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Learning from others

March 25, 2011

Yesterday I shot some fun photos with folks with development disabilities.   I remembered my experience of photographing with Tyler at the Red Wiggler Foundation many years ago and wanted to share the insightful experience.    Tyler reminds us all to be happy, be yourself and above all maintain your own artistic vision.  This was something that I really needed to learn and continued to remember again and again.

Below are two of his images included at our art opening at Black Rock Arts center in Germantown, MD.  I wrote the following short essay to describe the experience of working and learning from Tyler at the Red Wiggler Foundation.  Many thanks to Woody Woodruff for making this happen and Christine and Malka from their support and help.

Customers waited in line eager to pick from the August harvest of colorful vegetables, lines of tomatoes, stacks of cucumbers, peppers, garlic, zucchini, bunches of basil and oversized watermelons. Tyler stood in front of the seller’s tent, smiled, and handed each potential buyer a bag to stuff. When Tyler saw me his eyes lit up, he raised his hand with a white plastic bag flagging me down and gestured,

“Lisa, Lisa, your car is over there and the engine is off. It is off.”

He went back to handing out the bags. In the midst of the chaos of the market he had seen me drive up, park, and walk over. I found it amazing that despite being surrounded by fabulous vegetables and people Tyler was able to focus on my car arriving in the parking lot over 200 feet away.

“Tyler I am here to take some photos with you today.” I squeeze the words between customers and bags.

“Your engine is off. Lisa, it is off.”

“Yes. It is off.” My 1997 Honda Civic had never received as much attention.

Four months before I began taking photos every Thursday with Tyler, a worker at the Red Wiggler Foundation in Clarksburg, MD. Tyler has a developmental disability; I am a photographer, and we were partnered together through an artist grant to share each other’s talents, visions and experiences.

I watch as Tyler smiles. He is naturally charming. He makes eye contact and is fully interested and engaged in what he is doing and the people he is coming in contact with.

“A bag.” He holds it up with a smile.

I get the camera and some film.

“We are going to take a break from selling. What do you want to take photos of?” I ask.

“Your car. The engine. Yes. The engine. YES! ” He emphasizes “YES” with an extra big smile and hand gesture similar to a cheer or pulling the signal for the bus to stop.

“What about the market? Anything interesting here?”

He looks over the scene. He is smiling and I suspect he is thinking about my car. He reminds me of men who honestly do not care about things outside the world of computers or machinery, but who will politely go along with anything you say outside their arena of interest.

“Look how busy it is.” I point to the crowd standing and milling around the tent, the vegetables artfully arranged, and money exchanging hands. He walks over, takes a photograph and turns back to me. His behavior seemed like a quiet act of appeasement. He reminds me of my grandfather, sort of glazed over and disinterested, after he had changed the TV station from his train show to Gilligan’s Island or the Brady Bunch to please his grandchildren.

“Your car. Your car. Lisa.” Tyler points past the fruits and vegetables.

I decide to let him work through the busy time of the market.

I remember when I started working with him. He would point to me with a big smile.

“Lisa you are my friend. You are my friend.” He said everything twice to make sure I heard.

“You are sweet. You are sweet.” I thought he was a huge flirt.

“You are beautiful. You are beautiful.” All of this flattery, it worked, I loved the guy. Yet he did not want to photograph any people including me. I found this puzzling.

Pleasing other people is a big part of Tyler’s life. Working for people, charming them, and hoping to receive more attention. When he started taking photos, he would photograph other people’s suggestions; his friend Jerry’s, Malka, the counselor or mine. He would always take just one photo, and then he would stop and wait for us to continue guiding him. His composition showed an appreciation of beauty, a good eye that can not be taught. So I wanted him to continue, but with his own ideas and subjects.

One day he said he wanted to photograph a tractor. It was a turning point. Not what normally I would consider an object of beauty, but he noticed everything, named everything, and photographed everything possible on the tractor. He was energized.

He began to express his wishes on subject matter. Primarily, my car photographed first, each visit, every Thursday.

“I want to photograph your car. Your car. It is a Honda. A Honda.”

“Ok.” Hidden under my friendly accepting exterior, I had secret thoughts that he was silly, boyish, obsessive and mildly amusing.

“The engine is off. It is off.” Pointing his hand at me to show he was serious about this engine business. But who was I to ridicule his fascination with unique subject matter. I photographed goats for an entire summer, another photographer became famous for photographing his dogs with hats on, and Edward Weston made vegetables as sexy as body parts.

Tyler’s uncompromising passion for machinery began to guide us. Some days we opened the hood of every car on the farm and photographed each engine or sometimes just the hood, the wheel, the headlights. Tyler would read any written material under the hood and tell me.

“Caution do not touch. It is hot. It is hot.” I had never looked so closely at a car’s contents or bothered to read anything under my hood. I merely cursed at cars that cut me off or kicked a wheel when the car did not work. Instead of thinking of cars as a pain in the ass, I took a couple of photos of car engines with Tyler.

“Good job. Good job. You did a good job.” Tyler would tell himself and me. I could stand to have such a positive attitude about work.

After photographing working machinery, Tyler would wander until he found something different to photograph. A defunct tractors behind a barn or a rusted out trailer basking in the sun. I followed and he took the lead with his own ideas. But most importantly, he was excited by his results. He would point to each frame on the contact sheet, name each car part, and whose car it belonged to.

I wondered if he would grow as an artist in a different environment, outside the farm and machinery he loved to eye. I thought at market he might see things differently, but his point of view, his artistic vision of car parts, machinery, and tractors, remained intact. For a moment I was disappointed, but I realized that Tyler was a huge success. He used the camera to share his own artistic vision of what he sees, what is important to him and I, as an artist, recognized his vision.

The line of customers had died down.

“Tyler we can take photos again.”

“Yes” he responds again with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader shouting and waving after a score.

“What do you want to take photos of.” I was open to the car idea this time.

“The construction. Yes! Yes! ” Across the parking lot four giant construction trucks roared. I had been so focused on Tyler and the market I did not notice the trucks, but he did.

We began to walk over. The construction trucks pushed and pulled at the dirt. I marveled at their strength.

“Lisa, Lisa. You are my friend. My friend. Yes.”

“Yes. I am your friend Tyler.” I watched him look at the construction machinery, smile, and walk with determination.

Tyler works and learns at the Red Wiggler Community Farm. It was founded to create meaningful, fully included jobs for adults with developmental disabilities through the business of growing and selling high quality, home-grown vegetables in Montgomery County MD.

To see website about the farmworks project

www.lisahelfert.com


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