National Gallery gets sponsorship for special needs art program

David Bridgeman shows students how to work with clay at the Bright Stars workshop.

David Bridgeman grabs a handful of clay and holds it up so that the students sitting around the table at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands art studio can see.

“I want you to make it into a ball,” he says, as if it might be the most exciting thing he’ll do today. “Don’t throw it around the room.”

He adds the latter command while looking at a student who perhaps seems ready to do just that.

“Slap it,” he says, smacking his hands against the developing sphere, “like this.”

Not every student in the class is capable of doing what he asks. Most have limited verbal skills. A few lack motor control.

The group of clients from Sunrise Adult Training Centre are attending Bright Stars art program, a newly funded initiative at the gallery, which caters to the developmentally disabled. Students from Lighthouse School, as well as homeschooled students and those in private care participate.

“It’s an opportunity for them to express themselves in a way that they might not be able to otherwise,” says Mr. Bridgeman, a full-time artist who spent 16 years teaching primary and middle school students in Cayman. He has been a part-time instructor at the National Gallery since 2006.

Gallery director Natalie Urquhart said the Mourant law firm recently stepped forward to fund the program. It formalizes what were occasional offerings to the disabled community in the past.

“It’s something we’ve been looking forward to launching,” Ms. Urquhart said. “It is a natural next step to make sure everyone in Cayman has access to the arts.”

Art therapy has long been a part of many comprehensive programs for developmentally challenged people. Twila Rogers, a learning specialist with the Sunrise center, said the hour-long art sessions are a way for the center to broaden the arts and crafts it can offer its clients.

David Bridgeman, right, instructs students as Paula Bush listens.

“This is a way for them to come out and socialize and work independently,” she says.

While she speaks, Mr. Bridgeman is helping the students roll their clay balls flat with a rolling pin. They then cut out a square from the flat piece of clay. Some are able to complete the task without much help, others need lots of assistance.

“You’re going to take your scraps,” Mr. Bridgeman says, referring to the edges cut away from the square, “and make any shape or design you like. You can make sausages,” he adds, rolling a piece of clay into a long roll. “Do you like sausages?” The student next to him smiles and nods. “I do too,” he says.

He assists one student with contracted hands by holding a piece of clay against her palm and rolling it. He takes her other hand and helps her place the piece on the square of clay, making sure she makes an impression in the clay. She smiles with an open mouth.

One student, Josh Small, has a roll and two small balls on his square.

Sunrise employee William Delgaty assists Josh Small during the Bright Stars art class at the National Gallery. – Photos: Taneos Ramsay

“Josh, that’s exactly it,” Mr. Bridgeman says, his enthusiasm never diminishing during the run of the class.

He says he’s most interested in getting the students to engage.

“I just try to get them to show some emotion and get them to respond to things,” he says.

Sometimes he’s surprised at his success.

One learning specialist recently told him he’d had a clear impact on a student.

“She said, ‘She laughed so hard that her false teeth fell out,’” Mr. Bridgeman says. “That made the whole morning for me.”