News Article Details

Artist uses her eyes to draw, combat cerebral palsy

Detroit Free Press - 6/16/2018

June 16--Felicia Bowers rolls her wheelchair up to the drawing table and stares intently at the screen of the computer tablet that's propped on its surface.

Within minutes, lines begin to appear on the blank computer canvas. She has begun her latest groundbreaking piece of artwork by drawing -- with her eyes.

"We had no idea if it was going to work," Adam LaVoy, creative director at the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio, said. "We put two things that don't go together and made them go together."

Felicia was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 5 months. It is a disease that damages a developing brain, usually before birth, and results in a person not having control over his or her muscles, posture and conversation.

The computer device, called a Tobii, allows her to communicate by using technology to track eye movements and typing her words. But at age 27, Felicia has taken it to a whole new level by using it to transfer her artistic designs from her mind to the page.

"My favorite art pieces I make are the ones that remind me of the people I love," she said, using the Tobii device.

She honed her talent at the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio in West Bloomfield, which is run by the nonprofit Friendship Circle. The group's aim is to connect people who need help -- from special needs children to people coping with addiction -- with volunteers who want to help.

Bassie Shemtov and her husband started Friendship Circle in 1994 out of their apartment.

In particular, they worked on pairing teens with special needs children.

"Children with special needs have incredible, shining souls and are so full of purity and love and have amazing characteristics (and that's) what the teens wanted (in their lives)," Shemtov said.

In 2014, they decided to create a facility for adults with special needs as well through the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio.

"Within every person, there's a soul," she said. "(We shouldn't) look at the outside and be judgmental because everyone has the potential to make a difference."

The studio gives these adults a chance to tap into strengths and passions they might not have thought they had, Shemtov said. It now has 60 artists a week who can share their talents with the world.

When Felicia started going to Soul Studio, LaVoy wanted to find a way to showcase her talents.

"I work with each artist to figure out their strengths and what they enjoy doing," he said. "It's about capitalizing on what their skills already are and using their personal style. ...Artists, like Felicia, already have that in spades."

He figured out how to use her prowess with her Tobii to draw.

LaVoy said it was all about figuring out she had good eye control and could use her eyes like a computer mouse. From there, he combined Tobii eye-tracking software and Dynavox communication devices with a drawing software called ArtRage.

Felicia envisions what she wants each part of her drawing to look like and then zooms in tight on the blank computer canvas to work on small pieces of her artwork at a time. This, LaVoy said, is because our eyes aren't built to draw, but to look around quickly and assess what's going on.

"Zooming in allows her to control line shape and smoothness (where she wants to)," he said.

It's basically so the jitters and jaggedness created by her quick eye movements don't have to be part of her style if she doesn't want them to be.

Tina Bowers said her daughter will work on each piece for hours and hours.

"I ask her, 'Aren't you tired yet?' " she said with a laugh. " 'No,' she says. She just keeps on working really hard."

Once the drawing is to Felicia's liking, it is sent to be printed on Soul Studio's canvas printer or on Plexiglas, depending on the design.

Over the years, Tina Bowers said Felicia has never stopped working to improve her walking and conversation.

"She's just amazing out there," she said. "She's still growing and showing more and more what she can do."

Felicia said she has enjoyed art since childhood.

"I created my first piece in middle school," she said. "It was the first time I felt free from cerebral palsy and in control of my body."

But Felicia didn't start out being able to draw and paint with such ease. Tina Bowers said one of Felicia's teachers, Dawn Jones, spent hours each evening working on how to make her body do what her brain wanted.

"It was always about what will make (the process) faster so she can communicate faster with people," Jones said. "She's a hard, hard worker."

Felicia, who works on her computer-assisted drawings twice a week at the Soul Studio, said her future is full of exciting things, including continuing to develop relationships and to work on her art.

"I look forward to taking more creative risks," she said.

She said she loves the fact that the Tobii device has given her a way to talk with all different kinds of people and she hopes more people will give her the chance to take advantage of this technology.

"I love talking to new people," she said. "Do not be afraid to come over and say hi and have a conversation with me."

Contact Caroline Blackmon: cblackmon@freepress.com

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(c)2018 the Detroit Free Press

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