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by Tim Lefens
Beacon Press, 2002
Review by Lizzie Perring on Feb 25th 2004

Flying Colors

This book has already been well reviewed and received much praise. To these I would like to add my own account of how it gripped me with a growing terror from beginning to end. My terror was that the Good Guys would be ousted and the Baddies would reclaim the world. Towards the end of the book I was reading so fast it was like obsession. I became desperately engaged with anger for the righteousness of the cause and the injustice abounding.

So, why was I so gripped by this book? I believe that it is a must-read for all educators of all people. Let us have an international law passed that makes it compulsory for all teachers to learn to thrive in special education before they are unleashed anywhere else. Artists such as those that Tim Lefens found in the Matheny School are in fact the best teacher trainers that anyone could have. The messages about sensitivity, humility and empathy that this book promotes are crucial learnings for anyone presuming to take the authority to stand before others and tell them what to do. That Lefens could see into their capacity and need for expression was the first joy of this book for me. That he could offer vehicles for creativity and protect the space to achieve was my second joy.

In my own work with people who have special needs I too have found artists and great thinkers amongst a group of teenagers abandoned by the education system. I found young people who had poignant and intellectually advanced messages to deliver and could be helped to do this by an offer creative materials and methods.

Meanwhile, back to the book: With a hint of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", I shuddered as "Nurse Rachet"-types stormed art sessions to deliver medication or demand that an artist in midstream must attend a demeaning appointment. The hideousness of a music therapist "playing" her human subjects like chime bars will revolt me forever. Without the lack of a passionate advocate, people like Tim Lefen's group of artists, with their delicate physical frames, provoke great fearfulness in the public. The unfriendliness of most of our physical environment to wheelchair culture adds to dependency on centres like the one in this book. Places that are so physically safe may in the end reduce the capacity to express character and potential. The reality is that physical needs can trap individuals into this potential of well meaning caring regimes to oppress. Then comes along a naïve radical like Tim Lefens and he introduces aspiration. The familiarity of this clash filled me with terror.

Don't get me wrong; I am full of admiration for those who can perform the essential practical roles of personal care that people with chronic physical needs cannot perform for themselves, with love and tenderness day in day out. I know such people are unique and irreplaceable in the care system and they are rare. I guess that was what the wincing hierarchy at Matheny were alluding to: This personal care is what is perfected by such institutions.

This beautifully naïve story of humanity and the emergence of this group of abstract artists within an institution constantly tugs away at these tensions.

So why should there be such a connection between people with extremes of physical need and abstract art? Perhaps their very state of being is abstract. The abstract art in this book seems to me to relate to the artists' sense of dissociation from much of the rest of the world, as in the slow, intensely meditative work of Eric Corben. In his tender empathy I think that Lefens shows us that political acceptance of differences between human beings will never be enough. In the UK now, we are talking about "Inclusion" as the next step on from "Integration": On the back of Human Rights hopefully empathy can have some aspirations.

Lefens writes in a passionately direct way that whisked me up into that institution so that I walked by his side as he and Angel strode into the place; I flinched at Angel's faux-pas and giggled at his misdemeanors; At the in-class disputes between teacher and assistant, I felt both embarrassment and irritation; I felt urgently engaged in the yearning of the students for recognition; and I felt ready to punch few folk and stamp about the place, asking to see people in charge.

The messages and honesty of this story outweigh any reservations about occasional inconsistencies in style. I would however suggest that he take out the italics and re-write those sections in a retrospective frame. These sections do lack the energy of the rest of the book.

All I wish to add is to say that I am circulating my copy amongst all my friends and family and will then continue to circulate amongst colleagues. I recommend that you do the same. I also recommend that you complement your reading with a visit to, where you can view artwork created by the artists mentioned in this book.


© 2004 Lizzie Perring


Lizzie Perring, Dip Mus., Cert Ed., MA, Dip Counselling and Psychotherapy, write about herself:

I am a musician and writer with long career in the field of Special Educational Needs. I have specialized in supporting children with emotional and behavioral difficulties and their families. From 1989 to 1996 I ran an Arts Education Centre with a group of other artists, where we offered the framework for very troubled teenagers to become artists themselves. I am a firm advocate for Human Rights and for a wholeheartedly inclusive society.

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