Side by Side: Arts and Accessibility in Lexington

Side by Side: Arts and Accessibility in Lexington

Side by Side: Bruce Burris shares this week’s art and accessibility roundtable with Lexington Art League President, Dr. Nick Kouns


Like a Prayer
Side by Side Exhibit Tells Powerful Local Arts Story


Over 46 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of Communications Disorder. What one means by Communications Disorder has a lot to do with whom you are asking; it is a very broad term which includes processes of hearing, balance, smell, taste, voice, speech, and language. Thankfully, we aren’t talking much about diagnosis here; instead — with the opening of the Side by Side Exhibit during Gallery Hop on Friday — we are talking about art and the experience of ten children and ten professional artists who spent a bit of time making art together.

After an initial six-week series of art workshops, facilitated by Christine Kuhn, each child was paired one on one with a professional artist and provided the opportunity to collaborate and create art together. Together, each duo collaborated on one piece.

The exhibit will consist of a total of 30 pieces — two from each child, one conceived during the six-week facilitated session, one from the one on one session, and one piece each by each of the participating artists.

Side by Side is the brainchild of Ginny Miller of VSA Kentucky and this year, in addition to Lexington, programs will occur in Louisville, Bowling Green, Paducah, Somerset and Murray. This model is also being adapted and used in other states as well. For this, VSA Kentucky was honored with the “Award of Excellence in Educational Programming” at the National VSA Arts Conference, and Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital received the “Consumer First” MediStar Award. The MediStar Awards “are designed to honor outstanding healthcare professionals and organizations in the region.”

In asking those affiliated with the project if they’d like to share a few thoughts about Side by Side, the response was overwhelming.

Clearly the experience of partiicpating in Side by Side was very powerful, and the story here is in allowing these artists to tell it themselves.


Christine Kuhn is a Lexington artist and is trained to facilitate art classes for VSA. Christine contributed to much of the success of the program; she organized and facilitated the six-week workshops prior to the artist/child collaboration. Here is her description of that process.

“There were three main themes during the six-week session: Totem Poles, Spirit Animals, Modes of Transportation. Each class began with a powerpoint presentation of a whole bunch of images of the theme set to appropriate music. The kids watched these with great interest, much to my surprise! For the Modes of Transport, I used Honk Horn music from Ghana. It’s music that taxi drivers make by blowing their car horns in rhythm. Drumming for totem poles and some special ‘spirit animal’ music. After introducing the theme and talking about it a little, we’d gather in an open space and do some yoga and breathing exercises and play a game (usually animal charades where one or two kids pretend to be an animal and the rest of them guess which one. Even the most autistic kid there eventually participated. The games are good because they help us develop a ‘class spirit.’) After that, we did a short guided visualization to relax the body and mind and imagine what we might want to paint, draw, sculpt etc. Amazingly, the kids were great with this…In the Spirit Animals Section, we tried to meet our spirit animals. All of the imagery and stuff is simply to try to activate the imagination and get them excited about doing something. Then we got to work with music playing in the background. I hate that the kids in this class are labeled as ‘disabled’ — there’s nothing wrong with them.”


Georgia Henkel is a well known artist and art teacher at Lexington’s Sayre School. She mentions visiting Gugging which is a mental health facility known throughout the world for involving residents in the arts. Many residents at Gugging enjoy worldwide acclaim as artists. You might think that US mental health programs such as Eastern State Hospital would benefit from such a component, but that is usally not the case. From Vienna, Austria, Georgia writes, “I received sabbatical money from Sayre to go to Austria, Czech Republic and Germany. I’m in Vienna now. My mission has been to explore collections of art brut and fringe artists…which has led me to the Prinzhorn collection, Kunsthaus Kannen, Charlotte Zander and the Gugging (a well-known mental health facility with an internationally viable arts component). I was able to paint with the artists from Gugging for an hour or so. Regarding Side by Side, I wish we had more time: it was a great opportunity to make a new friend, do a collaborative piece and get to know someone else as an artist…the disability is a mystery and doesn’t factor into the process in a way that matters to me.”


