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June 19, 2004

Confidence grows during deaf intern's work on farm

From: Kansas City Star (subscription), MO - Jun 19, 2004

The Kansas City Star

"This has helped me overcome my fear of communication with people."
Rickie Bridges

Art student Rickie Bridges doesn't speak as he holds out a pile of dark yellow sheep wool, but the look in his eyes says this material is like gold.

Using sign language, the 48-year-old Bridges quickens the pace as he describes what he has learned about wool during his summer internship at the Pinwheel Farm just outside Lawrence.

"This dye is all natural — made from an onion skin," he said of his favorite color.

Bridges, deaf since birth, explained his fascination with wool through interpreter Paula Van Tyle. Bridges, a Kansas City Art Institute student, has taken fiber and weaving courses, and hopes to one day use what he is learning to make hats and baskets that he can sell.

On Pinwheel Farm, Bridges is getting lots of experience, from shearing sheep to finishing a product.

In 1996, Natalya Lowther set up her 11¼-acre farm with a goal of saving the land from development and teaching agriculture and skills for simple living. Until this summer, she had never led a formal internship, although she teaches sessions for schools, children and adults.

Bridges has learned to read lips well and can speak some, so he and Lowther communicate fine one on one, and he has not used an interpreter throughout his internship.

"The communication has worked very well because of his attentiveness and eagerness to learn," Lowther said. "It's been easier communicating with him than some hearing people who maybe don't pay attention as well."

Bridges is learning to skirt, process, dye and felt wool, which is sheared from the farm's 25 sheep. After completing his third year at the Art Institute, he wanted to expand his experience before his senior year.

Dressed in overalls, Bridges smiled as he talked about the farm. His hazel eyes widened as he mentioned the cute baby lambs and sheep. He said he has learned their names so he can record which animal's wool is more curly, strong, kinky or soft.

Working with wool is appealing to Bridges because it is useful and natural, and creating with it allows him to be artistic.

"My hands are the key to my existence," he said, referring also to sign language as a way to express himself.

The opportunity to use the material has taught Bridges much about art and its processes. But he says what he has learned about himself through the internship is the most important.

Lowther teaches Bridges on Mondays and Wednesdays, and on Saturdays they go to the downtown farmers market in Lawrence where Bridges sells some of his art and helps Lowther sell farm products.

"This has helped me overcome my fear of communication with people," he said. "I can sell, negotiate and talk about my art because she (Lowther) gave me the opportunity and I've succeeded."

Bridges said he wishes he had started his art career sooner. He was raised in Springfield but lived at a school for the deaf in Fulton, Mo., from age 7 until he was 19. He took some courses at Crowder College in Neosho, Mo., but he said he was unhappy there. He also attended Johnson County Community College for a few semesters. Bridges operated machinery for 3M in Columbia from 1979 to 1991 before coming to Kansas City where he now lives. A vocational test he took a few years ago changed his life. The test indicated he had strong art skills, and the state offered him a scholarship to go back to school.

"The first year I was frightened because I was the only deaf student, and I didn't know how the other students would view me," he said. "I felt I would be left out."

Bridges said now his teachers and peers are almost like family.

"The best thing about being there is having people in my classes understand me as a deaf person. It's so important to be able to communicate and share with them, and I feel like I'm equal," he said.

Not only has he gained the friendship and respect of his peers, but the 3.7 GPA student is "the most motivated, self-directed student I've ever worked with," said Bambi Burgard, assistant dean for academic affairs and student achievement.

Bridges is excited about graduating next year, when he will be the first in his family to earn a bachelor's degree. He said he hopes his experience at school and with the internship will lead to something new after he graduates in next May. He plans to move somewhere different, such as Seattle or San Francisco, to meet new people and set up a business selling weavings.

Bridges isn't afraid to pursue those dreams.

"Life has the same ideas; it doesn't matter if you're hearing or not," he said. "What's important is your mind and what you feel."

To reach Sarah McCann, call

(816) 234-7795 or send e-mail to First glance

• Rickie Bridges, a Kansas City Art Institute student, is on a summer internship at Pinwheel Farm outside Lawrence.

• Bridges has taken fiber and weaving courses, and with the help of this summer's experiences hopes to one day make and sell his work, such as hats and baskets.

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