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March 9, 2003

Deaf student inspired by peers' art

From: Tarentum Valley News Dispatch, PA - 09 Mar 2003

By Rex Rutkoski
Sunday, March 9, 2003

Jessie Reagan is surrounded by silence.

A project undertaken by art classes at Springdale High School is helping the deaf junior's fellow students enter her world with a burst of creativity.

The results can be seen at the Alle-Kiski Arts Consortium's annual showcase of the talents of art students from several Valley School Districts.

In addition to Allegheny Valley, New Kensington-Arnold, Burrell, Kiski Area, Highlands and Deer Lakes have been invited to participate in the month-long exhibit, now underway in the gallery at Penn State, New Kensington campus.

A variety of mediums is on display throughout March. A free meet-the-artists reception begins at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the gallery.

Many of the entries from Springdale were inspired by veteran art teacher Jay Swigart's challenge to his classes to get to know Reagan, 17, of Harmarville, a little better by learning to communicate with her on her terms, through American Sign Language (ASL).

Swigart: "This year I had a unique problem with one fifth period class. There are 38 kids, which is a lot. Jessie is in this class and she brings an adult signer (Cathy Lynch). Jessie was very quiet and didn't feel part of the class. Never having had a hearing impaired student before, that added a new challenge for me."

He asked Lynch, educational interpreter for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, if she had any books by deaf artists. She brought in work by acclaimed deaf artist Chuck Baird.

"I felt it was a great opportunity to make Cathy and Jessie the experts," Swigart says. He encouraged the team to help students better understand deaf culture.

"Art is a visual communication. Signing for the deaf world is a visual communication," Swigart says.

He asked his students to study the meaning behind the ASL signs, which usually involves conveying motion. "I told them to choose a sign (from ASL) and use their artistic ability to create the image that reflected what the sign was," he says. "That brought a special touch. All the pieces I put in the exhibit are from that one lesson. It is so amazing how hearing children have interpreted a deaf sign."

Lynch praises the project.

"I think it's wonderful. I was very excited. It was the first time I've seen a teacher involved with a deaf student to such an extent," she says. "It really made a difference with Jessie's interaction with the other students. It's hard to become friends with people when you don't communicate the same way." Now the students are interested in learning more about ASL, she says.

Reagan, through Lynch, says "It was a very good experience for me. I enjoyed it. Some of the students finally are interested in learning more about deaf culture. I really like sharing information with them."

Reagan says art is her favorite subject. She has entered a drawing of a lizard in the exhibit, along with the sign that means "lizard."

Lynch says she has never seen such an undertaking done in a public school art class. "Mr. Swigart was very insistent that the sign would be technically correct and that it would be recognizable by the deaf. It really involved Jessie in the project," she says.

The students responded with drawings, oil, colored pencil, pen and ink and other mediums.

"I thought it was a very unique project. I've never done anything quite like this," says senior Laura Fleming of Cheswick, who adds that she really enjoyed it. "It gave us a chance to know Jessie a little bit better. It gave us a new understanding of how she has to deal in everyday life."

Fleming worked with plastic foam to interpret the sign that represents the moon. That calls for moving the hand over the eye with curled fingers. "I tried to show the hand moving away from the eye," she explains.

Senior Uriah Beech of Springdale says he also appreciated the opportunity to try something different. "You learn something in the process, you learn different signs and relating things together." He rendered a pencil drawing to represent "change."

It was interesting to see Reagan open up to the students says sophomore Ashley Jendrasik of Springdale. "I enjoyed doing this. It was something I have never done and I'm sure nobody else in class has done. Jessie got to interact with us."

Jendrasik did an oil of a flower bloom, fashioned out of three views of hands forming the sign "bloom."

The project has been an emotional experience for Swigart.

"I've been at this 28 years. I'm very blessed to have worked with a lot of talented kids who do some fantastic work," he says. "Every once in a while you go 'Wow! This is a special project.' I got emotionally involved in this when I saw Jessie coming out, and the kids approached it with such high quality and really wanting to do a good job with it, every one of them."


SIDEBAR:Valley art teacher Prissy Pakulski says she faced "a good problem" with this year's Alle-Kiski Arts Consortium exhibit.

Students presented her with so many entries that it was difficult to select which ones to hang at Penn State.

"That's a teacher's dream to be able to have that kind of problem," she says. There are a wide variety of mediums and expressions, "a lot of self-portraits and in-depth art work," she says. "Kids are a little more in touch with more than just art for hanging behind the couch. There are self-directed lessons, expanded lessons from the basic art curriculum."

She selected entries representing what she considers "a really fine example of a good work ethic and artistic expression, and a lot of creative potential by the student."

Many students are interested in art careers, she says. "This is an opportunity for them to gain some knowledge about how to exhibit and display their work," she says.

Senior Sunny Schreckengost likes to check out the work of other students in the Consortium show. "I get a lot of ideas," she says. She has entered a watercolor of flowers.

"Art is a different way to express myself. It relaxes me. It's an escape from the world sometimes," she says.

Everyone has their creative outlet, says senior Vanessa Latour. "I think art expresses me the best. it shows your emotions," she says.

She especially enjoys the artist reception at the Penn State show. "You sort of put a face to the art work and get to talk to them about what motivated them to do the work and what influenced them. You learn things," she explains.

She has done a watercolor of parrots and a batik.

Senior Mollie Westerman also enjoys seeing how other students choose to express themselves in the exhibit. She has entered a self-portrait in black and white.

"I love using art to relieve my stress. It really helps me use my feelings, so to speak."

People may be surprised to see how much talent is represented from all the schools says Pakulski. "The big amazement is how young some of these students are. As I look at the work objectively, I'm always amazed these are students doing way past what one would assume they should do at their age."

Art teacher Teresa Emeloff of Highlands High School sees the show as a "fantastic" showcase for students. "Musicians have their concerts and actors have their performances. This is one of the only ways visual artists get to show off," she says.

Highlands senior Dana Mazur likes the idea of acquiring "a little show" experience before she enters college next year for art education. She has entered a pencil drawing.

"I like the fact that art allows me to express my thoughts and emotions with such a wide variety of media," she says.

Deer Lakes senior Katie Killmeyer appreciates the freedom she finds in art.

"It lets you express your creativity and how you are feeling. There is no set way of doing anything," she says. She is represented with a three degree sculpture of a horse's eye.

This is Nicole Schluep's first time in the Consortium show and the Deer Lakes freshman is anxious to hear what people say about her work.

She has entitled her pastel of a tiger sitting in a field "Waiting For Dinner."

Deer Lakes freshman Ashleigh Martinko has opted for a pastel of a lion, which she titles, appropriately, "King of the Beasts."

"I love to draw, My family is really good at art. I like to learn new things," she says.

This show is a great opportunity for students to put their work in front of the public, says Christy Kane, art teacher at Deer Lakes.

"It's an example for the public to see what our schools do and how important our art programs are. We as teachers believe completely how important art is in the school. This is the perfect chance to show that to the public," she says.

If you go

# What: Alle-Kiski Arts Consortium art exhibit.

# When: Underway daily, through March; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends.

# Where: Art Gallery, Penn State, New Kensington Campus, Seventh Street Road, Route 780, Upper Burrell.

# Cost: Free

# Details: 724-334-6004.

Rex Rutkoski can be reached at or (724) 226-4664.

© 2003 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.