Jill Plaisted is an artist and printmaker. She has taught art around the world and also served as President of the Lexington Art League.

“This is the second year I have been involved with the Side by Side project and on both occasions I have requested that I be paired with a child suffering from autism. Both times I have had boys approximately 11 years of age. Last year I had a very good relationship with my child and found him to be extremely intelligent and perceptive with a vivid imagination. We worked well together, collaborating both on several works of art with accompanying stories.”

“This year I had much more of a challenge. My child was severely autistic and I have to say that I had a hard time establishing any real contact with him. I had been told that he was extremely good at drawing and this proved to be the case if I could just get him to hear me and then to focus on the task at hand. During the classes leading up to the collaborative project he was missing for several weeks, and so I didn’t really get to know him. I could see that his grandparents who accompanied him weekly and waited outside, were very devoted to him.

“I did request that one of the occupational therapists be with me in the room and I was glad because she knew how to calm him down and when to let him walk around the room before he tried to re-focus on hte project. I just wished that I had been able to get through to him because I know that he was a very talented boy and this was all locked up inside him. I think Side by Side is an excellent collaboration, and hope to be involved again next year.


Artist Sarah Marie Miller is an accomplished photographer. She says, “though supposedly these kids were labeled with a learning disability of some sort. I was blown away by “N” and her perfect precociousness. she knows all there is to know about horses, and that is a fact. She showed me around the Kentucky Horse Park and was such a little adult that I quickly found a friend 00 we galloped through the park together making our best horse noises, and it was marvelous. The photographs, which “N” and I made, were even more intriguing than I’d hoped. Her ghostly little figure floats throughout them, often paired with the outline of something very horse-like.”

“What a privilege it was and always is to see the world through a child’s eyes. Child photography seems to always have its own certain mysterious curiosity.”


Shannon Sigler is a Kentucky artist whose work was included in the LAL’s Nude International exhibit.

“It was such a joy to work with E. She was a bit shy at first, but she blossomed as we began to create together. Once she had creative ideas of her own to put into practice in our collage, her whole countance changed. She encouraged me to continue thinking ‘outside the box,’ in my own art, and I hope she will continue to create on her own as well!”


Kate Sprengnether is a Lexington artist who often works in clay.

She says, “Unlike the other community artists, I didn’t meet my artist partner “A,” until our collaborative session. I had planned two collaborative sessions, since we were working in clay and would need additional time. I was glad that I had planned two sessions since it was the first time we met. I began by just talking to him, asking him questions, and telling him about myself (How old are you? What grade are you in? What do you like to do?) He was a bit shy at first, but still very friendly and easy to talk to. He said that he liked to draw, so I asked him to draw the kinds of things that he likes to draw and I did the same and then we showed each other the sketches and talked about them. He liked to draw dinosaurs and imaginary creatures and I was very impressed with his drawings. He is very talented and creative. So then we talked about what we wanted to make in clay, and I suggested that we make a creature that is made up of two types of animals — and “A” suggested a half-cat, half-bird creature. “A” made the head and body and I worked on the wings and feet/claws. We used an air-drying clay, so the second night, we painted it together in the colors that “A” picked, and then I added a pattern of dogs, so that it looked a bit like my own work. We had a lot of fun working together. “A” was a very sweet, well-mannered and incredibly polite boy.I do not know what his ‘diagnosis’ is…and while we were working together, I completely forgot there was even a reason that he was in the class. His parents said that he enjoyed it too. He was a bit shy at first, but then he opened up and it was a lot of fun to work with. My only wish is that he and I could work together some more.”

Side by Side is an inspiring story and much good has come from the success of this program. It is important to remember, however, that only 10 children were involved in this and now more than one participating artist expressed concern that the collaborations (roughly two hours in most cases) between themselves and their children were not nearly enough.

This is not the fault of the program — which thankfully pays artists and can only do what it is able to do with in a limited budget. But this concern is valid and I think we need to understand that artmaking opportunities are very important to people who live within marginalized communities.

Across the US there are a number of programs that stress consistent expressive opportunities for people.

