A couple of dozen fish — made of fired clay and painted in shades of green and blue — hang at the entrance of the generative gallery at the Kaneko art center on the edge of the Old Market.
They form a mobile that welcomes visitors to a unique and joyful exhibit, displaying rainbow-colored paintings, assemblages and tiny houses filled with items that express the artists’ feelings and experiences.
Those artists aren’t the typical professionals who display works at the gallery. They’re Westside High School students with a range of physical and mental challenges who recently finished the school’s pilot semester of Adapted Art, a program that strives to meet the needs of all learners.
Omahan Therman Statom was a guest artist for the program. The noted glass artist’s work is displayed at Kaneko, the Los Angeles Public Library and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, among many other locations across the country.
He has been a resident artist at the school for five years, but the recent class was particularly rewarding.
“The last three months, no matter what has happened to me, after meeting with these kids, I don’t care,” he said.
The purpose of the class is to let neuro-diverse students — with autism, loss of hearing, lack of mobility and other challenges — tap into their creativity and gain confidence by making their own artistic decisions. It’s also an exploration of ways to develop and enrich the experiences of students in the public school system, Statom said.
It fulfilled a longtime goal for art teacher Erin Lunsford. She was concerned that she didn’t get enough time with the neuro-diverse kids in her classes because she had only a minute or so with each student after she introduced the lessons and they got to work.
“That’s not enough for anybody, but especially for students with very unique needs,” she said.
Lunsford, who’s also the art department chairwoman, created the class with Jenny Brockman, the school district’s coordinator of secondary special education. With its specialized enrollment, the course departs from Westside’s “inclusive mix” classrooms.
In Adapted Art, Lunsford teaches students about noted artists such as Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock. They study genres, biographies, philosophies and examples of the artists’ work, then make art inspired by what they have seen.
As the class progressed, the teacher learned as much as she taught.
“I slowed down and learned how to listen and give them confidence to make their choices,” she said.
For Statom, it was a continuation of work he had already done with kids at various children’s hospitals, some of whom had autism or cancer.
“You have to review your own thinking,” he said, “You can’t use generalities. It has all been built on human contact (and) giving those kids power.”
At times, striving to connect made him feel like a stand-up comedian. During a lesson about stenciling, he let kids paint on his head.
“Later on, I forgot and went to a hotel, and I got looks,” he said.
A big part of the project was figuring out how to change adult mindsets, especially among fellow teachers and the various people who help special education students navigate their days.
It was hard for some well-intentioned adults to let the kids do their own work, which undermined the point of the class.
“I saw someone move a kid’s arm, and I’m like, ‘Stop that,’” Statom said. “Sometimes, I would catch teachers painting on the kids’ art, kids at their side.”
Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Parents were grateful that their kids had freedom to create original art and were impressed with what they accomplished, Lunsford said.
And, like professional artists, the students got their own show with a fancy opening party, thanks to Statom’s connection with Kaneko.
“From the beginning, I wanted this to be a first-class show, and I always wanted it to be (at Kaneko), and Therman made that happen,” Lunsford said.
She said it was cool to watch students find their artwork for their parents.
More than 200 people attended the opening, including members of the Westside school bard. There were refreshments — catered to meet the dietary needs of many students — and a lot of joy.
“It was a really powerful event,” said Amanda Kephart, Kaneko’s community engagement and public program manager.
She said Kaneko was the perfect venue for the show: “Creativity is in everything we do.”
The exhibition will be on view through June 18, then each student will keep his or her own creations.
Meanwhile, other local school districts are interested in crafting their own versions of the Adapted Art class. Lunsford and Statom also hope to speak about it at a New York City conference.
Statom aspires to expand it outside brick-and-mortar walls.
“We probably will explore the kids doing a piece of public art,” he said.
He’s all-in for the course in the future.
“The best thing,” he said, “was when kids started reenrolling and asking, ‘Can I do this next year?’”