The room is a collage of colours.
And a tapestry of a culture with an extra chromosome.
Sunlight circles the cobalt blue walls, a painted silver glove, the smile on Elliot MacNeil’s face.
“When you can express who you are, it feels really good,” he says, creating paper flowers while his teammates hug and hold hands and brush paint over clay.
Or laugh and share heartbreaks during this Saturday afternoon session of Team Possibles Art Collective, a decade-old Halifax arts group for young adults with Down syndrome.
Giant felt fish loom over paintings of Michael Jackson. Stars. Babies. And abstract angels.
Rainbow-stained work tables. And the pastel mansion MacNeil painted and hopes to live in someday.
But the people here say Team Possibles is about even more than art. “Pure joy.” “Inclusion.” And “love.”
“The highlight of my week is to be here today,” MacNeil says. “I love my friends, I love to see their faces.”
This is a safe place to see their faces. An embracing environment where people who haven’t always been accepted can share their struggles and their dreams. Or, as founder Renee Forrestall puts it, share “the ineffable things of the world” through art.
Forrestall has an accomplished bloodline of art. She’s a well-known Halifax painter. Her father is famed artist Tom Forrestall. Her daughter Marie Webb, who has Down syndrome, is an emerging artist whose work has been exhibited at Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
She sees the group she created, now a program of Nova Scotia Down Syndrome Society, as a “celebration” of people with a genetic distinction. But also a window for others to see their true potential and spirit.
“I think they are a group of people who have been pretty misunderstood for a long, long, long time,” says Forrestall, washing paint cups for a project that will soon make its way around the world. “They’re intelligent, kind, caring, compassionate, wonderful people to be with and that part of it I think people don’t know until they’re immersed….You need to be immersed and surrounded by a culture to really get the feel and the flavour and I think what the community of people with Down syndrome bring is a lot of joy, celebration, and honesty.
“There’s a long list. Just ways of thinking, ways of being, ways of celebrating, ways of expressing themselves….And they never speak ill of anybody. They protect everybody. They speak mainly only kind things.”
But they haven’t always experienced kind things. Some have felt excluded or ignored. Or, says Forrestall, they’ve been left behind in all-inclusive programs with good intentions but where the Down syndrome kids, because of common heart or other health problems, can’t keep up physically to their able-bodied peers.
Social hurts also linger.
MacNeil, now 25, thinks back to high school.
“They called me names and they picked on me because I was weak and could not fight back,” he recalls. “For seven years now, I’ve been living the life I want to live. I don’t see myself as a disability. I just enjoy my life. My dream is to become an artist and I could with Team Possibles.”
MacNeil reflects on how his view of himself has changed. “I felt that I was nothing back then and over the years I’ve been accepting who I am and I love to be the person I am,” he says.
Forrestall says many members of the group, who started as children or teenagers, have been raised to celebrate who they are.
Team Possibles does that too through dance, acting and photography, discussion groups and every art form imaginable: silkscreen and spray paint, oils and acrylics, textiles, temperas, and more.
But society has been slower to change.
Forrestall hopes the team’s current project will open up more minds to the possibilities.
She goes to the adjacent room inside Chocolate Lake Recreation Centre, Team Possibles’ regular meeting place, and pulls out a handful of paper cutouts: art images of people with Down syndrome through the ages.
“They were considered to be mystical beings where they were part human and part-god, godlike,” she says of their revered status among the ancient Olmecs, whose sculptures the class has studied, replicated, or revised into palm-sized pieces they’re painting today.
She points to the tiny figures doing the splits or clapping their feet behind their head, flexibility she says is a common characteristic for people with Down syndrome as are heart problems and hearing loss.
“Oh here’s a nice one of the splits,” she leafs through other ancient icons or the “angelic” representations she found in Christian-themed art.
These artists will give their figures to travellers, who will photograph them in iconic settings like the Egyptian pyramids or the Eiffel Tower or the Peace Tower in Ottawa. The group will then load them on a special Facebook page about the travelling exhibit, which launched June 4 when participants placed their sculptures on the rocks at Peggy’s Cove.
Today, some of the Olmec-inspired artworks are still in-progress, like the figure Marie Webb strokes with gray paint. The ancient man Adam Bauld holds in his hand. The almost-finished cat Jillian Arthur paints dusty yellow as she chats across the table with life-long-friend Webb.
“Since were babies,” nods Webb, nestled between classmate Alison Murphy and instructor Lux Habrich, a ceramic and textile artist who calls working with Team Possibles “pure joy.”
“This kind of feels like a bit of a holiday,” she says, as the room swirls with music and chatter and laughter. “There’s no right or wrong, it’s just a celebration really. No matter what anybody wants to do creatively we’ll help them pursue it….I don’t know, you really appreciate just living and being. I’m really calm [here]….Sometimes you get exhausted and frustrated and I’ll look at Marie and she’s always smiling and I’m like “why am I not smiling? I’m making art. Get out of your head and into your hands.”
The young women smile from around the table, their hands working meticulously to finish figures Habrich will eventually glaze-fire in a kiln to ensure they withstand the water, heat and cold of the outdoors.
“I love it here. It seems like family here,” says Arthur, excitedly explaining an operation that will improve hearing in her left ear.
“My friendships are really strong,” adds Murphy, a long-time member of the group, which meets three times a week including a Tuesday art hive open to the public. “I like being around someone I trust. That is a big deal for me because trust is all about for me to be safe with a lot of people I can go to or talk [to] about my problems.”
Plus, she says, “It is a lot of fun.”
As though on cue, Andrew Bryant bounds over to introduce himself, extending a hand and flipping the skirt of the red and blue Supergirl costume he’s wearing.
“One of my favourite shows,” he beams.
Today, he’s working on an artistic homage to another favourite, The Outer Limits, which he represents with supernatural spheres as the others perfect their tiny tributes to the past and dream about the future.
“Oh, it’s just like home,” he says of his time with the team. “I really do love it here….And thank you so much for visiting me.”