Burt Brooks

New Jersey


Youg man in a motorized wheel chair from the side with arm and leg extended in a dance position while being titled back by two able-bodied dancers

Cynthia Shanks (center, low) Mandy Evans-Brown (right), Marcus Silva (center, top). Photo by Sanford Josephson

The Matheny Medical and Educational Center's Arts Access Program in Peapack, NJ received a challenge America Fast Track grant to help fund our signature 2013 showcase event, Full Circle. This event is designed to highlight artistic works created by artists with medically complex developmental disabilities in the visual, literary, and performing arts.

This was our 20th year anniversary since the Arts Access Program was established and in honor of this milestone, we wanted to take our event to the next level. With the help of the NEA funding, we were able to feature more artist's work than ever before, increasing the number of artists featured from the traditional eight, to an impressive fourteen. In addition, we were able to bring in professional directors, actors, and dancers to help bring the artist's work to life.

The result was an unprecedented level of success and community engagement.

In addition to selling out the entire house, in attendance were state dignitaries and community leaders. Congressman Leonard Lance presided over the event as our honor chair and opened the event with eloquent and heartfelt marks, setting an anticipatory tone for the arts extravaganza that was to follow. Those who were return guests were blown away by the work created by the Arts Access artists, claiming it to be "the best Full Circle yet." Our newest guests however, were exposed to an arts experience that has been described as "life changing."

For the first time, they were able to see dancers with and without wheelchairs, moving together to choreography entirely laid out by choreographers who don't have full control of their legs. They saw complex, abstract paintings created by artists who cannot hold a paintbrush. They experienced plays & poetry written and performed by dramatists who have never spoken a single word in their entire lives.

Though, as much as the audience enjoyed witnessing the show, that's nothing compared to the satisfied and smiling faces of the artists whose work was featured. Too often, individuals with such a high-level of disability do not have access to experiences such as this one. Sharing a thought or an emotion through the arts has even previously been considered an impossibility for some. This event challenges the old way of thinking and instead celebrates the hard work and talents of this underserved population. As the artists mingled with the guests during the reception, they were showered with praise and inquiry into their artistic process. Conversations between artists and art patrons were being shared without any hinderance by anyone's perceived ability level. After participating in the event, when asked how they felt about being a part of Full Circle, the overwhelming response was "proud." These artists were proud of their accomplishments as artists and as individuals. They left the event with their heads held high. A well deserved moment of triumph for those who have worked so hard to attain it.

This is the kind of impact the arts can have on individuals and the communities in which they live. We are grateful to the NEA for its continued support in making the arts available to every American, no matter the race, creed, religion, or ability level.

A showcase video of Full Circle 2013. Directed by Burt Brooks, Edited by Adam Tyree, Director of Photography: Ian J. Keeney