In a world where self-image and self-confidence are often thorny issues for young adults and the ability to simply SEE oneself is a miracle for those on the spectrum. Our goals for the 4-session November Sculpture Workshop range from self-exploration to pride of authorship. Equally important are the education of and engagement with the greater community about autism:  the opportunity to show the unexpected abilities and untapped strengths of people participating in this program.

Autism is a life-long neurological disorder that affects a person’s ability to understand social context. Many on the autism spectrum experience the world with mild to intense sensory sensitivities or in some cases, the need for more sensory input.  Many experience a range of social, communication, and learning challenges and disabilities.   In addition, there are many associated health issues.

SAGE took the leap from small scale art work and crafts into expressive art. Through the creation of two dimensional self-portraits, young adults in the program are exploring the concept of how people view themselves.

On the first Sunday afternoon, in a sun-filled room at the Paul Center in Chelmsford, the participants in the SAGE Sculpture Workshop were engaged and increasingly confident as they moved through a series of artistic exercises focused on self-portraiture and self-expression.

Nora Valdez, the international artist, sculptor and educator leading the workshop, had our artists’ attention from the very beginning as she began drawing a picture of herself.  Soon each SAGE artist was drawing him/herself – and others (including their dogs!) with charcoal and markers on medium-sized and large pieces of paper.  Moving from smaller to larger scale loosened people up. They moved with ease from one drawing to the next; nothing was overworked or too precious. It was lovely to watch.



 This population of young adults  lacks opportunities and venues to freely try their hands at creative work, to explore and express themselves. The SAGE workshop provides this in a particularly safe and encouraging environment.  I love seeing the artists move from initial hesitation to thorough immersion in their work.  Nora Valdez’s style of teaching art is particularly effective, in that she shows how she might do an exercise and then encourages the students to explore their own take on it.  Materials  include wood, clay, cardboard as the background or departure point. The projects capture the artists’ imaginations (this population often has short attention spans) and allows pleasing sensory experiences.  The new experiences are clearly exciting and lead to a great sense of accomplishment and pride.


The next week began with self-portraits in clay.  The medium seemed a bit foreign to the artists – they probably hadn’t worked with clay since they were small children.  Due to sensory sensitivities, they began their work wearing thin non-latex gloves.  But, once they started working, they preferred a “gloves off” approach to really feel the clay.



They hit their stride when creating self –portraits and portraits of other people, animals and things in charcoal, marker and paint on wood.  Working in paint is really their preference and this is reflected in their productivity.


Equally important as the work itself is the conversation while working.  It may be as simple as stating the next color they want to use or as complex as giving the entire story of their family and relationships – complete with ages and dates of birth!

The pride in work reinforces our desire to seek out grants to enable future workshops of this high caliber.  For me, it is all about  the value of art and self-expression in all of our lives; the need to plan an exhibit and opening for the artists and the public to see their wonderful work and understand their capabilities; and the push to go home and make my own art!

Next Sunday will be the last session and we will be taking portraits of the artists with their work.  I look forward to sharing their work here.

Nancy K. Harrod
November 19, 2013


This workshop was funded by a portion of a welcome grant from the TJX Foundation, SAGE Crossing Foundation and participant’s tuition.

The Cast:

SAGE Crossing Foundation is a unique 501©3 which operates programs for young adults on the autism spectrum focused both on sustainable agriculture and the arts.  There are too few meaningful programs for those over age 22.

Nora Valdez– artist, sculptor and educator- is the guest artist engaged to work with the SAGE attendees. Nora has an amazing portfolio and strong track record in working with students/public in workshops.

Nancy Harrod, SAGE Board, trained as a designer with a certificate in autism, is the Project Coordinator.

Linda Davis, SAGE Board and Founder, is co-creator of the workshops with Nancy. Linda is a parent of one of the artists and an accomplished writer.