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Transformative Creativity in Special Education

The Role of Design in Supportive Learning Environments is Key

Building Dialogue | June 2021 By Tammy Ng

When entering a Leroy Neiman Art Studio, inhabitants are embraced with vi-brant color and expressive creativity. Conceived when Good Tidings founder Larry Harper met renowned American artist LeRoy Neiman in 1989, the colorful art studios by the nonprofit children’s charity encourage students in underserved communities to explore their own creative spirit and individual expression. Like each of the student’s needs, skills and dreams, no two studios are alike.

We have navigated the design process with the Good Tidings team for 13 locations through-out North America – located within educational facilities, recreational centers and institutional buildings such as museums – and have developed a rhythm that expedites the design process while adapting to each location’s specific needs. Each of the project partners – including Good Tidings, the LeRoy Neiman and Janet Byrne Neiman Foundation, and our MBH Architects team – treat each art studio as a unique experience, with its own scope, style and special considerations. Good Tidings provides the art studios as gifts, encouraging the project team to use our individual perspectives to envision and transform the space while meeting each stakeholders’ goals. When envisioning the most recent Leroy Neiman Art Studio at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, our goal was to create a facility that helped deaf and blind students explore their art skills in a creative, visually uplifting environment. Providing art edu-cation for students ranging from elementary to high school-age and facilitating classes on paint-ing, drawing, ceramics and sculpture, this Good Tidings location exemplifies the role that the built environment plays in facilitating hands-on, trans-formative learning. The importance of the built environment in influencing the student’s emotional, spiritual and physical health is central to the design process and can-not be stressed enough.

This studio is distinct in many ways; first and foremost, the studio was designed and constructed remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. With offices shut down and stakeholders residing in two separate states, site visits and in-person client meetings went virtual to protect everyone involved. The first kickoff meeting with Larry Harper and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind visual arts teacher focused on understanding the students’ and teachers’ specific studio needs. The teacher was most excited about building flexibility into the floor plan and weaving in special moments for showcasing art, including a rollaway stage that will bring art-project reveals to a new level. In addition to the signature large murals – a key design element within each LeRoy Neiman Art Studio – the design team prioritized the inclusion of 3D and tactile elements and new pottery and wedging tables to ensure all students would experience an interactive physical environment while undertaking hands-on learning.

Each Leroy Neiman Art Studio has authentic thematic influences inspired by the location, students and Neiman’s body of work. That said, each space also maintains key elements for brand consistency, such as splatter painted linoleum flooring and murals of Neiman’s art. The hand-splattered paint on the floor, created by Good Tidings founder Larry Harper and his family, brings a dynamic vibrancy to the room and mimics LeRoy’s art studio in New York City. The murals are created by transforming Neiman’s paintings into large mural prints to span the walls, serving as the room’s artistic focal point. For this space, the team was inspired by the nearby Rocky Mountains and Neiman’s pieces created for the Winter Olympics. Neiman served as the official artist of five Olympic Games spanning from 1972 to 2010, and his pieces of Olympians and skiers perfectly guided the design and color palette.

The final design solution brought the dynamism of Neiman’s works to life. Four murals fill the space with color and inspiration. The first is a portrait of LeRoy Neiman, accompanied by his biography and inspirational messages to the students in English and Braille. Three additional murals of Olympic skiers adorn the room – one on the wall, and two others adhered to the doors of new storage cabinets. As the studio is located at the basement level, we wanted to bring a sense of the outdoors in. Cus-tom-building a false “window” with a picturesque view of the majestic Pikes Peak, we revitalized the space with some of Colorado’s acclaimed landscapes. To complement the speed and excitement depicted in the murals, 3D objects like skis and ski poles were mounted onto the mural for added visual excitement. The studio entrance includes wall-mounted upcycled ski coat racks to store art aprons and other belongings, and reclaimed skis were fashioned into a bench for students.

Neiman was a lifelong advocate of providing creative learning opportunities for children – a truth that was celebrated in the design scheme for the project at large. The final space is energized, colorful and filled with inspiration for all students. While this was my 13th LeRoy Neiman Art Studio designed for Good Tidings, each project is unique; the process, dependent on the location’s context, is constantly changing and adapting. The education paradigm is shifting, with contemporary teaching approaches demanding new kinds of learning spaces to better equip today’s students for the future. We’re honored to have brought the joy and vibrancy of LeRoy Neiman and his mission to communities of need through a supportive built environment, continuing his legacy for student artists nationwide.

Published in Building Dialogue


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