A Very Special Experience at St. John’s

The annual Queens Very Special Arts Festival, an event hosted by St. John’s University for over 20 years, delivered a very special message to children on Tuesday: “it’s okay to be different.”

VSA arts, a non-profit organization founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith after the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and is located in all 50 states and over 60 countries worldwide. Its theme this year, “Stories Through the Arts,” fused together imagination and storytelling. The annual event includes children with and without disabilities.

“Every child learns differently,” Soula Antoniou, president of VSA arts, said. “I believe that children should be allowed to engage in something that allows them to achieve, be at their own pace and create something they could make their own decisions about, that is not prescribed.”

Approximately 1,500 to 2,000 students participated in the event, all from private and public schools, located throughout Queens County. The festival is sponsored by several organizations, including the St. John’s Fine Arts Department, Queens Museum of Art and the Alley Pond Environmental Center.

This year’s festival featured presentations in several locations on the Queens campus, including face painting, music and dance performances, and the making clay sculptures while being blindfolded. Additionally, art work by students between the ages of six and 17 were displayed in Marillac Terrace.

“Art is one thing that humans can do than no one else can,” Belenna Lauto, Associate Fine Arts Professor and member of the steering committee for VSA arts of NYC said. “[All art] expresses what the human soul is about.”

Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of the program, affirmed that it was essential to teach children about the arts because of its emphasis on the individual.

“It’s rewarding to see people live up to their potential, which they are given a chance to do” Smith said. “Often people are left out because they have a disability. People think they cannot do something because they have a disability. The fact they can show they can and they do makes it [running this organization] rewarding.”

By embracing individuality and molding the minds of young people, VSA arts’ festival not only teaches children to appreciate art, but appreciate each other through art.

“I don’t believe in competition [in art],” Smith said. “I believe it is difficult to say one person is good and another is not. Generally speaking, art is very much in the eye of the beholder.

“Art is something that is unique and individual and found in every person,” she said. “It uses the creative part of the brain. No one will be able to do it like you.”