Side by Side serves as a kind of beacon, illuminating the potential and need; now it is up to us to implement the kind of supports which will enable any of us to participate in our community through the arts.

Guest Editor Bruce Burris was a founder of Minds Wide Open and the current Latitude LLFC on Saunier. He also serves on the Eastern State Hospital cemetery-committee, and is a community advisory board member at aceweekly.

Side by Side is a collaborative exhibition of artwork created by young artists considered to have disabilities and area artists, presented by VSA Arts of Kentucky in partnership with Cardinal Hill Rehab Hospital and the Lexington Art League. A reception honoring the artists will be held during Gallery Hop (Fri June 20, 5 pm to 8 pm, at the Downtown Arts Center, at 141 E. Main.)

This article also appears on page 7 of the June 19, 2008 print issue of Ace.




by Dr. Nick Kouns

Special editor Bruce Burris: “Everyone I spoke with credits the success of Lexington’s Side by Side to the energy and passion of Dr. Nick Kouns (current president of the Lexington Art League). I asked him to share a few words about why he chose children specifically for this program, and I wondered if he might have some specific reasons for providing this opportunity.”

— BB

“I came to the Lexington Art League board with the specific intent on making arts accessible to all members of the Lexington community. In fact, I established our Community Outreach Committee at the Art League before it was (recently) integrated into our new Mission, Vision, and Values statement.

I am from a small rural town in northeastern Kentucky where the arts were sort of a mystery to me. It was my perception that the ‘arts’ community was a very rarefied community, accessible only to the beautiful and glamorous. While a portion of my perception was a projection of my own insecurity about class and place, I also came to realize that this was perpetuated by many people in the community itself. It made it difficult for me to participate in any meaningful way, apart from the passive act of reading books and looking at pictures.

I attended Centre College on scholarship, and even in that great enclave of learning and liberal arts, it was painfully difficult for me to engage. There weren’t a lot of inroads, and although it was a great love of mine, I never felt included. I was awarded a Watson Fellowship which allowed for a year of post-graduate study abroad. I developed an independent study program, which the Watson Fellowship calls for. My particular study focused on social and cultural barriers to access to healthcare. I studied socialized medicine at St. John’s College at Oxford; I studied the allocation of healthcare to blacks in South Africa under apartheid; I studied the allocation of healthcare to the Palestinians in the West Bank. All of these experiences lead me to the belief and the absolute conviction that many barriers to access — whether they be to healthcare or to the arts — have, at their core, the commonality of indifference and apathy. These socially endorsed restrictions to inclusion are multi-factorial, to be sure. There are cultural biases built into the very fabric of all cultures, both local and international. They are often fear-based — fear of the different and fear of the unknown. I would continue my efforts in educating myself through my medical studies when I returned from my years abroad.

When I returned, I started medical school in Miami Florida. Due to the fantastic opportunities afforded me through the Watson Fellowship, I became active in International Health policies during my years in medical school. During those years of study, I became the national director of the U.S. delegation to the International Federation of Medical Students Association (IFMSA). I traveled abroad to meetings in Cairo, Helsinki, Brazil, and Finland, and ultimately formed the U.S. delegation to the IFMSA, eventually serving on its Executive Committee.

I returned to the University of Kentucky Medical Center to complete a residency in Internal Medicine, continuing my efforts in cultural awareness.

In returning to Lexington, I kept in my heart my own difficulties. These were difficulties associated with geography, socio-economic status (or the lack thereof), and lack of inclusion. While I have been blessed as an adult, it was difficult growing up. I made a promise to myself, very early on, that I would never forget the obstacles that I faced in having my seat at the table — a seat that I firmly believe that we are all entitled to, regardless of our positions in life.

As I settled in Lexington and my interest in the arts grew, I wanted to do what I could for those who were under-represented at the table.

I spent the better part of a year meeting with local and state representatives of some of these groups. I met with Harold Kleinert at the College of Human Development at the University of Kentucky. I met with Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital. I met with Karen Boudreaux of the Down Syndrome Association of Central Kentucky. I met with community leaders and lay people alike. Having surveyed the landscape in Lexington, I realized that Latitude was doing spectacular work with adults, and this was heralded by everyone I spoke with.

