Morning art class at the Red Apple School had Joanne Bryant working silently from a colorful palate.
Using a brush slathered in bright red paint, she meticulously carved a slice of watermelon on canvas, completed with a spatter of brown seeds and grass colored rind. Save for her own personal touches — a couple of airy clouds hanging on the horizon — it was exactly like the picture she had copied freehand.
Bryant, 48, is deaf and has been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. She communicates with others using a combination of gestures, sign language and body movements. When it comes to art, she is a passionate perfectionist.
"She'll paint the same picture for hours and hours if we let her," said instructor Heidi Toparcean, before replacing Bryant's completed piece with a clean, blank canvas that would soon be covered with a spatter of sweeping red tulips.
Some of Bryant's paintings will be among the 40 pieces of student artwork on display and for sale Sept. 6-28 at the Downtown New Port Richey Art Gallery. The exhibit, created by mentally and physically challenged adults who are enrolled at two Red Apple School campuses, will be featured along with the works of this month's special artist, Fortunato (Fred) Mannarino and variety of contributors for the gallery's All American Exhibit.
School showings are a regular feature at the New Port Richey gallery, but this is the first time that Red Apple School will exhibit there.
"We're so excited," said Red Apple's Quality Assurance Coordinator, Trudy Acevedo. "We've seen so much talent we never knew existed. I'm anxious to see how they all look hanging up on the wall."
The school has been a hub of activity as students with varied capabilities have been busy creating their own artworks — whether a blue and gray cityscape painted in neat, linear strokes, or an abstract that comes alive with feathered streaks of color or a collaborative mural created by profoundly mentally handicapped students donning plastic gloves to hand paint while listening to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
"I actually enjoy doing it, because I never thought I could paint. Then I did this and I realized, it ain't that hard," said student Karen Westfall, after pointing out her abstract painting that was somewhat reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night.
Students start with a blank canvas, or maybe a piece of paper, and a variety of typical and unusual painting tools Acevedo picked up at local craft stores — bath sponges, toothbrushes and bottle brushes that more profoundly handicapped students could use to paint with. Staff members came up with their own ideas, such as inserting a regular paintbrush into a rubber stress ball that could be more easily handled, or using shredded recycling paper that could be sprinkled over paint to create mixed media pieces.
"We start with a canvas and students get their inspiration from where ever they find it," Acevedo said. "Calendar pictures, a still life of fruit or a sunflower growing outside the building."
Red Apple instructor Terry Ettel, who does a little painting as a hobby, was surprised to discover that many of them had a natural gift when it came to perspective and scale.
"I told them it's not what you paint, it's how you paint," he said. "I told them to paint from the heart."
A lot of them did.
Britta Bergman, 23, painted an alligator — the mascot from Land O'Lakes High, the school she graduated from last year.
Karen Westfall, 27, painted a portrait of her very good friend, Geana Iorio, 30
Scott Allen, 42, who is really looking forward to Halloween, painted an October landscape.
And to the delight of her instructors, Ana Vazquez, 60, who typically draws circles when given a piece of paper, completely covered her canvas in layers of pink.
"Look at Ana's abstract. It's gorgeous, just gorgeous," Toparcean said.
Money raised from exhibit sales will be split, with 70 percent of proceeds going to Red Apple and 30 percent going to the gallery. Those who are interested in purchasing might want to get out early, as some paintings have already been claimed.
"As the students were doing the painting, the staff was buying them," Acevedo said. "I had to tell the staff, no more buying. I need 40 pictures for the show."