foundation, graphic designer and illustrator Kris Gausman collaborates with WELS-South teacher Erin Phelps-Stark to bring together an adaptive art experience that is always a highlight of the school year.
This year’s theme “The Rhythm of Life,” is based on the Madhubani style of art, which is characterized by eye-catching geometrical patterns and portrays important life events, festivals and spiritual beliefs.
“The theme is showing respect through the rhythms and patterns of our life,” explains Gausman.
As part of the unit, the class explores the topic of respect for self, others and the environment and reflects the ideas in their work. The projects, such as paper making, self-portraits, paper mache animals and painting with spices, all tie together and pay homage to the culture of northern India. All of the projects can be adapted to meet each individual student’s needs.
This is Gausman’s fifth year serving as the WELS-South artist-in-residence. In the past, the residency theme has drawn inspiration from Africa, Afghanistan and our local heritage in Minnesota. This year, in response to the large number of males in the program, Phelps-Stark was looking for a theme that highlighted female empowerment and came across a story of successful female artists in northern India who gained international recognition for their Madhubani art.
The two-week experience culminates in a performance on the final day, which uses artwork and music from the residency to tell the story. With a population that includes non-verbal students with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, the performance is designed to give each student a unique role that allows them to let their art speak for itself.