Blind American painter helps children see hope

JERSEY CITY, New Jersey - She sees little more than shadows and shapes. However, American artist Bojana Coklyat not only pursues her passion for painting, but transmits it to children with impaired sight so that they can see the world in a new way.

Coklyat, 33, lost most of her sight four years ago as a result of diabetes. She had to give up her job at an art gallery and, despairingly, put down her paint brushes.

Today, Coklyat is full of energy, greeting visitors with a big smile at Saint Joseph's School for the Blind in Jersey City.

An accomplished painter, she started as a volunteer, having decided to reexamine her life. At the school, which teaches children through all grades, she found "they did have an art class(room), a beautiful one, but no art teacher. I said, 'can I volunteer?'"

At first, her initiative was something of a surprise at the school. But over the last two years she has become indispensable and money has been found in the budget to pay her.

During a recent session, she taught two blind adolescents and nine nursery school aged children.

Some of the younger children had limited ability to see colors. The older ones did not, but had mental concepts of different colors.

The older classmates arrived with their telescopic white canes, which they folded and attached to their jeans on arrival.

Coklyat moved from group to group, telling Kevin, 17, to keep on with a painting started the previous week.

"What color do you want?" she asked, taking his hand and guiding it from a part already painted to an unpainted area, then bringing him paint and a brush.

Omar, 15, had started illustrating the words "hope, fear, kindness," she said. Again, she guided his hand, tracing the edges of the paper, before giving him a brush. Omar asked for white to illustrate "hope."

"Hope is like a clarity, hope is clear, that's why I chose white," he said.

At the other end of the classroom, the young children were getting impatient.

"Can I start? I want pink," a little girl said.

Coklyat suggested spring and flowers as a subject. Immediately she was off again to check on Omar.

"That is pretty much a perfect circle," she said, congratulating him.

The art works were highly clumsy, but what matters, Coklyat said, "is the process of creating."

"They are so into it. It is so important for them. It's another way of expressing themselves. It gives them a sense of accomplishment."

With the younger children, she got them to touch the wet paint.

"How does that feel? It's wet paint," she said. "You like the feeling of the brush?"

"Yes, that tickles," a child replied.

Omar asked for red to paint the word "fear."

"My favorite color is red. Red reminds me of the passion that I have for painting, it gets me strength," he said.

He said he loves the class. "When I think about something I like to visualize it before I put in it on paper."

When she's not teaching, Coklyat paints at home, her face close to the canvas. She favors big pieces in vivid colors and her style has changed since she went through her huge health problems.

"I am less focused on details, and more focused on feelings. I use more contrasts, more bright colors, and black lines to guide me," she said. "That is amazing how people find connections with my art and my feelings."

In November she underwent a kidney and pancreas transplant and no longer needs dialysis and insulin injections. With her improving health, new projects are taking shape.

Coklyat is preparing several exhibitions and says now she's keen to expand her experiences and become an art therapist.

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