Posts Tagged With: Kentucky Derby

A blanket of support for Harley Laxton

The Kentucky Arts Council’s Derby blanket project has evolved quite a bit since it started five years ago. While the Derby-themed canvases vary in design and skill level, all are a unique representation of the group of students from each school, grade or community that helped to create them.

Ranging from fun and whimsical to intricate and detailed, the finished “Derby blankets” are placed atop picnic tables that have been converted into horses with an attached head and tail for the annual Governor’s Downtown Derby Celebration in Frankfort. Each year, the blankets that are returned to the arts council are different. And each year, a story emerges that brings new meaning to the project.

This year, that story came from Knox County Middle School (KCMS).

Decorated with horses wearing yellow and purple hats, the KCMS horse blanket includes a special note, “Dedicated to Harley Laxton for her courageous battle with cancer and her continuing progress.”

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A seventh-grader at KCMS, Harley Laxton was diagnosed with a high grade glioma tumor in November of last year. A cross country runner, Harley first noticed symptoms during runs when she would lose balance or fall. After multiple appointments and testing, doctors confirmed that she had a tumor wrapped around her spinal cord. While removing the mass through surgery wasn’t an option, doctors were able to perform a biopsy and recommend alternative treatments.

Harley, who once ran 3 miles a day, currently uses a wheelchair. She is not able to shoot her bow or spend a lot of time outdoors right now, things she loves to do. However, her mother says she keeps herself busy painting, drawing, making crafts and watching movies. Despite the changes her illness has brought, Harley keeps a good attitude. Part of that good attitude shows in her commitment to continue going to school as much as possible.

“Harley has a spirit like no other,” says her mother Vandy Laxton. “Her outlook is positive in every way! She is truly a shining light in my life and brings love and laughter to every day.”

Harley receives chemotherapy every two weeks in Lexington, and in the six weeks since she had radiation treatment, her tumor has been reduced to almost a third of its original size. Harley’s mom, Vandy, attends school with her daughter to help the 13- year-old maintain a normal schedule and keep up with classes. Harley’s latest report card read all A’s.

“Being at school with her friends and peers has given her the courage and strength to keep moving forward,” Vandy says. “We are so thankful and Harley is so excited that her friends and classmates have dedicated their art to her!”

Knox County Middle is just one example of the schools that have inspired and surprised us with their blanket creations during the last five years. From raising autism awareness to memorializing classmates that have passed away, this unique arts education opportunity has allowed students to express a wide range of complex emotions through their artwork. This year’s blankets, including Knox County Middle’s, will be on display at the Governor’s Downtown Derby Celebration on May 3.  To see them online, visit the arts council’s Facebook page.

Alex Newby, Communications Assistant

Categories: Other | Tags: , , ,

Autism awareness and Derby’s ‘defining spirit’

Four years ago,  the offices of the Governor and First Lady asked the Kentucky Arts Council to decorate picnic tables for the Governor’s Derby Celebration. We took the project to extreme measures by turning the tables into horses. We also wanted to include the entire Commonwealth, so we found a way to let school children of all ages participate. Every year at the beginning of April, we mail blank canvases to Kentucky schools that respond to our open call. They design their own “blankets,” which are draped over “horses” at the celebration.

We’ve written about this before. Last year, students from Knox County Middle School honored a classmate who died with a blanket featuring an enlarged version of his notebook doodle. “The Shane Design” inspired many to think about our identities as proud Kentuckians and how that connects us across counties.

The 2013 blankets have arrived, and they are brilliant. As we laid them out to be photographed on our conference room table, one from Jacob Elementary School in Louisville immediately caught my eye. I admit that less than 10 years ago, the design wouldn’t evoke the emotional response in me that it does today. However, the primary-colored puzzle pieces are becoming  more common, and people are associating them with an important movement. The symbol encourages variation and evokes pride, much like each jockey’s farm-specific silk. This symbol is emblazoned proudly on everything from license plates to human skin. People with autism, and those who love them, are sharing their lives with the world through a simple-to-recognize design that alludes to the complex idea of solving a puzzle.

The letter attached to this blanket from teacher Angie Palmer reads:

Please accept and use this “blanket” as a piece of the positive youth spirit alive and thriving in our community. In a world where there are many questions and moments of despair, please allow my students to brighten the day of a person they touch. My students each have their own unique challenges, but be assured these challenges do not prevent them from living and enjoying their lives! We work daily to tackle their different abilities and create a life that is amazing!

