Lefens, 49, came up with his ingenious approach when it looked as if he might never paint again. At 35, the Detroit-born abstractionist began losing his sight to the degenerative disease retinitis pigmentosa. His doctor told him he had, at most, five years of vision left. Though Lefens's work had received little notice and he supported himself with tree-trimming jobs, painting had been his sustenance. "I felt, 'I'm ruined,' " he says. " 'My art life is over.' "
Then, in 1993, at the suggestion of another doctor, Lefens visited the Matheny School and Hospital for the developmentally disabled in Peapack, N.J., where most students can't talk or even sign with their hands. They were, Lefens saw, often ignored by people who assumed they had nothing to say. "Back then," he says, "I could see faces perfectly. From one guy's eyes it was, 'I'm in here. Can you see me?' I said, 'I see you.' I wanted to offer these people something."
As he details in his new memoir, Flying Colors, what he delivered was a novel way for those confined silently in wheelchairs to speak out in paint. While art therapy had long been used to aid the disabled, Lefens's approach proved uniquely freeing. Says Ana Villacis, mother of Isabell, 23, who has cerebral palsy: "My daughter found a way to express anger, and the feelings when she's happy."
After joining Matheny's staff, Lefens founded the nonprofit Artistic Realization Technologies in 1995 to bring his method to others. ART has since been used in Virginia, Florida and California, where students included rocker Neil Young's son Ben, 24, who has cerebral palsy. Young joined ART's board, as did actor Willem Dafoe—moved, he says, "by [Tim's] heartfelt notion of the transforming power of art."
The middle child of an engineer and a nutritionist, Lefens was encouraged early on by artist Roy Lichtenstein, the father of a surfing pal he met after his family moved to Belle Mead, N.J., where the single Lefens still lives. Lichtenstein, he says, "took me seriously at 15. That's what I take to my students."
He gets much in return. "Their courage rubbed off on me big-time," says Lefens, who once considered suicide. Though he will be totally blind one day—he still has limited sight—Lefens has returned to painting after a hiatus. His and his protégés' work recently appeared in local galleries. Says Isabell Villacis: "Painting is who I am. It makes me feel good, proud. Like a million dollars."
Diane Herbst in Belle Mead