Recently I visited a place unlike any other. Not quite knowing what to expect, I boarded the bus with the other students and watched as we drove out of Evanston. When the bus stopped and I stepped out, I followed the others across the perfectly manicured lawn into the main building where our group was greeted by our tour guide for the afternoon, the mother of a resident on campus.
With the residents now at work, we were able to see a house where some of them lived. Everything was immaculate; the beds were made, the floors spotless and everything put in its correct place. We toured the bakery, the coffee room and the cafe where many residents worked during the day, talking to people while they were performing their jobs and explaining their assignments. Although I was following our guide and listening to her talk, several times I became distracted by the art along the way, lost in thought just looking at it. There was something almost magical about it, like the people who created it knew something that the visitors didn’t, a little secret kept just for themselves. It was everywhere, in the houses, in the offices, and on every bit of free wall.
Misericordia, meaning heart of mercy, serves over 600 adults and children with mild to severe developmental disabilities, some of society’s most vulnerable individuals. At least 20 percent of the residents either come from extreme poverty or have no family.
Although I assumed Misericordia might have an arts and crafts room, the incredible talent I saw before me in work after work displayed proudly on wall space throughout the tour surpassed my expectations. Some of the residents could not walk or were minimally verbal, and yet here were their masterpieces displayed in every corner. It got me thinking about people’s ability to learn and to push the boundaries assumed to limit them.
In Carol Dweck’s seminal work, Mindset, she presents the case of an art teacher, Betty Edwards. Betty teaches an intensive 5 day drawing workshop of 8 hours of instruction per day that teaches escape from the brain’s propensity to analyze and critically evaluate a visual scene and to instead depict what the eye is receiving in raw form. The analytical part of your brain tells you “An eye is just an oval with two pointed ends” which prevents you “from seeing that an eye is a much more complex and asymmetrical shape.” She has each person draw a self-portrait before the course and then again afterwards. Although the time commitment is pretty high, the changes that occur after just 5 days are almost unbelievable. Still, Betty insists that these are the results of a typical class.
People tend to view artistic ability as a talent that is either present or not at birth, and perhaps some don’t believe that those with developmental delays, perhaps not acquiring full capacities in language or motor skills, would be gifted with this additional ability. This kind of perspective is an example of what Dr. Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”, one where people think that their basic qualities are fixed and talent alone will bring success even without effort. She argues that this viewpoint is limited and can actually hinder success. Shifting your mindset to one of growth can make all the difference in how you view challenges and failure. Instead of believing that you just lack the ability and there is nothing to be done about it, you instead believe that you are inexperienced yet have the potential to develop and grow with persistence and hard work.
To me, Misericordia is proof of the tremendous power that hides within a human brain that is constantly reinforced and nourished with a growth mindset. The residents were producing art that I wanted to take home and hang on my walls. They depicted beautiful scenes of nature, perfectly capturing the light as it shone through the branches of a large tree, clearly defining the intricate details of petals on a flower or the jagged lines of Chicago’s skyline.
In today’s society, so often we hear the public debate over Down’s Syndrome testing and what people would do if they tested positive. It just seems so distant from these individuals who live with others, keep their rooms immaculate, get up every morning and go to work, and create works of art that sell at auction for thousands of dollars.
Misericordia is a place drenched with compassion, and it emphasizes that most of the time, all we really need to be happy is a sense of belonging and a purpose. Human potential will always push the limits of what we expect is possible and with the right mindset, what can result will surprise us all.
See Misericordia’s Artist in All brochure here: http://www.misericordia.com/UserFiles/file/Events/AnA/Event_sponsorship_brochure_2014.pdf