Pepperdine painting students curate an exhibition of colorful works by Malibu High School teenagers with special needs.
By Sarah Fisher
It’s a Tuesday afternoon at Malibu High School and anticipation warms up a bright classroom. All eyes are on the floor as a student, Dylan, darts his wheelchair back and forth at various angles across what appears to be a large, white plastic sheet.
Dylan beams at everyone gathered as they cheer him on. When he has thoroughly traversed the area, he reverses the wheelchair off the sheet and Gretchen Batcheller, assistant professor of art at Seaver College, bends down to peel back the plastic sheet from the floor, revealing a canvas of bright colors that have been styled and patterned in the wet paint with the tracks from Dylan’s wheels.
It is an experiment in alternative and collaborative artistry. Batcheller’s Painting II and III students have visited the Malibu High School special needs/ life skills class every Tuesday for six weeks as a service-learning component of the class. The Pepperdine students mentor the group of high school students as they paint, texturize, and experiment with color.
“Some of the Malibu High students are high-functioning, while some are nonverbal and more challenging, so my students have been very proactive about creating an experience with the canvas that relates to their level of ability,” says Batcheller.
Dylan’s Pepperdine “peer,” Rebecca Ingle, notes that Ryan is very capable with a brush but this week they all decided to try a project that would incorporate his wheelchair in a fun, creative way. Meanwhile, vision-impaired student Rex shows off two colorful paintings that he has texturized with string, mesh, and lace in patterns and shapes that reflect his love of classical music. Red Concerto and Vivaldi’s Allegro are the names of his paintings, he says.
Batcheller worked for six years at an elementary school with children with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome. When she joined the faculty at Pepperdine in August 2012 and discovered the University’s emphasis on service learning, she saw an opportunity to allow art to bring together her students as a community in themselves and to engage with the special needs community.
“There were a lot of anxieties when we started,” she admits about the unorthodox component of her painting class. “We started off very slowly, getting to know the Malibu High students and becominga part of that community in the life skills classroom.”
Some of the Malibu High students have been painting their whole lives, such as Tiana, whose illustrations have been published by the Malibu Times. Others, such as Jake, had very little experience with a paintbrush. Seaver junior art major Sarah Attar has been Jake’s peer throughout.
“He doesn’t talk, so at first I couldn’t really communicate with him,” noted Attar, “but with art you don’t really need verbal communication. At first he wouldn’t pick his paint, his brushstrokes were very small, and he wouldn’t even be looking at what he was doing.”
Last week, the pair had a huge breakthrough. “He started picking up the brush and became a lot more comfortable with what he was doing. We became a lot more comfortable with each other.”
“I think this experience is teaching our students to recognize mini-miracles,” Batcheller adds. “When Jake started looking at the canvas and choosing his paint—it was an amazing day for Sarah. I still remember as a special needs teacher the day that a student looked me in the eye and said my name for the first time after two and a half years. You begin to recognize those small moments that are big hurdles.”
Kai Woods Decker, a Seaver junior art major, cites her partnership with Tyler as one of the best experiences she could have as a student. “It seems like there could be a buffer between us, but when you have this artistic medium, you find that connection,” she explains. “He throws himself into everything, and tears into the canvas with these bold colors.”
A lifelong artist, Decker has developed her own personal style over the years that tends to be very black and white, but has noticed a change of late. “My last painting used a whole range of colors, like technicolor vomit on the canvas! And now that I think about it, tyler uses a lot of colors. I’m pretty sure he’s been a big inspiration for me.”
Tyler also inadvertently inspired the title of the exhibition that the Painting II and III class curated and unveiled at Pepperdine’s Payson Library on March 22, 2013—an exhibition of paintings by the Malibu High students. Short essays by the Pepperdine students about the service-learning project and a photograph display of the partnerships in action accompanied the paintings.
“Tyler has this opera voice he puts on whenever he says ‘excell-ent!’ It’s really become the theme for our class,” says Batcheller. “Even when we’re in the studio, we’ll say, ‘You’re doing a painting that is really excell-ent!’”
The title of the exhibition? Color in Action: An Excellent Adventure.
In 2012 the Pepperdine volunteer center rolled out a new service initiative that aimed to help faculty incorporate service-learning elements into the classroom.
Each service-learning mini-grant goes toward helping a faculty member support, create, or sustain curriculum development and/ or research using community-engaged scholarship.
Service learning is an educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way to gain further understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.
View more photos from the exhibit and class at Malibu High: