"Oh, I can't draw. I can't even do stick figures," one may stutter.
But take a look at a few of Judy Gittelsohn's students, whose paintbrushes are flying in her Art For Well Beings center in Palo Alto. It's a bright room in the Emerson Center on West Bayshore Road, neighboring the Emerson School.
Clad in white aprons, four young adults are creating panels of a "paint-by-puzzle painting" that will join together into a large picture. With easy swiftness, they keep finishing their panels and asking for new ones. The students are all developmentally disabled, visiting from C.A.R. (Community Association for Rehabilitation). But their disabilities aren't a hindrance in this class. In some ways, they are freeing.
"People with developmental disabilities are unconventional," says Gittelsohn, a Palo Alto painter who opened her new center this spring. "What they bring to us is the spiritual and the surprising. They aren't inhibited. They will say and paint whatever."
These students certainly don't show any hesitation, no concern over whether what they are painting is "good" or "right." There is only the joy of brushes swishing across paper, and favorite colors being squeezed out of plastic bottles. When asked which paints the class should use, Marisol Hernandez says immediately, "Green, blue and orange." She beams.
Nicolette Barrera sings as she works, then announces that she's painting a bee. Gittelsohn smiles at the pink swirl appearing on the paper and asks, "What does a bee make?"
"Bzz," Barrera answers, and everyone laughs. It's hard to argue with her logic.
Over the last eight years or so, Gittelsohn has taught numerous art classes to a diverse mix of populations in this area. She's led many sessions at the Palo Alto-based C.A.R., and has also worked with at-risk and low-income youth, and with people recovering from illnesses or injuries. Her students have taken part in exhibits and created paintings, murals, books and calendars, including the new 2008 C.A.R. calendar.
Now that Gittelsohn has her own art center, she's teaching six classes, with both disabled and non-disabled students. She has also just expanded into the classroom next door, creating a gallery to exhibit her students' work and her own.
She's clearly at ease with her clientele. During class in her center, when one young woman experiences small seizures, Gittelsohn remains matter-of-fact. She says a few gentle, sympathetic words, but keeps the other students on track while Megan McGarry, a program director at C.A.R.'s San Jose center, cares for the woman.
For their part, the students -- who are often engrossed in their own worlds -- seem drawn to her, and are quick to participate in the communal art project. One, Jacqui Sullivan, is so happy over a favorite color that she bounces with delight.
This is the second time McGarry has brought C.A.R. clients here. The classes are enriching for them. "It's the expression, having fun, being creative," she said.
Painting by puzzle is a key part of Gittelsohn's "Growing ART" classes, which are aimed at students with special needs. Activities are focused, allowing students to complete an artistic task without feeling responsible for a whole masterpiece.
"Filling in a small area is more relaxing," Gittelsohn says. "Especially if you're only allowed to use a few colors."
Before class, Gittelsohn painted a flower design spanning all the puzzle pieces in lines of clear tar gel. When students paint over the gel, the material resists like wax, and the lines shine through. In the end, the project is a mosaic of artistic visions -- students use different textures, brush strokes and patterns -- but all the pieces are linked together as one flower. This, Gittelsohn says, allows each artist to feel part of something larger.
A puzzle painting is also a metaphor for her vision for the center. She also teaches "Honest Earnest ARTIST" courses, which are higher-level and help students study established artists such as Klee or Turner as they paint. But all classes are open to the disabled and non-disabled public alike, and Gittelsohn hopes to create a place where both populations can mix and learn from each other. This is already happening in some classes.
This desire for mingling makes sense. After all, Gittelsohn feels an artistic kinship with the disabled. During her early experiences teaching disabled students, at Creativity Explored in San Francisco, she saw parallels between their work and her own acrylic paintings on canvas.
"These people had work akin to mine -- very straightforward, uncomplicated," she said. "I love their enthusiasm and energy."
That straightforward approach carries over into Gittelsohn's teaching, which is part of what makes her so successful, said Andrea Throndson, community opportunities developer at C.A.R. Throndson teaches a weekly art class and was impressed when Gittelsohn visited her class last year to do a project with the students.
Gittelsohn, she says, has a natural, no-fuss way with the disabled that helps harness their energies into artistic expression.
"She really draws out quite impressive talent," Throndson said. "She doesn't coddle them, and they rise to the occasion."
Info: Art For Well Beings is at 2800 W. Bayshore Road in Palo Alto. Artist Judy Gittelsohn has also just put out a new coloring book, called "This is Palo Alto." For information about the book or the art center, go to www.artforwellbeings.org or call 650-776-8297.