By: Irene Burke
UnrulyArt: The Creativity of Exceptional Children, an exhibit that showcases paintings made by children with visual impairments, autism, Down Syndrome, and other developmental disabilities, will be on display from March 30th to April 24th in the James S. Hall ’34 Memorial Gallery in Butler Gallery. The artworks in the exhibit were created through the UnrulyArt Program, run by members of the Project Prakash team. Project Prakash, founded by MIT neuroscience professor Dr. Pawan Sinha, is a humanitarian and scientific initiative to provide free sight-restoring surgeries to curably blind children in India and, in the process, gain insights regarding the brain’s strategies for learning to see. Prakash, meaning ‘light’ in Sanskrit, demonstrates the intertwined goals of the project – to treat curable childhood blindness and to research open questions in neuroscience. The Prakash team’s research has revealed groundbreaking information about brain plasticity and the early stages of visual development.
Through Project Prakash, outreach teams identify children in remote Indian villages who were born blind, but whose blindness can be treated through surgeries that Dr. Sinha’s team administers in New Delhi. The recovery process provides a window into Prakash patients’ integration of visual information as they develop the capacity for sight. When I interviewed Dr. Sinha, he recounted how socially, many children who are born blind in India and many other countries suffer neglect, and the children he works with are withdrawn and shy. As a way to make the children feel more at ease with the researchers and fellow patients, Dr. Sinha’s team engaged the children in art projects they later named UnrulyArt. In the first UnrulyArt session, the researchers explained to the children that they had complete creative freedom in making paintings. There were no rules—they could pour paint on the canvas, smear the paint, or even walk on the canvas with bare feet. These sessions were the first opportunity for these children, who had only recently begun to perceive the visual world, to create art. The children had no reference for colors that are conventionally combined, and the UnrulyArt team was surprised and amazed by the unexpected choices the children made to combine bright and disparate colors.
Through the creation of vibrant, abstract paintings, the researchers found that the children become more familiar with the world of color and objects, gained confidence, and gave their parents a newfound appreciation for their children’s ability to engage socially. By collaborating with the children and admiring the art they produced, the UnrulyArt team reinforced the children’s enthusiasm and inspired the children’s parents to more fully understand their children’s capacity for creative expression. As the children experienced their actions having a positive effect on others, the team observed the children becoming more engaged with their environment. Through the UnrulyArt Project, Dr. Sinha’s team uses art as a powerful tool to counter harmful cultural attitudes and prejudices directed towards children with special needs, and enables them to demonstrate their creative capabilities. UnrulyArt has since expanded to special education classrooms in the Boston area, and artworks by children from India as well as the US will be on display.
The exhibit in Butler Gallery celebrates the creative expression of children with special needs during April, Autism Awareness Month. The opening event at 7pm on March 30th, 2015 in Butler Gallery will feature Annie Cardinaux, a member of the UnrulyArt team, who will provide vignettes of the research and the art and some of the impact that it has had on children’s lives. Other UnrulyArt events on campus include a lecture by Larry Bissonnette, artist, autism advocate and star of the documentary Wretches and Jabberers on April 1st from 6-7pm in Butler Seminar Room 028 and an UnrulyArt Workshop with students from Eden School on April 20th from 3-4pm in Frist MPR C. All events are free and open to the public.
Find out more about Dr. Sinha’s lab and Project Prakash!
The Sinha Laboratory for Vision Research at MIT: http://web.mit.edu/bcs/sinha/home.html
Project Prakash: http://www.projectprakash.org/