Dyslexia: Tool or Trial

I have long suspected that I have a great deal of “dyslexic” company in the arts. As more and more networks, such as the Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities emerge, which focus on an increased awareness of learning differences, I see that I was correct in my assumption.

Dyslexia: Tool or Trial

I have been sharing my experiences with children, educators and parents over the past 10 years through the arts and am thrilled that the time has come for a new opportunity—a network with my colleagues. There are those who will relate readily with my particular struggle with dyslexia and others who will say, “Well, this doesn’t relate to my experience.” But some might wonder whether more of us might be dyslexic than realize. And, after all, isn’t it now common knowledge that we’re all using only a small pan of our brain capacity?

Dyslexia: Tool or Trial
Teacher, Teacher sculpture, wood, steel, leather paper, 4’10” h., 1983. Photo: Michael Hager. A poem, also by Richard Devine, on his frustrations with many teachers’ lack of understanding of the problems of dyslexia is incorporated into the bookmarker running through the dictionary

The arts have taught me to go beyond survival to a reliance on myself. Tapping into creative energy has taken me from struggle into the realization of my dreams; dyslexia is no longer a trial, but a tremendously useful tool.

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The Early Days of Fear

Until I was five years old, my mother was the only person who could understand what I was trying to say. I was diagnosed with speech problems at age four. Even with special tutoring, my speech remained incomprehensible at times through most of my school life.

Emotional problems mounted a few years later when I acquired the label “severe dyslexic.” Despite the help of many nationally recognized tutors and specialists, my struggles continued. Placed with “slow learners,” I recall my boredom with classes, how I was expelled from school at age eight for drilling a hole in my chair—a basic skill I use in my work today!

A turning point came when I was 11 because of a special history teacher. She suggested that I build a model of a shrine at Ilse, Japan instead of writing a term paper on Japan. This alternative gave me a glimpse of excitement in learning. Communicating with my hands came easily as did seeing three-dimensionally.

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Flight pendant, 14k gold, ametrine, cast and fabricated, 1¾ x 2 x ⅜”. Photo: Jamie Stillings

With the advent of adolescence came epileptic seizures, which somehow seemed to me “no big deal” compared to my dyslexia, although my medication never did control them. My physician stressed the dangers in operating power tools. How could I close the door which had just cracked open? I continued in woodworking.

As school went on with the emphasis on reading and writing as keys to success, I felt less and less able to survive. My early teens were troubled; I saw my only alternative as drugs and the streets. What kept me going were the woodworking classes where I easily designed and produced furniture.

Survival in My Troubled Teens

Another source of encouragement was Susan and Bill, my sister and brother-in-law, who lived in California where various therapies were emerging. I spent a summer there and they introduced me to psychodrama, which allowed me to “act out” some of my anger and frustration. This experience also helped me gain some perspective on my problems; hearing others (many were teachers!) share their problems made mine seem much smaller. I began to realize that there were other ways to learn besides reading and writing. It was Bill’s encouragement to try jewelry making that prompted me to uke my first course. Aware that my high school offered no jewelry classes, I knew I would have to find some alternatives.

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I returned to Rochester with enough confidence to approach my guidance counselor and principal with a self-imposed curriculum (learning outside of books with audio tapes, oral communication and artistic projects.) This was rejected, so I went on to the head of the school board who understood. He recognized the potential of alternative learning and approved my program.

Model of a Japanese Shrine at Ilse, Japan (made by Richard Devine at age 11), 22 x 19 x 21″

Independently, I took an evening college-level class in jewelry at the School for American Craftsman, Rochester Institute of Technology. Later, woodworking, ceramics and metalworking became areas of interest. At last, I was in classes where I excelled and had the respect of other students who came to me for help with their pieces—a great boost to my self-confidence. Sharing this with my school principle, I encouraged him to start a jewelry class in my high school. He responded with money for tools and provided an after-school time for me to teach interested students. My excitement in jewelry making grew and the joy I felt in doing something well pushed me to constant work. Suddenly, my peers no longer fit. They couldn’t believe I preferred working to parrying.

Finding a Role Model

I was fortunate to find a role model at 16 through a jewelry class offered at my local an gallery, taught by goldsmith Barry Merritt. He was a key person, a successful artist who also happened to be dyslexic. In exchange for help in building his studio, Barry assisted me when I encountered problems with my jewelry pieces. Understanding dyslexia from his own experience, he offered me support and encouragement.

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By the time I graduated at 17 (skipping one-and-a-half-years of high school), I had set up my own studio and was actively making and selling both constructed and cast jewelry. Some of my best customers were the teachers I approached in the school lounge the day after pay day.

Tunnels pendant, 14k gold, cocoxtynite amethysts, cast and fabricated, 2¼ x ¾”. Photos: Michael Hager

Around this time, a local gallery asked me to teach a class on jewelry making. Teaching (without books, of course) came quire naturally. I was often instructing people my parents’ age.

