Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy art - it is a fundamental right, says Chitra Aloysius. She is also passionate in her belief in the power of the visual arts to help young people with severe learning difficulties. Elaine Williams meets this year's Sainsbury's Pictures for Schools selector
It was Patrick - a highly disturbed, brain-damaged four-year-old - who first taught Chitra Aloysius, 16 years ago, that all children, even those with severe learning difficulties, can appreciate colour, form and beauty in art.
Patrick would rock himself and tap and bang any available surface with his fingers constantly. But the tapping, which seemed so random and dissipated, was transformed into awesome abstract patterns when Ms Aloysius, who was then his special needs teacher, directed those restless fingers towards colour blocks of paint. "It was as if the marks he made had been done with the finest of sable brushes," she says. "I tried to recreate them myself but couldn't."
Chitra Aloysius's career then began to take a new direction. She grew passionate in her belief that children with even the severest of learning difficulties could make huge gains in their learning and emotional development through being introduced to works of art. In the early 1980s, when wheelchairs were a rare sight in galleries, she harried curators into letting her take groups of special needs children to look at paintings, introducing them to the works of, above all, Monet, Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock, as a way of giving them enough confidence to try painting themselves.
Now, as the selector of a set of paintings that will be reproduced, mounted, framed and sent to 1,200 special schools across the country in September, Ms Aloysius's ambitions have been largely fulfilled. Sainsbury's Pictures for Schools is an award-winning scheme in its sixth year which aims to encourage children to look at works of art and visit galleries. Past selectors have included the writer Alan Bennett, the artist Peter Blake and Neil MacGregor, director of London's National Gallery. Each has chosen four or eight paintings from British galleries which have then been sent to schools around the country, along with teaching packs. About 17 per cent of primary and 40 per cent of secondary schools now have these pictures hanging on their walls.
When Sainsbury's decided to target special schools this year, Chitra Aloysius was the obvious choice of selector. Her championing of the visual arts as a means of developing pupils with both moderate and severe learning difficulties led some years ago to her being invited by the British Museum to co-ordinate a project on the use of its collections by such children. Findings from the project were published in the book The Big Foot, which Ms Aloysius co-authored with Anne Pearson, and which remains a blueprint of what can be achieved. Now she regularly holds workshops for special needs teachers in museums and galleries around London.
Sainsbury's inspiration for the Pictures for Schools scheme came from a post-war enterprise called School Prints. This involved the commissioning of paintings from a variety of British artists, which were then printed on cheap paper and sold at rock-bottom prices to schools; Picasso was so taken with the idea that he donated a work to the scheme for free. Brenda Rawnsley, art educationist and the Schools Prints initiator, believed that children should be introduced to works of art as young as possible "because they do form ideas about shapes and colour at an early age".
Ms Aloysius is equally convinced that pupils with learning difficulties can gain pleasure and learn critical appreciation of visual art. For her, it is a fundamental right.
"Everybody should have the opportunity to enjoy art," she says. "I feel very passionate about the fact that these kids miss out. Sometimes they die young without us ever knowing what they can do creatively. Patrick (who died 18 months ago at the age of 19) had beautiful blue eyes. Whenever I look at the eyes of these children, it strikes me that we may never know what untapped talent may lie behind them.
"Galleries are largely the preserve of people who can read and write. Children with learning difficulties are removed from this influence because of their inability to cope with the written or spoken word. Yet pictures can form a most powerful invitation to develop emotionally and imaginatively, and erase a sense of failure."
For much of her career Chitra Aloysius, a Sri Lankan by birth, taught at Beckton School - a school for children with severe learning difficulties - in east London. During her time there she also gained a BA in Art History with the Open University and an MA at the University of East London, in which she researched the teaching of visual arts to special needs children.
As part of her research she set up an art club at the school, and introduced the children to the work of Monet. She took them to see an exhibition of his waterlily paintings, helped them to paint waterlilies on silk and eventually took them to Monet's gardens in Giverny, northern France. "You should have seen their faces when they saw the waterlilies in his garden," she says. "They were so thrilled. But when I started this, people told me that there was no point in taking children to galleries when they couldn't even write their names. "
She had also been warned that Laura, a painfully shy 13-year-old, would be a lost cause. However, when she took Laura on an art club outing to the National Gallery, she was amazed by the girl's response.
"We were looking at some paintings by Renoir and Laura said, 'Miss, those paintings are really getting to me. It's like he was looking at all those people through a blue cloud.' Nobody dreamed that she could develop so imaginatively."
In this respect Ms Aloysius believes the Sainsbury scheme is one of the most exciting ventures she has been involved in. "There have been so few resources for teachers who might want to get involved in this kind of work," she says. "Consequently, very few people have had the confidence to do it. These paintings will be invaluable."