EMILY EGGLY, a senior at Moore College of Art & Design in Center City, said she is constantly surprised by the teenagers with exceptional intellectual, physical, social and emotional needs who she teaches in her "Special Populations" art class.
Eggly, who plans to be an art therapist, said, "The first things that develop in our brains are images. We can look at a picture of a dog and know it's a dog before we learn the word 'dog.' So even if you're non-verbal, you can communicate through your images."
"The Art of Exceptionality" at the Moore College gallery on Race Street near 20th, now through Dec. 13, showcases special-needs artists from ages 7 to 80, including Eggly's teens.
Susanne Tuckerman, whose twin sons, Mike and Eddie, 18, both have autism, have been "Special Populations" classmates for 10 years and developed their warm, folksy art into a fledgling cottage industry.
The twins are selling their wrapping paper - dreidels and menorahs for Hanukkah; Santas and snowmen for Christmas - on their "TuckerboysNoveltees" Facebook page and etsy.com website.
Their turning a joy into a job fulfills one of Moore College's hopes for training art teachers to work with a broad spectrum of special-needs students.
Amanda Newman-Godfrey, a Moore College art education professor, said the special-populations classes for young kids and teens have "a pressure-free environment where children feel invited to put their own emotions into their projects.
"The reins are loosened up. They actively participate instead of being passive learners."
Newman-Godfrey said she has seen the results of such freedom.
"We did a project with the elementary school kids where they were dipping gourds and pumpkins in paint, and rolling them around on paper," she said.
"They were feeling the bumpiness of the gourds. One girl was putting paint all over her hands, rubbing her hands back and forth, feeling the texture of the paint when she reached out to her student-teacher, Dana Mancini, and touched her arm."
It was one of those small moments with big promise.
"She doesn't typically do that," Newman-Godfrey said. "But there was something about the physical connection of rolling the gourds around in paint, and with that being OK to do, that just loosened her up enough to know, 'It's all right. I don't have to be so guarded. I can touch you.' "
Art's almost-magical ability to free young spirits does not surprise Susan Coll-Guedes, a special education/art teacher at Moore who has three children with disabilities.
"My older son has Down syndrome and can't write his name, but he can fold paper and use glue and glitter to create really beautiful things," she said.
"In art, every life has value," Coll-Guedes said. "There is a voice for everybody. When I saw there was a teaching opening here for a 'Special Populations' class, I thought, 'How could there possibly be a job that is my life?'
"This is the happiest place on earth to be teaching art."