By Griffin Johnson
Editor in Chief
Jamesville-DeWitt High School is known for being ‘unique’, but for J-DHS student Jon Tipton, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Early this fall, Tipton’s artwork was featured in ARISE’s UNIQUE magazine, an annually published art and literary magazine that displays the works of individuals with disabilities. Tipton’s drawing, titled “A Beautiful Chair,” was one of only about 50 pieces selected from Central New York.
Tipton and his special education teacher, Jody Smith, decided to submit an art piece to the magazine after the idea was brought to Smith in March of last school year. “(ARISE) sent out the information to (Principal Paul) Gasparini, who brought it down to me,” says Smith. With submissions due by April 30, Smith decided to speak to Tipton’s art teacher, Carlos Benedict, in order to get the project started. From there, Tipton and Benedict quickly got to work.
Given Tipton’s autism and the little time before the deadline, he and Benedict decided to finish up a piece he had started during his sophomore year. “He did this really nice drawing of a lawn chair and it was just sitting on a blackboard just floating in space,” says Benedict. “So we brought it down and work on it last spring. And he decided on a night sky background, which was unusual.”
With the help of Mr. Benedict and Tipton’s teaching aide, Janice Esposito, he was able to complete the drawing by the April deadline, although it wasn’t always easy. “Jon has autism and he has difficulty staying focused,” says Benedict. “He loses his attention very quickly,” he added. “I have to try to find a way to minimize all the distractions that are around, which is almost impossible to do in a setting like this, and get the student to look very, very carefully at what they are doing. You have to find ways to redirect them and keep them focused,” said Mr. Benedict. Keeping someone focused when it comes to art is especially difficult according to Mr. Benedict. “In drawing, it’s not just looking at your paper. It’s back and forth (between the paper and the object you’re drawing). It’s harder. He’s gotta look up there and look down there. And he’s gotta make that comparison between up there and down there. You gotta keep (the image) in your head. Who knows where he goes between up there and down there,” Mr. Benedict says.
Although Mr. Benedict understood Tipton’s disabilities, he is also an advocate of tough love. “I wasn’t so gentle with him,” says Mr. Benedict. He says he treated Tipton like all his other students when trying to help him get certain sections of the drawing correct. Mr. Benedict often finds himself, with all of his students, erasing large portions of their work to ensure that it is redone correctly. This practice did not change for Tipton. “I would erase some of it, but also let some of the things be. I would direct him to what was correct and hope that he would see what was incorrect and fix it,” he says.
With Mr. Benedict’s tough love, Tipton was able to concentrate on his work and create a piece worthy of publish, despite his disability. “He was really able to do what all the other students were doing. Measuring, calculating, squinting,” says Benedict. “I thought it was just really, really neat to watch.”
Once his piece was submitted and the judging was complete, Tipton and his family were notified that they would be able to see his work in UNIQUE magazine published at the end of the summer. Tipton, along with the other selected artists, were also invited to a celebration ceremony held at the Everson Museum this past August. There, the artists and their families were able to see their own work on display. “Jonathon was just so happy and so in awe,” says Mrs. Smith. “He would actually just go up to people and ask them if they’d like him to sign their calendar. And they’d say absolutely. So there he was signing his work for everybody, which did so much for his self esteem.”
Mrs. Smith knows just how much this accomplishment meant to Tipton, and of course she felt the same way. “I just felt very, very proud. I mean our kids don’t always get any kind of reinforcement,” she says; “But he’s got a special gift.”