Paul Gray says his son, P.G., would have loved the Very Special Arts Festival named in his memory. P.G., a Special Olympian, died last year at the age of 30. When he was in school, such opportunities for kids with disabilities to learn about various forms of art were less common. "They hardly ever took a field trip, but when they did, it was to a fast food place or a library," said Gray, a professor in adaptive physical education at Anderson University and director of the Madison County Special Olympics. On Tuesday, the third annual P.G. Gray Very Special Arts Festival at AU's Kardatzke Wellness Center introduced students with disabilities to various art forms, which included dancing with Chinese parasols and painting. Kids in wheelchairs painted by means of a paint-dispensing wheelchair attachment that allowed them to create their own masterpieces by simply rolling their chairs. Each small group of students, accompanied by student volunteers, spent 30 minutes at each station. The event included students with mild to severe disabilities and varying types of impairments -- no one was excluded from the fun. "There are some, because of their disabilities, we wonder how much they get from it, but it's immeasurable," Gray said.
P.G. never learned to read music, but learned to play "Happy Birthday" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the piano; and Carl Erskine's music station was one of the most popular.
Erskine, a musician and a former Brooklyn Dodger, taught sessions in how to play the harmonica. Students learned to draw their breath in and out into a simple scale, much to their delight. Each student received a harmonica of his own and a book about it to keep them going.
"You've got a friend to take with you wherever you go," Erskine told their group, reminding them, "No crackers before you play."
Tosha Jackson, a senior at Anderson High School, barely blew into her harp but grinned and delightedly issued her thumbs-up during her entire session.
A classmate was just as excited.
"I keep it at home," he said, smiling from ear to ear.
Their Anderson High School teacher, Susie Slate, said she would incorporate the harmonicas into her classroom.
"I think kids love music," said Erskine, parent of a son with disabilities. "There's something magic, no matter how simple it is, if you create it."
He added: "It's fun to watch their faces. When they hit that note and it comes from themselves, their eyes light up."
The event welcomed a special visitor: Garfield the Cat offered hugs and posed for drawings. His 4-foot-tall resin likeness, painted by Special Olympians, was also on display. "Garfield 'Oisk' Erskine" sported a blue Dodgers hat, toted a matching jersey, and was ready for play with a mitt painted onto his tail. "Oisk," named for the way Brooklyn-ites pronounced the first part of Erskine's name, is signed by his namesake, Garfield creator Jim Davis and local artist M.K. Watkins. He is one of 25 Garfields sold to nonprofit organizations to decorate.
"Oisk" will be sold on eBay to benefit the Madison County Special Olympics. The auction will run Aug. 28 to Sept. 4.
--Mary Beth Wagner is a reporter for the Anderson Herald-Bulletin.