The bigness of a small gesture

Lena Rivkin


There is no such thing as a little moment. Little moments are big moments, especially if you have a person with special needs in your life.

Phillip, my profoundly autistic brother, has always been nonverbal. Like many other nonverbal people, Phillip communicates solely through behavior and actions. As a result, it is left to the family or caregivers to learn how to interpret their behavior.

Our mother, an artist, constantly looked for innovative ways to connect and communicate with Phillip. As a child, Phillip created tiny, delicate and intricate sculptures from found and mostly overlooked objects such as wire and gum wrappers. Our parents treasured his tiny totems and made sure he had plenty of art supplies on hand for whenever he felt the need to communicate through art. His sculptures hang in my home today.

For the past 35 years Phillip has lived in a group home administered by New Horizons, a non-profit organization in North Hills, CA, dedicated to empowering adults with developmental disabilities. About 25 years ago, a skillful educator from New Horizons noticed Phillip was very hyperactive and she believed he needed an activity that could help him focus. She then taught Phillip the basics of needlework. Thanks to her empathetic insight, he became fully engaged in needlepoint, which perfectly harnessed his focus and energy.

Suddenly Phillip was able to sit and needlepoint for hours at a time, which none of us had ever witnessed. Our mother responded by designing needlepoint canvases as a way to communicate with Phillip, who intensively—and perhaps even a little compulsively—replied with tight, tidy stitches and colorful yarns. When our mother passed, and since I am also an artist, I continued the family ‘conversation’ by designing Phillip’s canvases. For the past ten years, needlepoint has been our primary and unique collaboration. The minute he completes a canvas, he looks forward to getting his next design.

One day, Catrise Mitchell, Phillip’s house manager, suggested the subject matter of my next needlepoint design be “46-A”, the postal address and unofficial nickname of Phillip’s group home. After I designed a canvas, Phillip deftly stitched the “46-A” canvas. He completed the task in only three weeks, showing his commitment to needlepoint and the skill he had developed over years of practice.

On my next visit, I brought a simple Plexiglas box frame for the “46-A” needlepoint. Arriving at Phillip’s before he returned home, I framed it and Catrise hung it in a prominent place, easily visible to both residents and visitors. I had no idea how big of an impact this small gesture would have.

Phillip is a lifelong creature of ritualistic daily habits. Normally when he returns home, he instantly empties the dishwasher. But on that day, Phillip noticed the needlepoint displayed on the wall and froze in his tracks. He walked over to the framed needlepoint and stared at it for a long five minutes. Briana Urie, an administrator of several New Horizon’s group homes, happened to be there. She is attuned to the sensitivity and humanity of her adult clients, and considerately joined Phillip in studying his artwork. Recognizing this as a big small moment, I quickly photographed Phillip and Briana gazing at his work. As he stood there I wondered what he was thinking. While I can only guess, Phillip appeared to be brimming with pride and accomplishment.

Phillip is lucky in that he attends Tierra del Sol Foundation, an educational center in Sunland, CA, dedicated to enabling adults with developmental disabilities. I am deeply grateful that Tierra del Sol stimulates Phillip’s imagination through creative projects, giving him a sense of goal completion on a daily basis. Maria Jones, Karen McQuown and Susie Ayala are exceptional art teachers, creating projects such as vibrantly tiled and painted stepping stones, bird feeders, needlework, decorative tiles as well as a variety of paintings and clay creations.

The art and ceramics are on sale every October at their annual Fall Festival and fundraiser (this year it is on Saturday, Oct. 15th). While there are many other attractions, including live music, face painting, bubble art, great food, bouncy houses and live Aztec dancers, Phillip and I always arrive early so I can stock up on unique holiday gifts. But most fulfilling of all is to experience the artwork of the students. Each creation is a perfect embodiment of the many tiny moments that make up the creative process. I hope that each student whose artwork is displayed at the festival is as proud of his/her accomplishment as Phillip was when he saw his needlepoint hung on the wall that day at New Horizons.

I never imagined that simply hanging my brother’s artwork in his home would so thoroughly engage his attention, but witnessing his joy turned a small gesture into a lasting wonderful moment for us both.

Lena Rivkin, MFA, is an artist and graphologist living in Los Angeles.


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