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Pictures of Pain : Learning-Disabled Students Turn to Art to Describe Experiences

October 29, 1989|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gigi Foller is trying to explain what it is like not to be able to count change.

Stammering in frustration, the normally articulate 38-year-old moves first one way and then the other, gesturing with increasing futility and starting again and again before giving up with a sigh.

So she points to her painting, and the painting says it all.

Titled "The Adventures of Jellowoman," the witty cartoon in four parts depicts a matronly supervisor casually asking Gigi to watch the cash register for a minute. Gigi--depicted in the first panel as a mild-mannered librarian--starts to dissolve, until in the last panel she is reduced to gelatin, her horn-rimmed glasses floating on the glutinous mass.

Gigi is a student at Los Angeles Community College, and her painting is part of an exhibit of artwork by learning-disabled students at the school that is designed to explain their learning problems through art. The 10 artists whose work makes up the exhibit have constructed sculptures and paintings that use dark humor and harrowing images to depict what it is like to live with disabilities that many people do not believe exist.

They are learning disabled, and they suffer from disorders as well-known as dyslexia, the reversal of words and letters, and as obscure as dysgraphia, the inability to write while thinking. They are all of average or above-average intelligence, but their brains have difficulty processing essential information.

Almost all of the artists in the show are adults. They have failed at careers or have found niches in professions where their disabilities don't matter. For virtually every one, the exhibit is something of a coming out--the first time they have gone public with what they describe as their private nemeses.

"It's hard for me to explain why I have a teaching credential I can't use, why I've been careening through my life losing at different careers," Foller said. "Up till now I haven't had a hope in hell of telling anyone about this. It's been absolute hell since I was 4 years old. So you can see why I sometimes feel like the Jellowoman."

The exhibit is titled "A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words," and it opens Wednesday. It is the climax of an art therapy program that began in the spring when California community college officials gave the learning-disabilities program at LACC $4,500 to pay for it.

Susan Matrenga, director of the 10-year-old tutoring and counseling program at the Los Feliz-area college, said she and her colleagues came up with the idea after noticing that some of their clients took notes by drawing pictures. After discussing the phenomenon with art instructors at the school, they decided to collaborate with the art department to seek a grant for an art show.

When they are not organizing art shows, the two learning disabilities specialists who run the LACC program spend hours with students designing ways for them to learn. They find tapes of books for people who read painfully slowly, buy screens and gels for people who have difficulty reading under bright light and stock a large selection of audio and visual aids for all the students who seek their help--this year 120 in all.

The program is one of a number of such learning centers dotted throughout the California community college system. Two years ago the system became the first in the country to adopt criteria for determining which students are learning-disabled. Beginning next fall, community colleges in California will ask them to identify themselves.

The show will continue for a month. Matrenga also will hold a workshop in which learning-disabled students will explain their work to faculty and staff.

If the experiences reflected in the show are typical, few teachers understand the students' difficulties.

There is, for instance, the dilemma of Marianne Skalicky, 32, who suffers from an attention deficit disorder, a neurological problem that makes it difficult for her to focus on one thing at a time, and from scotopic sensitivity, an acute sensitivity to bright light. She said she has been unable to explain to teachers for years why she reads best in the dark.

There is Kippen Melville, an actress who said she was so embarrassed about her disabilities that for years she didn't feel she had "the right to step on a college campus."

And there is Richard Littlefield, a dyslexic who finds reading so painful that the painting he is exhibiting depicts a small Richard overwhelmed by a monster-size book.

Standing in front of the mural-size work on a recent day, Littlefield read aloud a poem within the painting:

repeating nightmare child

A small me

overwhelmed in crushing

hurting, paranoid emotional devastation.

A small me

crying in anxiety

Standing in a monster

large book

knowing I can't get through to the end

crying in confused pain

a small me.

mommy daddy

save me

"There's a great, big glitch in my computer program," Littlefield said. "I knew in my nightmares and in my daytime life that I just couldn't get through this great, big, huge book."

The work being set up at LACC's DaVinci Hall Art Gallery draws the stares of passers-by. There is a sculpture of black tears, a painting of a woman moving her head left and right in a swirl of colors and a mixed-media work of a baby's head surrounded by a blur of indistinguishable words.

As the exhibit takes form, however, the students talk not about the pain but what they have overcome. There is an intense closeness among students and therapist, which those in the program say has to do with gratitude and relief.

"I used to start crying sometimes, crying in the anxiety of being sort of locked up within myself," Skalicky said. "But once you know what it is, it's like the whole world really opens up to you."

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