Written by : Kathryn Finney

Expressing Themselves

A Des Moines artist finds a way to give back to the special needs community—and her own family—by hosting classes that boost creativity, talent and confidence.

Art class for special needs students

Des Moines art class provides a creative outlet for special-needs students.

I have always encouraged my children, Madison and Arthur, to draw, paint, color or just create anything. They loved these exercises. When they were younger, their teachers would invite me into their classrooms to talk about painting and work with them on various activities.

After my son, Arthur, was diagnosed with autism, I was even more involved in his classes at elementary school. During one visit, when I volunteered to help his class paint dogs and cats, a mother asked if I would consider painting with adults with special needs in the Des Moines area.

I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to work with older individuals facing circumstances similar to my son’s. The whole thing blossomed into a class that now meets in my garage six weeks. We meet one night a week every fall with a Christmas art show at the end of the session. I’ve never seen people prouder of their art than this group. The artists come to paint and love to express themselves. It is like a party every Thursday night in our garage.

How it works

The students come with care providers who help them focus during the class. Our class has grown so much that I’m spread fairly thin during the two-hour sessions, so I appreciate the volunteers. These individuals come to learn something new, they come to experience a community that they have created by their art interest, and they come to see their friends. All are welcome and I only ask that they try their best. I am continually impressed with their talents and how focused they remain during the class.

I joke with them, but I do expect them to put forth the effort. My children have grown up painting, and I have seen their personal development through their art. My art is my own therapy. I see it no differently for these students and their peers. Some of the providers pick up brushes as well.

There are no rules. A little bit of encouragement goes a very long way with this group. Everyone is a success story. For that reason, we have had many individuals who have come back for more classes. I would say some have been returning for seven years or more. This fall is our nine-year anniversary.

A love of art

My sister was a very good artist and I always admired her drawings. I wanted to be just like her. I also remember sitting with my mom when we were very young and she would draw our portraits. However, I think I received most of my encouragement from my high school teacher. He was very quiet. He would assign something and walk around and look at what we were doing, throw out a comment, and keep walking.

One day he walked by my desk and said, “You want to draw a mural on a blank wall in the music room?” I said yes, of course, and had no idea of the size of that wall or the first thing about a mural. That wall must have been 15 feet tall by 25 feet wide. I did an abstract modern interpretation of musicians. The final painting was influenced by the style of Paul Klee. I didn’t have any rules, and I loved doing it.

That project led to painting another mural in the school and two others around my town; one of those was on a side of a barn. I was hooked. I went on to study every aspect of art and design in college and loved every minute of it. There is continually so much to learn.

Read more: Create Outside the Lines

Bold and beautiful

I think one of my favorite moments was when a student visited the class a couple of times, and then I saw him at the Christmas party. He said he wanted to join the art club and I told him he should because he was a very good artist. His response was, “I know!” I love the confidence in these students.

My son and I always do a few paintings one-on-one during the year, and then we submit one of the paintings to the Iowa State Fair competition. I got a call one summer night from a juror who wanted to congratulate one of my children on winning the third-place award in the show. I had assumed it was my daughter, Madison, but it happened to be Arthur! Madison received a merit that year in the older division, so that was the icing on the cake.

I enjoy observing the students’ approaches to color and line. It is deliberate and without reservation. I learn a little every year seeing their approaches to the canvas. I have no excuse not to pick up my brush and work when I can. I see how much they enjoy and take this opportunity to express themselves. It is their choice to do this. They do not waste this experience.

Read more: Love Him to the Max

How to get started

A journal and a pencil is an inexpensive investment in art. Sit on a hill and draw the vast scenery or draw a leaf. Whatever makes you happy. Big or small, the touch of the pencil to the paper is just the beginning of this therapy.

I always enjoyed the direction I received in college: Draw what you see. Looking at things and understanding their color and structure is so key to drawing. Most of my drawing and painting is for children’s books or pet portraits, and I’m very comfortable with where this journey has taken me. Giving back is natural for our family because we receive so much in return.

We should be able to experience everything in this life we so choose. I’m just lucky enough that the interest in art lives in this group of individuals, and I’m happy to do what I can to push them to whatever level they want to achieve.


Kathryn Finney is Live Happy’s creative director; her daughter, Madison, is following in her footsteps as an artist, and her son, Arthur, continues to win awards for his work.

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