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Largest Festival of Disabled Artists Opens in DC
Jalyn Weston, 7, left, of Sweetwater, Tenn., is greeted by Jean Kennedy Smith "State of the Art" exhibit, part of the International VSA Arts Festival, at Union Station in Washington, on Tuesday, June 8, 2010. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin.

By: Brett Zongker, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON, DC (AP).- Jesse Higman's paintbrush isn't a brush at all. With limited mobility in his hands because of a car crash 27 years ago, this Seattle-based artist created a method all his own.

To control his colors, Higman built intricate tables with weights that bend his wooden canvas. Then he carefully pours pigment and water on the surface and watches them swirl to a small hole. The paint is like light being sucked into a black hole in space, he said. Left behind is a design he calls "Bone Orchid."

"I think of it like I'm playing with nature on this tabletop," said Higman, 42, who has been in a wheelchair since age 15.

His table and the painting went on display Tuesday at the Smithsonian Institution as part of the world's largest festival of artists with disabilities.

While Higman had wanted to focus more on fine art after working for years in the music industry, the idea of joining the 2010 International VSA Festival in Washington gave him pause: Would he gain a permanent label as a disabled artist? How would he be perceived?

But he decided to go with it.

"It's a legitimate art show, which I was a little bit skeptical of at first," Higman said. "I wondered if it was going to be to champion people with disabilities, to give them a pat on the back."

Instead, he found dozens of pieces of vibrant, interesting art.

The festival, hosted by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts at sites across the nation's capital, runs through June 12 and features many free daily performances, films and visual arts. A juried exhibit, "Revealing Culture," that includes Higman's work among 130 pieces at the Smithsonian will remain on view through Aug. 29.

Renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly contributed a large-scale installation. Performances will feature singer Patti LaBelle, as well as Josh Blue, who won season four of "Last Comic Standing."

Organizers brought in more than 600 artists, performers and educators from around the world, including students from every state who competed to have their work shown at Washington's Union Station.

Taylor Bernard, 8, of Richmond, Va., who has cerebral palsy, was among the winners selected from 5,500 entries for her watercolor painting, inspired by the sunset at her grandmother's Virginia Beach home.

She was with big company Tuesday as Jean Kennedy Smith, the last living sibling of President John F. Kennedy, met the students as their artwork went on view.

"We're big believers that the arts are for everybody," said Smith, who founded VSA (formerly Very Special Arts) in 1974.

The festival was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The exhibits are designed to be more accessible to disabled audiences than ever before. They include touchable examples of artworks, audio descriptions and labels written with Braille, curator Stephanie Moore said.

One installation, "Sight Unseen," is the first major exhibit of the most-accomplished photographers with visual impairments. One section includes images with raised ink to allow blind visitors to feel the shape and dimension of the photograph.

Another exhibit features the work of Judith Scott, who was kept in an institution for 35 years with Down syndrome but began creating sculptures from yarn, paper towels and other simple materials almost constantly for 18 years once she was released to her sister's custody.

"What I really want people to see is that, indeed, artists with disabilities play a major role in the arts community," said Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser. "It is crucial that we not disenfranchise that segment of our population."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Washington | Jesse Higman | Smithsonian Institution |

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