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Each stroke is an extraordinary achievement that the exceedingly patient instructors at Abilities United never take for granted — but always look for ways to improve. A donation through Wish Book will help pay for supplies, instructors and innovations. “There are a lot of moments that make you grateful to be here,” said Shay Barnett, the art program coordinator whose pedigree includes a degree from the University of the Arts London. For more than a decade, Abilities United has been connecting promising young artists — some with speech delays, autism or cerebral palsy — to First Friday art walks and museum exhibits and to art dealers and patrons who sometimes pay hundreds of dollars for their works.

“We teach them more than art,” said Wendy Kuehnl, Abilities United’s marketing director who started the art program in 2001 with the help of a local artist, “We teach them how to represent themselves, to curate their work, to prepare for an exhibit.”, One of their artists, before pointe shoes Phillip Ma, sold a painting of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco for $700 now on display at an E-Trade office, Daniel Arroyo’s portrait “Who’s Who” of a face split between a man and woman was featured at the Walt Disney Family Museum, And Ingrid Lai still can’t get over the places her artwork is taking her..

“It brings me surprise after surprise,” said Lai of Palo Alto who suffers debilitating joint pain from Lupus and started painting as a therapeutic activity. Two of her oil paintings hang in the Scotts Valley home of Valerie Elliott, including a still life of lemons as bright as sunshine now beaming above the buffet in Elliott’s dining room. The painting filled Elliott with memories of growing up on a dairy farm when she saw it at one of Abilities United’s art auction luncheons shortly after her father died.

She was so inspired she sent Lai a note of before pointe shoes gratitude, “When I read it,” Lai said, “I just cried and cried and cried.”, That’s what art has done to her life — provided these connections, out of nowhere, Phillip Ma’s mother, Christina Ma, is overwhelmed with gratitude too, She still marvels at how Abilities United opened doors for her 33-year-old son’s enormous talent, connecting him to an organization called ArtLifting that promotes artists who struggle with homelessness or disabilities..

He studied at the San Francisco Academy of Art, but speech and verbal comprehension delays held him back from a traditional career. His gift, however, is undeniable. He proudly shows off sketchbooks featuring his evolution as an artist, from crude drawings of Ninja turtles to breathtaking landscapes of Venice’s canals and Taiwan’s pagodas. When Abilities United displays the works of Ma and other artists at exhibits and galleries, Barnett said she is often amused at the reaction. Because of the artists’ disabilities, “people always act so surprised that they are that good,” she said. “I know sometimes they hear that and say, ‘Should we be insulted? Of course, we are good.’”.

That praise is partly how Abilities United’s art program is redefining possibilities, Barnett saw Arroyo discover his confidence and his sense of adventure at before pointe shoes First Friday art gallery walks, “He started out very shy at the events, As people kept coming up to him, and commenting on his work, he started seeing himself as an artist,” she said, “as one of their peers.”, That sense of respect is also on display at Abilities United’s studio in Palo Alto, where the projects at Tuesday morning classes are much more rudimentary but the ambition is just as powerful..

For the past 10 years, Maritza Velasco’s mother has been bringing her from their San Bruno home to the art classes. Velasco has cerebral palsy and her grip is limited, but when she captures a thick glop of greens and blue on her brush and strokes it across the page, an abstract garden sprouts to life. What inspires her to love art? “Expressing myself,” she says, “and I don’t stop.”. Asked whether she feels like the dark blues and greens and browns that streak across the page like dusk on a gloomy night, she smiles. “It’s just the way the paint comes out,” she says playfully.

Velasco’s sense of humor is only one of the rewards of working with these artists, “There are a lot moments that make you grateful,” Barnett said, She and the instructors are constantly learning ways to enhance the artists’ abilities with a variety of tools, from simple tennis balls to specially designed easels designed by Stanford engineering students, Stoneham sees the impact every Tuesday, And he proudly takes before pointe shoes home some of the seemingly simpler works of art, recognizing the connections and possibilities they truly represent, One of Velasco’s paintings of fall colors, with bold, sporadic strokes on a big piece of orange construction paper, hangs on his refrigerator door..


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