Art transcends pair’s differences

Published 10:28 pm Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tyrone Felton and Kaitlyn Wells seem a rather unlikely duo.

Kaitlyn, a student at Portsmouth Catholic Regional School, is 10 years old and a dwarf — currently, she stands just above three feet tall.

Eighteen-year-old Tyrone is the normal size for his age, but he suffers from several learning disabilities that have set him apart from his peers.


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Kaitlyn is a girl; Tyrone is a boy.

Kaitlyn is white; Tyrone is black.

While Kaitlyn is physically limited, Tyrone is mentally limited.

Yet a single art project – dubbed “The Miracle Mural” – connected the two, despite all their differences.

“It’s a miracle to see that this mural came to life and be so beautiful, but it’s more so a miracle to see how these two formed this working relationship and team to make it happen,” said Florence Wolin, Kaitlyn’s and Tyrone’s teacher.

The story began more than six years ago, when Tyrone was a student in Wolin’s special education class at Western Branch Middle School. A creative student, Tyrone performed well on art projects and assignments. Wolin is an art enthusiast, and had taken classes under local artist Robert Burnell for more than two decades.

Wolin asked Tyrone if he would like to join her at some of Burnell’s classes, which were held on Saturday mornings. She arranged it so that Tyrone could attend the classes by scholarship, and she would pick up the student every Saturday morning to take him to the class, sit with him as they learned together, and drop him back home in the afternoon.

For four years, the teacher-student pair took classes with Burnell.

Then, Kaitlyn entered the picture.

Burnell had been approached to give private art lessons to Kaitlyn, but he usually does not do such lessons, given the scheduling difficulties. Seeing how well Wolin had worked with Tyrone, Burnell approached her to take on an art student of her own.

She agreed.

For two years, Wolin taught Kaitlyn and continued her Saturdays with Tyrone. Occasionally the two students would meet, but usually the conversations were short, just like their time together.

That all changed this summer.

While shopping in the Bennett’s Creek Farm Market, Wolin was wearing a shirt Kaitlyn had given her as a souvenir from her recent trip to Disney World. The shirt had a picture of Mickey Mouse with paint splattered all around him.

It was a colorful shirt that caught the eye of the market’s owner, Jim Shirley.

“He asked about the shirt, and I told him about Kaitlyn,” Wolin said. “And that led to us talking about art classes, at which point he asked me whether I would be up for a special project.”

In the market, there was a large wall with no decoration and no color. It was just a giant white slab.

Shirley wanted to put a mural on the wall, but he wanted it to be colorful, energetic and done by students. Wolin volunteered Kaitlyn and Tyrone on the spot. And the two were thrilled for the opportunity.

“She knew I like to paint,” Tyrone said. “And she thought I’d like to go and paint this. It was very exciting.”

“I like to paint a lot, and I like my artwork to be shown to people,” Kaitlyn said. “I really wanted to do it.”

Once on board, the two met with Shirley to get a vision of what they wanted.

During the meetings, Kaitlyn and Tyrone bounced ideas off each other and encouraged each other in creating certain aspects of the giant, elaborate under-the-sea portrait – complete with crabs and school buses (Tyrone loves painting school buses, and it was pointed out that fish do travel in schools).

Burnell even volunteered his services by showing the students how to draw a mural, and showing up at the market to assist.

For a week, the two artists took to the mural. They were the only ones allowed to paint; the adults were only allowed to supervise.

After a few long days, the mural was complete.

“I am tickled to death with it,” Shirley said. “The people who come in and hear the little story and hear about it, they just grin. It’s colorful. It’s a happy mural, and people seem to love it. I do too. I think if I had had something done professionally up there, it would not have meant near as much to me.”

But the artsy twosome did not stop there.

Inspired by their mural, the two then began creating special pieces to put into a new, collaborative art show that will run throughout the month of September in the Riverview Gallery in Olde Towne Portsmouth. The show’s opening will be held Sept. 4 from 5 to 8 p.m.

The first piece Kaitlyn and Tyrone will show is a miniature version of the mural, called “The School of Fish.”

“I think people will like the painting,” Tyrone said. “And its big brother is hanging down the road in the market.”

Both Kaitlyn and Tyrone said they plan to continue collaborating together on future art pieces because not only do they learn a lot from one another; they also have fun together.

“We get to create new things and new colors, and it’s just fun to do,” Kaitlyn said. “And we both like to talk a lot, so that’s fun.”

Wolin said she looks forward to the work the two will continue to create together but said Tyrone and Kaitlyn’s real masterpiece is the new friendship that transcends race, disability and gender.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” she said.