Moving Beyond Survival

It was Barry Merritt who told me about Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and I ventured off at 19 to spend the summer there. I was quite comfortable with this school environment where reading and writing were not crucial to succeeding. I could finally concentrate on my strengths in working with my hands. Being in a learning situation with others who seemed to share similar learning styles was quite a switch from being set aside as a “slow learner.” A much greater acceptance of self evolved during this period. I finally realized that I really could think, that probably I could even write well; I just simply couldn’t do the mechanics of reading and writing, the tools that worked for the majority. And I gave myself permission to perhaps never read or write.

Gary Goslee, Fish sculpture (made at age 15), steel, 14″ h.

Over the next few years, my jewelry clientele was expanding, I began doing custom pieces for show and commissions and I exhibited through crafts shows around the country.

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Learning About the Advantages of Dyslexics

Another key figure who appeared that year was Dr. Bill Kehoe, a dyslexic specialist who was training teachers and other professionals about special ways to motivate dyslexic students. Because of Dr. Bill’s nonjudgmental manner, I allowed him to test me. As our friendship grew, I found myself in a unique situation—Dr. Bill was able to combine his understanding of me as a person with his professional insights into dyslexia. He persuaded me to try further testing so that he could get a more in-depth look at my strengths and weaknesses. He used a Wide Range Achievement Test to compare my recognition of individual words to the rest of the population and a Speeded Word and Picture Identification to assess my ability to handle visual perceptual problems. His explanation of the results gave me greater insight into my form of dyslexia. Although I had great difficulty in recognizing individual words, I had outstanding recall visually.

I felt a great deal of reinforcement for my learning style based on Dr. Bill’s insights. He told me that I was part of the 15% of the population who have right brain dominance (the intuitive, relational, time-free mode) and that the remaining 85% tended to lead with their left hemisphere (the analytical, sequential, linear mode). This would call for a different way for me to process information. The direction of working with my hands continued to feel right, and I had a greater understanding of the need to explore ways of using and developing my strong visual and audio memories and the ability to see things three-dimensionally.

Todd Summers, Owl sculpture (made at age 16), steel, 10½” h. Photos: Peter Steiner

Dr. Bill reflected my feeling that the school system was inadequate for dyslexics and that the direction I was taking within the arts was probably a positive one for me. My confidence grew as I learned of the many famous people, such as Einstein, Da Vinci and Edison, who overcame their dyslexia to go on to make major contributions in their work.

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Dr. Bill invited me to speak at his classes for teachers dealing with learning difficulties. Later, I spoke at the Orton Dyslexia Society and was asked to be a member of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. Often, the reactions to my talks were from teachers who felt I was gifted but saw their children with learning problems unable to accomplish what I did. I strongly disagreed with this.

Sharing the Joy of Learning

Through Dr. Kehoe, I came to know the Norman Howard School, a private school for dyslexics in Rochester. Its director, Betsy McIsaac, and I often brainstormed about the importance of teaching dyslexics through the arts (l suspected that many, if not a majority of dyslexics, had talents which could be developed like mine through arts projects in which the right brain’s dominance could be an advantage.) We began searching for funding to design an arts program and were fortunate to receive a major grant from the National Committee, Arts for the Handicapped in 1980.

My idea for this Art Option program was to remove the students from the classroom where they usually experienced frustration in learning. I placed each student either one-on-one or one craftsperson to two or three students right in the artist’s studio. The student attended a session of three-and-one-half hours, once per week for a period of six weeks. Included were woodworking, painting, weaving, pottery, video, stained and blown glass, music, sculpture, photography, metal sculpture and jewelry. Basically, the students were given a list of options and then I found the artists needed to teach; in this way the decision would be the student’s, the idea being to enhance self-confidence and promote a sense of independence.

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Noel Battey, Necklace (made at age 17), aluminum, silver, rosewood, ivory, chain 18″ l.

Although each artist approached teaching differently, essentially, it was a hands-on approach with a demonstration by the artist followed by the students making a finished piece or pieces of their own during the six-week session.

While no research study has been done on the Arts Option program, the actual pieces produced by the students, as well as feedback from the artists, parents, the regular school staff and the students themselves leads me to believe that the program has been a success. Consistently the students have won awards in the Scholastic Art Competition and two of them (out of a school of 40 students) went on to the national competition level, winning top gold awards. It is interesting to note that they are compering with students who study art in public schools an average of 148 classes per year!

The artists teaching in the Arts Option seem impressed by the talent, aptitude and enthusiasm demonstrated by the students in each of the media. Many of the kids have an attention span of 10 minutes in the classroom and yet work straight through a three-and-one-half hour session opting for no breaks. But most important is the excitement and Joy in learning they expressed.

Phil and Noel’s Success

Occasionally, through private arrangements with parents, I’ve offered to teach beyond the Norman Howard School Art Option a student showing potential and motivation. Phil was such an example—a youth-at-risk caught up in the juvenile justice system who continued his work off and on with me for four years, even though he dropped out of school and began to get in trouble with the law.