However, after meeting upon meeting, I discovered that children with learning disabilities were barely getting their BASIC curriculum needs met, much less any real and meaningful ARTS needs met. To that end, I met with director of the VSA program for Kentucky, a subsidiary of the Kennedy Center. We designed a program that would be inclusive, rewarding, and meaningful to the arts community at large. I am deeply honored to have been part of a spectacular collaboration between the Lexington Art League, Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital, and VSA of Kentucky.

A month ago, I stopped by the workshop where the kids were working with local artists. I was watching through a window in the door, and spoke with the mother of one of the students. They drove two and a half hours each day — the entire family — so that their son could participate in the program. They were from northeastern Kentucky — my neck of the woods. They told me what this program meant to their son. The mother told me that this program had changed her son’s life. She said it just like that. She told me that he had become more engaged; that he was talking about his art non-stop, and that it had given him a sense of purpose so desperately lacking in his day-to-day life. She told me that he felt like he was really a part of the world now. And that was from the lips of an eight-year-old child. That he was a PART of the world. And he had articulated what I could not for all those years. It took me much longer to feel like I was part of the world. I realized in that instant that art allows us to join together in our humanity. Whatever our station in life; whatever our age; whatever our color or race or stage of development — this is the expression of our individual and collective humanity. It binds us together as members of our local, national, and global community. It is the grand equalizer. It strips us of our symbols of success and exposes us as what we are: human.

It is this cultural optimism that informs and sustains my own place in the world. In elevating the lives of our brothers and sisters, we elevate our own.

I realized I didn’t have to travel to the far-flung corners of the world to get behind something meaningful.

We can make a difference right here and right now, with an immediacy that is incontrovertible.



Christine Kuhn is an artist and an educator. She also teaches art classes at Lexington’s Living Arts and Science Center. In addition, Christine is the art manager for Minds Wide Open Art Center.

Georgia Henkel is an artist and the Lower School art instructor at Sayre School. She is currently an advisory board member at VSA Kentucky.

Caitlin Heinz graduated from UK in 2007 with a degree in art studio. She currently is helping shape future artists at a daycare.

Jill Plaisted is a printmaker and a former president of Lexington Art League.

Kate Sprengnether is a local artist who recently curated Lexington Art League’s Response to Fear.

Kandace Tatum is a local artist and Communications Director for Lexington Art League.

Erin McAnallen has an art studio degree from UK and currently works at UK’s Children’s Hospital, overseeing a group called Kreative Catz, consisting of UK art students who volunteer their time to do art with patients.


A Sampling of Gallery Hop Exhibits

Friday, June 29, 2008

Artique at the Lexington Center: artists featuring the written word in their art.

HopArtunity at the Carnegie Center on Second Street is the Kentucky Women Photographers Network and the 2008 Next Great Writers opening reception for Points of View. Photographers whose work will be featured include: Dobree Adams, Linda Blumer, Deirdre A. Skaggs, Lee Ann Paynter, Rene Hales, Marcia Lamont Hopkins, Carolyn Courtney, Ernestine Hall, Susan Moore, Carol Rice, Gabrielle Beasley, Libby Falk Jones, Dana Smith, Rebecca Hughes, Carol Peachee, Sandra Varellas, Priscilla Gotsick.

Main Cross Gallery, Victorian Square, features “The Coast, the Earth, and One Petrified Fish,” by painter Darrel Ishmael.

LFUCG The new gallery space on the 5th and 12th floors of the Government Center will feature Morehead photographer Gary Eldridge’s work.

Latitude on Saunier has an installation piece called “How we saved the Mountain Kingdom Where Broken People Swim as Fish in Black Water.”

ArtsPlace on Mill Street will feature the work of the members of the Bluegrass Printmakers Cooperative.

The Central Library will feature photography from Berea College alum Isaac Bingham.

The First Presbyterian Church Gallery on Market Street will have prints from Jill Plaisted.

Side by Side is the Lexington Art League at Downtown Arts Center exhibit.