JCC’s ‘The Art of Me’ gives special needs people a voice

Jody Hirsh, Special to WiG

Cindy Bentley knows exactly why The Art of Me, an exhibit at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay, is important. Bentley, who openly talks about her intellectual disabilities, is one of the 13 adults who join 20 children in the JCC’s special needs program, “Chaverim” (the Hebrew word for “friends”) and The Art of Me gives those 13 adults a voice through a series of photographic self-portraits.

The Art of Me is being presented as part of an arts program coordinated by Minneapolis-based organization Upstream Arts, which gives special needs children and adults a voice through photography, painting, movement and improv. Each photograph, taken with the assistance of a professional photographer, offers the chaverim an opportunity for self-expression.

The exhibit also includes a theatrical performance element on Feb. 11, in which the chaverim will improvise scenes. 

“I love it,” Bentley says, “When I was in school I couldn’t do art. I couldn’t be in a play. Upstream Arts accepts us for who we are, they meet you where you’re at. They don’t talk to us like babies. I’m so excited about being in a play. Just because we have disabilities, it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. If we’re not part of a community, how are we going to learn? This is important not just for me, but for the rest of the people.”

Bentley knows what she is talking about. Her mother was a drug addict and she was born with intellectual disabilities. Bentley spent most of her young life in institutions. 

It was the Special Olympics that saved her life and gave her a sense of accomplishment. She competed all over the world, won gold medals and met two presidents — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “President Bush kissed me on the left cheek,” she says. She has since become a spokeswoman for people with disabilities.

Julie Guidry, the executive director and co-founder of Upstream Arts, has spent the past 10 years exploring how the arts can be an exciting way for special needs people to develop social and communication skills.

“We use the arts to build self-esteem,” she says. “The moment that someone understands who you are, the more they understand and respect people with disabilities. The arts are such a valuable tool in creating an avenue for creation and respect.”

“From the moment in 2013 that Upstream Arts came to the Jewish Community Center to promote their special needs program they honestly had so many of us in tears,” says Jody Margolis, the JCC director of inclusion and special needs. “They were able to reach so many — especially the nonverbal ones. They have a magic that transforms these children. We’ve not seen any other program like this in the Milwaukee area.”

The Upstream Arts staff comes to Milwaukee with workshops three times a year, culminating in this year’s exhibit/performance. Tiffany Gardner, program coordinator of the Center of Inclusion and Special Needs, notes the chaverim “don’t see themselves in the media or in plays or films. They can be the cast of our theatrical program. They can be the subjects and creators of our photographic exhibit. The whole experience is about them. It’s not the norm for the public to see people with disabilities performing and creating art.” 

The JCC, while being a Jewish social service agency based on Jewish values, provides the full community with programs emphasizing inclusion and openness. The Art of Me exhibit and performance give participants an artistic opportunity to express who they are and shatter assumptions that people with disabilities cannot successfully be reflected in the arts.

ON DISPLAY

The Art of Me runs at the Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay, through March 11. Admission is free. Visit jccmilwaukee.org or call Jody Margolis at 414-967-8206 for more details.

Jody Hirsh is the Judaic education director of the Harry & Rose Samson Jewish Community Center.