At one point, I helped Phil’s parents design a program, approved by the judge, to allow me to teach him jewelry making 12 hours a week in my studio. Phil is a good example of a young person with learning differences for whom the creative process can open new ways for positive communication. In Phil’s own words: “At first, I thought jewelry making was for girls and I almost didn’t sign up for it. Before jewelry, I had nothing else, no interest in anything. It was the first thing I felt I could do.”

And Phil’s thoughts about the studio atmosphere were: “I really tried so hard in school but couldn’t get anywhere; making jewelry came easy to me. I was in an informal place where I could be creative.” Phil has a gift for precision and likes to perfect each piece of jewelry. Today, he is setting up his own studio, applying to craft shows and says he hopes to go on and make a living as a jeweler.

Noel, who has a severe form of dyslexia, made a rather complex design his very first session with me and it amazed me how quickly he learned basic skills. After his first day at jewelry making, he approached the school’s director about the possibility of continuing beyond the Arts Option program.

Dina Guenther, Pendant (made at age 15), 14k gold, diamond, cast, 1½ x ⅞ x ⅛”. Photos: Michael Hager

About a month later, on a tour of a local jewelry manufacturer with another group of jewelry students I began to realize the wide range of skills these students could learn here. I arranged to show my students’ finished pieces to the owner, who told me that he was amazed at the workmanship. He confided that he, too, had experienced learning challenges as a kid and would be happy to help. There was one full-time opening for a buffer and he wondered if any of the students might be interested. Phil was interviewed and hired that week. Later, with the need for another buffer, Noel was hired.

Phil worked there for about eight months and then decided he wanted to establish his own studio. Noel has been employed for about one year. The owner’s response to hiring Phil and Noel: “l really didn’t know what to expect. My first worry was whether or not they could handle the reading and number matching we use. As it turns out, there was no problem. Noel is probably the most accurate person I’ve had and we’re fussy.”

And his job evaluation of Phil and Noel: “l can’t stress how good Noel has been. He’s one of the finest I’ve ever had, one of our best employees. Phil was very good and will be a very good jeweler. I’m disappointed he didn’t stick it out a bit longer.”

Noel has arranged a schedule of half-days at school and afternoons at work. Noel’s thoughts about being employed: “I didn’t know if I’d fit in and be able to work to their standard, but after a few months, I knew they liked me because they told me I was doing a good job. They told me I could have a job after I finish school. I’m really bored with school and can’t wait until I’m working all the time. I think I’ll be happy working on their pieces, I don’t know if I’ll do my own jewelry or not.”

It is interesting to me that Phil and Noel were two of the Norman Howard School’s most challenging students. From Director Betsy McIsaac: “The Arts Option is the single most significant program that enhances self-esteem. Most kids need to reach that point before we can go about the process of remediating. It’s an eminently successful program. I’m so pleased that Phil and Noel are doing well. I don’t know if Noel would have ever found such a good potential career if it weren’t for Arts Option.”

Communicating through Strengths

We live in a society which communicates mainly through reading and writing. I don’t feel that I have a special talent but rather that the jewelry I create is just my best way of communicating. Dyslexia, once my greatest challenge, the trial of my early years, just doesn’t hold the fear it once did. The difference is in my attitude; now I see it as a distinct advantage. My right brain dominance, now perceived as a tool, assists me greatly in jewelry design. I am able to design and create jewelry, although I have never read a book on jewelry making.

My learning challenges pushed me early on to rely on myself, to trust the experiential rather than the written word (what I call “frozen thoughts”). I examined my strengths and weaknesses in my teens and early on learned to accept myself as I was, not for what I thought I should be.

The major motivation for creating the Arts Option was to share the joy I found in learning through creativity. I wanted to show that learning can be fun once you find the tools that work for you.

Teaching has certainly encouraged my own growth. Above all, it has increased my awe and respect for the uniqueness of each individual. I may always struggle with reading and writing but not with learning, now that I have found my tools.

Richard Devine has been a full-time designer in the Rochester area for the past 18 years, maintaining his own studio while exhibiting around the country. His wife, Barbra, joined him in partnership five years ago and they formed Devine Gold, specializing in 14k and 18k custom jewelry. Over the past few years, they have been developing a geometric, classic line of pendants, rings, brooches and earrings, incorporating both precious and semi-precious gems. Richard was selected from the Society of North American Goldsmith’s Competition as a “New Designer” for the Jewelers of America International Trade Show in New York City in July of 1987.

Richard and Barbra’s partnership has extended into speaking and writing about dyslexia. They continue to share their experience with children, parents and educators around the country. Richard presented a version of this article at the 1988 Society of North American Goldsmith’s Conference at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York.

By Richard and Barbra Devine
Metalsmith Magazine - 1988 Summer
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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