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  • Tara Crutchfield

Access Art: Special Needs

Artist and educator Tinia Clark said, “Art connects us all.” Thanks to her and the Polk Museum of Art, the special needs community has a local connection to the arts all their own. Access Art: Special Needs is a program that invites individuals with varying exceptionalities to meet monthly at the Polk Museum of Art to view and discuss exhibited artwork. After the tour, the group heads to one of the Museum’s education classrooms to create an art activity inspired by what they’ve viewed and discussed during the visit. The group meets for the talk and tour at 2 pm on the first Thursday of every month, excluding June, July, December, and January.

The 90-minute program is led by specially trained educator and artist Tinia Clark. Clark, a docent and facilitator for Access Art, has years of experience volunteering with individuals with special needs, Alzheimer’s, and dementia at the Museum and her former Sidestreet Studio in Winter Haven. She notes that encouragement and listening skills on her part are “the main qualifications needed to make the experience a good one.” 

An abstract painter herself, Clark has been a practicing artist for some 35 years, working primarily with acrylics and watercolors, and has experimented throughout the years, including creating sculpture. Clark also penned and self-published a children’s book called “Mars: Escape from the Meanies.” The book was produced twice as a play for the special needs community, which the author called a “highlight in my life.” 

In addition to her special needs program, Clark works with the Alzheimer’s Association to facilitate tours for individuals with dementia. These tours follow a similar format to Access Art: Special Needs but are less frequent.


The artist moved into her now-closed Sidestreet Studio space in July 2014. An after-work volunteer opportunity with Arts Ensemble and The Alzheimer’s Association led Clark to focus on people with dementia and Alzheimer’s and, eventually, those with special needs. Her Access Art programs, which officially began around 2016, were designed to inspire creativity and social and cognitive engagement. These free-to-attend sessions included therapeutic drum circles, drawing, coloring, painting, and beyond. 

Unfortunately, as the pandemic continued to rage in early 2021, “My clients [and] participants had evaporated as a result,” Clark said. “Many of them were at higher risk, and it was recommended that they stay home, shelter in place.” Sidestreet Studio closed that February. “Not knowing the future and the impact on my population served, I felt that the best thing would be to close up the studio and divvy out the remaining funds we had to other local nonprofit organizations which were also hurting.” 


“The Access Art programs at the Museum is almost like coming full circle,” she said. Closing the studio didn’t mean an end to Access Art, whose participants Clark is steadfast committed to. Clark made do and, for a time, used Kelly Rec as the art marking space for Access Art following the Museum tour. Now, Clark and her participants are able to utilize space within the Museum.  

“The program is designed to engage the participants,” she said. “The participants get exposure to art as well as an opportunity to express their views on art and [interact] with peers in a safe environment.” 

She starts by greeting her attendees at the door and welcoming them to the Museum. After asking who has been to the Museum, explaining they cannot touch the art, and that the Museum is free to attend all the time, the group enters the main galleries to view and discuss the art there. They typically follow that up with the student gallery before traveling upstairs to a classroom. “I try to incorporate, on some level, a tie-in with the exhibit,” Clark said. After the April tour, Access Art: Special Needs participants recreated the Bunnies paintings by Hunt Slonem. The month before, they used fabric and inspiration from Lauren Austin’s quilt exhibit. “Over the years, I have seen some great pieces developed,” she said.

“The program is important because art connects us all – it is meant to be shared with every person in our community. You don’t have to have a degree or background in art to share an experience with art. It is a universal language where words are not necessarily needed,” Clark said. “I am grateful that the Museum understands and promotes it as such.” 


Clark has known many of whom she fondly calls her “people and friends” for years. “I watched many of the younger people literally grow up over the past seven years.” She stays in touch on social media, adding, “They have touched my life and taught me so much and brought joy to me just in sharing art and ideas.” On the adverse, Clark has lost many of “her people” with Alzheimer’s and dementia, “which hurts as they become like family.”  

Those losses, though painful, haven’t diminished the gains – the joy in what she does. “My favorite part is the people and the shared experience. Whether it is one person or ten people, it is nice just to know you have made a little difference in someone’s day.”

For those interested in improving the quality of life and programming for individuals with special needs, dementia, or Alzheimer’s, donate. Clark suggests giving to the Alzheimer’s Association, the Polk Museum of Art, or Out of the Box at Lakeland Community Theatre.  

Tinia Clark shared one of the most valuable lessons she learned at Sidestreet. “We all have challenges, and if you can make a difference for just one person, it is worth trying. It is not the quantity of lives you touch, but the quality of life you share.”


Access Art: Special Needs  
Thursday, May 4, 2023
2:00 pm 3:30 pm
Polk Museum of Art
800 E Palmetto St Lakeland, FL 33801
Registration is preferred but not required. For registration or questions, please text Tinia Clark at 863-224-8557.
Please include guardian or caretaker in the total attendee number.


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