This blanket signifies the uniqueness of my classroom, the breadth of the challenges we face, and the work we continue daily to help these children succeed. Four of the seven students in my classroom have autism. We decided to highlight the work we do every day to tackle the uniqueness of this special gift. This blanket uses the puzzle pieces to signify autism awareness., and the uniqueness of fitting the pieces together for the children that work every second of their days to combat the difficulties that autism presents.

The horses in the center of the blanket are each child’s own footprint, leaving their own unique mark for the festivities.  The manes of the horse that the children with autism created have the autism awareness colors to honor their fight daily. Their classmates, join together with their own footprints, fight their own struggles with their own challenges. The horses are all painted to the center of the blanket, signifying our unified work towards success. Their silhouettes represent their defining spirit and their specific gifts to this world we live in.

As we enter the day, we fill our hearts and minds with the “can do” statements for the day and push forward, As our blanket states “Autism…the race is on!”

I would like to underline Angie’s statement describing the students’ “defining spirit and their specific gifts to this world.” Therapists, scientists, doctors and social scientists are beginning to scratch the surface about this so-called disability. The puzzle  pieces are a fitting symbol for the awareness movement, as we can learn from people with autism (who daily assemble the pieces) how to find solutions to the problems we can no longer see, because we are predisposed to ignore and overlook them. Through the eyes of people with autism we may find evidence that it is actually our created environment which is disabled—not people.

Sarah Schmitt, arts access director

Categories: Arts Education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Shane Design

Three years ago,  the offices of the Governor and First Lady asked us to decorate the picnic tables at the Governor’s Derby Celebration. Being the arts council, a group of people who strive for perfection and who value creativity,  we took the project to extreme measures by turning the tables into horses. We also wanted to include the entire Commonwealth, so we found a way to let school children of all ages participate statewide. Every year at the beginning April, we mail about 30 blank canvases to Kentucky schools that respond to our open call. They design their own “blankets,” which we  drape over “horses” at the celebration.

The canvases  slowly return to us  around the end of April, and we unroll them on tables around the office. It’s like Christmas for us, so everyone sneaks away from their work to see the new designs as they arrive. We muse about how each class  came up with the concepts, how they divided the tasks and what art techniques they honed while completing the blanket. We always wonder what Derby means to Kentucky kids who, in some cases, are quite far away from Louisville.

This year’s designs were phenomenal (as always). Some pay tribute to the Derby and equine culture, others focus on the beauty of springtime in Kentucky and some depict pride in both school and community. There was one from Knox County Middle School in Barbourville, Ky., that stood out among the rest. The orange, green and rust colored blanket featured a repeated motif that wasn’t a commonly recognized symbol.

The “Shane Design”

Attached to the back of the canvas was a note from the teacher, Ms. Mayla McKeehan, that read:

“Enclosed is our entry for the Governor’s Derby Celebration. I wanted to explain that this canvas has been painted to memorialize our student Shane Smith, who was killed on April 12, 2012, while crossing US25E, here in Knox County. The design was traced from his original doodle on his reading class folder. He made the drawing in my classroom the day before he was killed. In an effort to remember him and work through our grief, we created this canvas as the ‘Shane Design’. This work was created by the following students and staff of Knox County Middle School: Starr Brown, Austin Cooper, Marybeth Frederick, Cylee Cross, Chris Milwee, April Skaggs, Mrs. Sheila Baker and Ms. Mayla McKeehan.”

We were floored. Each student in Ms. Mckeehan’s class traced, painted or drew Shane’s design to achieve the look of the blanket. It is impossibile not to refelct on someone’s life when you are doing exactly what they did the day before they passed away. It’s as close as you can get to “walking in someone else’s shoes” without being literal. As artists and creative people, we know about the power of the arts in the healing process, and we know kids get something out of the projects we initiate.  What we didn’t realize was that this project, which began as a merely aesthetic one, could actually provide the means to help a community deal with loss and connect people across distances. These blankets are more than “just for looks.”

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Derby day is one of those amazing occasions when all Kentuckians (even those living in other states) feel connected with one another. All of us experience a pang of emotion when the chorus of “My Old Kentucky Home” rings out with “Weep no more my lady…” Our hearts go out to Shane’s family, friends and classmates. Although this is a time of celebration, we will not forget that there are some of us (fellow Kentuckians) out there aching. In the spirit of being a Kentuckian on Derby, I would encourage you to visit Shane’s blanket draped over one of the horses on the Old Capitol lawn on the morning of May 05, 2012.

Sarah Schmitt, arts access director

Categories: Arts Education, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , , ,

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