Local Project Gives New Voice to Those With Developmental & Intellectual Disabilities

Local Project Gives New Voice to Those With Developmental & Intellectual Disabilities

7:19am Oct 10, 2013
James Lowdermilk of Winston-Salem proudly displays his collagraph print he created at Sawtooth. His work will be featured with a handful of others at the multi-media exhibition at Sawtooth through November 14.
Keri Brown

A multi-media project and exhibition at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem is giving a new voice to some adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Christine Rucker is a freelance photographer from Winston-Salem. Three yearsago, she was approached by Group Homes of Forsyth, a non-profit organization that serves developmentally disabled adults, to tell the story of some of their residents. The idea piqued her interest, especially since her sister has a developmental disability and had lived in a group home in the past.  

But Rucker faced a big challenge because some of the residents are non-verbal. That’s when Rucker reached out to her friends, fellow documentary makers Phoebe Zerwick and Michelle Johnson to create “ Story of My Life”.

The Story of My Life project tells the story of six adults that live in group homes with various developmental disabilities and it brings to light the importance of their lives.  "A lot of people think that adults with developmental disabilities have a ceiling and that there is only a certain amount that they can accomplish in life. They are really misunderstood and overlooked, but this project shows there is no ceiling,” said Rucker.

The project is funded by a grant from the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University and the Blessings Foundation.

"Story of My Life" is told in phases. First, Rucker photographed the six residents and also gave them cameras to take some of their own pictures. The producers also filmed the residents and conducted interviews with caregivers and family members. Through collaboration with Sawtooth School of Visual Art, residents were paired with an artist at the center.

Amy Jordan Kincaid is a graphics coordinator at Sawtooth. She is working with James Lowdermilk to help him sign a collagraph print he created out of ink, glue, rubber bands and Popsicle sticks.

Kincaid says the experience has impacted her, both personally and professionally.

“First of all, it helps you to engage with someone, but it is also very therapeutic. Even though there may be barriers to communication at times with people, there are still their same desires and depths and the same ability to create. It’s helped me to get to know James as a friend,” said Kincaid.

James was born with Down Syndrome and struggles at times to communicate verbally. When he was asked how it makes him feel to paint and draw he said, “happy”.

James lives at the Ebert Street Group Home in Winston-Salem. For nearly 20 years, Theon Warren has been his caretaker. She says she has seen some positive changes in James, since he began working with the project.

“I didn't know what to expect when we started coming because at the group home he only paints houses with a steeple on it. He always has a room for another resident but they are always steeples, so it was amazing to see him come out with this type of work,” said Warren.

“The Story of My Life” also touched producer Phoebe Zerwick. She is a lecturer in the English Department at Wake Forest University. Zerwick says she learned more about tuning into other forms of communication beyond language, such as touch, tone of voice and laughter,  from working with the group. She said she hopes the project will help eliminate some of the stigmas associated with developmental disabilities.

“As I talk to people about this project, and we have gotten a lot of response on Facebook, there are a lot of people I know who have someone in their family who has some sort of intellectual or developmental disability, so I think this will touch those with personal experience,” said Zerwick.

A multi-media exhibition for “The Story of My Life” will begin at Sawtooth on Friday. 

“Installed in the gallery will be the photographs from Christine, the photographs from each of these individuals and their artwork. We will have iPads mounted next to each person’s display and it will have the video that was recorded that talks about the story of their life,” said JoAnne Vernon, executive director at the Sawtooth center.

The opening reception will take place from 5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 11. “The Story of My Life” will be on view at The Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem through November 14.

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