by Dr. Dawn Menge
Phil Yeh founded Cartoonists Across America in 1985 to increase literacy across the country. He has painted more than 1,800 murals in 49 U.S. States and more than a dozen countries. Phil’s goal is to create and encourage literacy through the Arts. "I am pleased that the Cartoonists Across America Tour has been formed, because I agree that literacy has become a problem in our country. Humor itself is always a valuable tool in providing incentive for reading.” - Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts.
The recent snow storms in Southern California postponed our much-anticipated visit from Phil Yeh. He was going to bring his talents to our classroom to create a mural with the students who have severe cognitive delays in our classes. Finally, he was able to brave the weather and he and his wife Linda came to spend the day with our students.
Paint, brushes, and comic books were all unpacked and Phil soon began to freehand the mural for us to paint. Right before our eyes he created mountains, the sun, Joshua Trees, and many animal characters for our students to paint in. Highlighted across he wrote, “Building a World of Readers, Artists and Dreamers.” The first of the students came to choose their colors to paint. Their varied cognitive and physical delays were pushed aside and soon forgotten as they excitedly picked up their paint brushes and paint and began to fill in the mural. Each student took their turn in adding their personal touches to our mural. Soon, there was a bright yellow sun with deep red lips painted by our beautiful young student who despite being deaf, uses her assertive nature to command and direct others. Our young man with Cerebral Palsy in his electric wheelchair spent an hour painting the Joshua Trees. He was so intent on getting it right and staying within the lines, carefully dipping his paint brush in the green and then raising his arm to apply the color.
The hours passed quickly as more than 30 students whose abilities included Autism, Down syndrome, visual and hearing Impairments, and intellectual disabilities, took turns adding their loving touch to the mural. The occupational therapists, speech therapists, education specialists and educational assistants all joined in to add color and flare to the community board. The students used their creative imaginations and formed a river flowing at the bottom of the mountains. Animals were given varying color schemes, none looking the same as different students tackled different areas. Birds flying across the mountains sported colors in yellow, red, blue, and brown. The mountains were orange, yellow, and blue. A young man in an electric wheelchair painted the rabbit with a red face and a purple suit.
Phil Yeh spent the morning helping and encouraging the students and explained his philosophies and experiences about using the Arts to expand and increase the use of combining art and literacy to build stronger communities. “Our belief is that without the presence of creative expression, the ability of students and adults to learn and pursue any subject becomes stifled, uninspired and robotic,” he says.
Phil’s graphic novel, Dinosaurs Across America, teaches U.S. Geography while entertaining students and adults with the vividly illustrated pages. As Phil painted over the black lines on the mural the paint brushes were washed, and the paint put away. The mural will be showcased in a local art show to appreciate artwork developed by individuals with disabilities. A fitting end, to a unique and amazing opportunity given to our students, on this rainy, wintery day. We are all responsible and influence Phil’s dream to create literacy through the arts and to help him accomplish his goal of “Building a World of Readers, Artists and Dreamers” in homes, classrooms, libraries, and community centers throughout the country.