When Dena Skinner was young, her mother could not stop her from drawing on the walls and floors of their home.
"The bigger [the drawings], the better," Laurie Skinner said. "You'd have to lock up the crayons."
Dena was later diagnosed with autism, a communications disorder. "Art is a form of communication, and this was her way of trying to communicate," Skinner said.
Now 14, Dena no longer draws on the walls. She participates in the art therapy program of Equestrian Connection in Lake Forest. A sample of her work along with other special needs participants' work is on display at the Station Gallery in Lake Bluff in an exhibition, "Connecting the Community."
The show, which runs through April 5 and is open to the public on Saturdays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., was mounted in cooperation with Artists on the Bluff, a charitable organization dedicated "to promoting the arts and encouraging artists," according its website.
"I hope visitors to the show enjoy the artworks," said Julie Ludwick, a licensed art therapist who started the art therapy program of Equestrian Connection in 2006. "I also hope they become more aware of the strength of those living with special needs, and the creativity and uniqueness within them that should be validated.
"American culture, at times, tends to emphasize how people are different from each other, which can cause us to look at others as 'less than.' These art pieces are a way for the artists to be viewed as individuals with their own strengths. My hope is we can all be seen as equals, as artists," she said.
Ludwick, who has a master's degree in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, saw art therapy as a good fit with Equestrian Connection's therapeutic riding programs. "Offering imaginal therapy along with more physical therapy under the same roof would offer clients a more well-rounded holistic therapeutic experience," she said.
Ludwick conducts the art therapy program Wednesdays through Sundays. She works with up to 30 individuals a week, mostly in one-on-one instruction, but she conducts group art therapy classes as well. The majority of her students are autistic or have a physical challenge such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida. She also works with siblings and caregivers of those living with special needs. Her youngest student is 6.
She defines what she does as "the therapeutic use of art-making with a licensed professional enabling those living with illness, trauma or challenged living to use art as a way to cope, heal and communicate."
The experience can be empowering. Two pieces in the show, "Springtime Beauty" and "Mardi Gras," are the works of A.J. Arkeebauer, 14, who uses a wheelchair and is non-verbal. "Due to the way his diagnosis affects his body, he has little control in his life, but for one hour a week, art allows him to have control over something," Ludwick said.
Another revelatory piece, "Pinata the Elephant" by Hailey Dunbar, 9, took a painstaking year to make.
"It was very self-directed," Ludwick said. "It took a lot of patience and problem-solving. As the piece evolved and became bigger, it needed balance to support it and help it get stronger. I think that's a metaphor for the human experience."
When Ludwick considers what her students have achieved, she gets frustrated that financially strapped schools are cutting arts education. "It's one of those intangibles," she said. "It doesn't show up on ISATs, but for many kids, it's the brightest spot in their whole school day. It allows them to think creatively and imagine new possibilities."
Laurie Skinner agrees. "[Art therapy] Ahas really helped Dena communicate and express herself," she said. "A few years ago [at a previous art show], she would not talk to anyone. Now she is willing to stand up and talk about the work she has done."