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Arts & Entertainment Life Without Limits: UCP of Central California arts center promotes freedom of expression, personal choice

Feb 17, 2015 10:20PM, Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine, Categories: Arts+Entertainment

Gallery: UCP [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

Arts & Entertainment

Life Without Limits: UCP of Central California arts center promotes freedom of expression, personal choice

by Rachel Taylor

It’s another busy day at UCP’s Center for the Arts and Technology in Fresno, and Diana Salinas is quick on her feet.

Salinas, visual arts department head, energetically strides around a back room of the center’s art lab, monitoring and encouraging her students as music reverberates off the brightly colored walls.

The art lab is cozy and welcoming. Past art projects and happy snapshots of smiling students line the walls. Ceramic wind chimes hang from the ceiling.

It’s here that more than 100 adult students with disabilities create beautiful works of art for themselves and the community.

The arts center, founded in 1997, is a branch of UCP of Central California, a nonprofit that serves more than 1,000 children and adults with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, traumatic brain injuries and other disabilities each year.

The nonprofit welcomes people from Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced and Tulare counties.

For UCP, there is one simple, overarching goal: Provide equal opportunities to those with disabilities.

That principal extends to the arts center, which offers a community college environment for about 130 adult students with an interest in visual arts, performing arts, life skills and technology.

Here, personal choice is emphasized – students get to choose the courses they’d like to pursue and create their own schedule each trimester.

The visual arts curriculum, which is the most popular among students, offers courses ranging from watercolor and drawing to ceramics and candle making.

In the campus art lab, students are able to exercise freedom of expression.

Though assistance is readily available from instructors like Salinas, it is the students who determine the final outcome of their projects.

“I won’t make them do anything that they do not want to do,” Salinas said. “I will encourage, but I will not make them.”

Salinas, who has been with UCP for 27 years, said the classes also help the students develop hand-eye coordination skills.

“I’ve had some students who couldn’t hold a paintbrush, a pencil, a spoon,” Salinas said.

Salinas and her staff take note of the students’ personal difficulties and incorporate various grasping exercises into the creative process whenever they can.

During candle making, for example, students must use tools to break up chunks of wax before placing them into a mold.

“For some of our students, it may take an hour to fill the mold, and that’s OK,” Salinas said. “Yeah, we can help them, but what’s the use of helping them when they’re able to do it even if it takes them an hour? Those are grasping skills.”

Salinas beamed with joy when she described how a student who once used his mouth to paint now uses his hands. He can even write his own name.

“There’s no such thing as, ‘They can’t’ – they can,” Salinas said. “We’re going to make it work.”

When a student gets frustrated, Salinas said, “Let’s not worry about getting a piece done.”

For Salinas, making an effort is what counts. There’s no pressure.

“You have to make it fun,” she said. “If you don’t make it fun, you don’t be creative, well of course they’re not going to be inspired.”

Salinas said she encourages laughter and socialization during class. She frequently plays music and doesn’t mind when the students get a little loud.

“It’s something that I do not get tired of, and I’m still learning from them,” Salinas said.

Encouragement and positive reinforcement are also important motivational tools Salinas uses in the classroom.

“I praise them, I tell them and I show them how far they’ve come – especially when I show them their pictures,” she said. “To me, that’s the rewarding part.”

Student Sandy Sekiya, 56, has been developing her artistic skills at the center for about 12 years.

Today, she’s putting a fifth layer of glaze on her most recent piece: a ceramic leopard.

Sekiya looks at home in her seat at the head of the ceramics table. She’s in her element.

Of all the center’s classes, Sekiya said ceramics is her favorite – she enjoys the before-and-after process of painting a piece and watching it change color as it’s pulled out of the kiln.

“It relaxes me,” she said.

Sekiya said the process is fun and easy for her – when she’s painting or glazing, she can let her mind relax.

Aside from the creative benefits of the art projects, students can also sell their work by appointment at the center, located at 4224 N. Cedar Ave., through independent commissions or during community events.

Salinas said Sekiya receives many commissions.

“A lot of her pieces do sell,” Salinas said. “She sells wind chimes, candles, mosaic pieces, ceramic pieces…”

Sekiya said it’s exciting when a piece of her art sells.

When she receives her paycheck, Sekiya frequently uses the money to buy her peers’ artwork. Other times, she uses the money for a personal art project.

Recently, she purchased a ceramic angel that she will paint for herself.

Barry Falke, director of corporate giving and mission driven business, said that for many students, when a piece of their art sells, it might be the only paycheck they ever receive.

While a portion of the money is used to offset the cost of supplies, the remainder goes directly to the artist.

“For many of them, this has become a source of income that they are very happy to have,” Falke said. “It’s certainly something that we’re very proud of here at UCP – that we’re able to really foster ideas of independence, productivity and full citizenship through providing a program like this.”

Salinas has seen firsthand how the students react when they receive a paycheck.

“Oh my goodness, they get so happy,” Salinas said. “That’s the most exciting thing for me and fulfillment that I have. Maybe that’s why I’m still here – I get that joy from them.”

During the past year, Falke said the center has been working hard to get its students’ artwork out into the community.

In March, Peeve’s Public House in Fulton Mall displayed the center’s artwork for ArtHop.

The show was successful.

In addition to raising awareness about the center, an out-of-state businessman purchased four pieces.

“He saw the art, fell in love with a couple of pieces and, as it turned out, he was actually from New Orleans,” Falke said. “Our students’ artwork is now hanging in Louisiana, which is kind of neat.”

Because of overwhelming support from the community, Falke said the nonprofit plans to launch a website featuring the students’ art in early 2015.

“One of the things that we have seen time and time again is that when people see our students’ artwork, they don’t see the artwork and think, ‘Oh, that’s made by a student with a disability,’” Falke said. “What they think when they see the artwork is, ‘Oh, wow, that’s incredible artwork.’”

Salinas echoes this sentiment: “You know, it’s funny – I work with a lot of students, and I’ve been here for 27 years, but I don’t see them with a disability.”

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Karen Maroot