Painting the Tale

Photo of art from the exhibit Polar Bears Plus New Favorites, the Artists of Pacesetters, Inc.

Pacesetters class

Pacesetters class

Polar bears and other wonderful creatures by the artists of Pacesetters, Inc., are adorning the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Foyer Gallery. As with all exhibits here, one tale told is that children and adults with disabilities have imagination and talent to share.

“Polar Bears Plus New Favorites” is the seventh exhibit of the Pacesetters’ Painting the Tale program displayed here. In addition to dramatic paintings, prints, and clay sculptures of polar bears, the exhibit includes a “Cat Who Thought He Was a Polar Bear” (Brad Allen), a “Polar Bear Turned Into a Black Bear” (Bradley Styer), a “Polar Monkey” (Ricky Keroac), a “Strong Owl” (Greg Thomas) and a “Napping Owl” (Lisa Maxwell), a “Cheetah” (Dean Harris), and even a “Christmas Mouse” (Lisa Manus). The art is available for purchase with prices ranging from $40 to $105—a source of income, as well as pride, for these artists who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Clay sculpture has been introduced into the Painting the Tale program by Tennessee sculptor Linda Johnson.

In Pacesetters exhibits, art depicting animals or birds, often endangered species, is paired with storytelling. The Polar Bear and the Trolls was the story pairing for the “Polar Bears” exhibit. For Pacesetters’ community performances, a wonderful polar bear costume (see photo) was created by Travis Jarrell, who is introducing world folk dance into the Painting the Tale program.

Pacesetters is a private nonprofit organization that provides services and supports to individuals with disabilities and their families. Established in 1971, Pacesetters provides a variety of services to accomplish its mission of empowering people with disabilities and their families to lead enriched and full lives. It serves individuals in Putnam, Overton, Macon, Warren, and White counties, with its administrative base in Cookeville.

The birth of Painting the Tale is a good story. At a grant writing workshop sponsored by the Tennessee Art Commission, visual artist Merritt Ireland, storyteller Marcia Donovan, and Pacesetters’ Joyce Sievers met and discovered that they all shared a passion for adults with disabilities as artists. Together they conceived Painting the Tale, which combines visual arts, storytelling, and performing arts.

The Arts Program is available at all Pacesetter facility-based service sites. Begun in Fall 2000 with funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission, Pacesetters has fully funded the program since Fall 2007.

The work of Pacesetters artists has been displayed at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, the Nashville Airport, in Washington, DC, and in Atlanta, Georgia. Through the Storytelling arm of Painting the Tale, many individuals have taken part in plays performed at Pacesetter facilities, the Putnam County Library, and schools and nursing homes in Putnam and White Counties.

Following artist Merritt Ireland’s recent retirement, artist Dax vanAalten joined the program. “One of my goals is to help nurture each individual artist who has a unique voice and help them achieve its expression,” he said.

Creative Expressions XX Exhibit

December will bring “Creative Expressions XX,” a VKC exhibit co-sponsored with the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities, now in its 20th year. The exhibit will run through June 2015. Contributions of art that represent the theme of “Creativity and the Modern City” are now being accepted. Artists who would like to submit a piece can email

This annual exhibit features work in a variety of mediums by artists with a wide range of abilities/disabilities and ages. Since its inception in 1976, the Mayor’s Advisory Committee has promoted public education and awareness, and advocated for persons with disabilities and their family members.

VKC Disability and Arts Program

Since 1994, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has sponsored exhibits of art by and about people with disabilities.

“The exhibits demonstrate the diverse talents of children and adults with disabilities,” said Elise McMillan, J.D., co-director of the VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. “Over our program’s 20-year history, we’ve partnered with many Tennessee and community disability and arts organizations and with those in other states and even other countries.”

McMillan also credited Lain York, preparator of the exhibits, for his skill in showcasing artists’ work.

View current and previous exhibits.

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