Children and adults alike transformed pinecones, telephone wire and aluminum piping into a bird sanctuary and accompanying sculpture to raise awareness for autism last Saturday.
The special event was planned through a partnership between the Yale Center for British Art and Chapel Haven, a local residential school and independent-living facility for individuals with cognitive and social disabilities. The project, held at Chapel Haven’s location on Whalley Avenue, drew nearly 40 participants and over 20 volunteers from various local groups that provide support to and artistically engage with community members on the autism spectrum. YCBA Senior Curator of Education Linda Friedlaender said the event provided an out-of-the-box, accessible art project for all participants.
“What impressed me the most was the engagement of the audience with the materials and the pleasure and the self-satisfaction they had about being able to make things and do things they had not done before,” Friedlaender said. “That was really good.”
Some participants painted wooden birdhouses and slathered peanut butter on pinecones at different activity tables, while others painted planter boxes and crafted bird nests out of raffia and feathers. These creations now adorn and surround a tree on-site at Chapel Haven, accompanied by a sculpture that also aims to attract birds, Friedlaender said. Chicago-based sculptor Margot McMahon ART ’84, who Friedlaender recruited for the event, led participants in building the aluminum sculpture. A mural painted at the event will be on view at Woolsey Hall this April for National Autism Awareness Month before moving to a display in a YCBA classroom after the YCBA reopens later this spring.
Friedlaender and Chapel Haven Art Director Tina Menchetti spearheaded the event, which grew out of a number of other programs the YCBA runs for autistic individuals. The YCBA currently collaborates with Chapel Haven on a museum educational program called “Out to Art” for students at the school. The YCBA’s monthly “Exploring Artism” program for families with children on the autism spectrum has also relocated to Chapel Haven while the museum is closed for renovations. Along with individuals at Chapel Haven and children from “Exploring Artism” and the Autism Spectrum Disorder Fitness Center in Orange, teenage girls with autism spectrum disorder who take art classes at the YCBA also joined in on Saturday.
The event united these various groups by providing activities that would be doable for participants of all ages and ability levels, Friedlaender said.
Kathy Koenig NUR ’88, associate research scientist in the Yale Child Study Center who runs a broader program for teenage girls on the spectrum, described the event as “phenomenal.”
Menchetti stressed that the event was not merely beneficial for individuals on the spectrum, but was also a valuable experience for the volunteers.
Enthusiastic volunteers from Students for Autism Awareness at Yale came to Chapel Haven to work with the participants Saturday, Friedlaender said, adding that the event was charged with creative energy.
Friedlaender said she will meet with other organizers of the event this week to debrief and share feedback.
“We had a great time,” Koenig said. “I hope to do it again.”
The YCBA has been closed to the public for renovations since January 2015.