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An artist with cerebral palsy, and without limitations

An artist with cerebral palsy
An artist with cerebral palsy 01:46

Artist Ellen Kane's vibrant paintings have gained notoriety for their unique combination of shapes and textures, but what makes them even more unique is that Kane lives with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects muscular dexterity.

Kane has limited control of her body, and only speaks with hand signals. But with the help of art facilitators at the Matheny Arts Access Program, in Peapack, New Jersey, the images in her mind come alive.

"The woman is prolific. She's a hard-core artist," said director Eileen Murray, who believes the arts program gives disabled artists a creative outlet that is also therapeutic.

Matheny's unique program was founded in 1993, when its creators asked a challenging question: How can someone who can't use their arms, is non-verbal, or has limited range of motion, create art?

"The answer is, art is inside them," Murray said. "It's not a physical thing. So, what we had to do was really develop a way for it to get from their heads to our hands."

With the help of facilitators, the Matheny Arts Access Program allows artists like Ellen Kane, who lacks muscular dexterity, to bring images in her mind to life on canvas. CBS News

Over the years, the program has allowed its artists to create digital renderings, paintings, and even dance choreography.

Kane has been with the program for 26 years. Through hand gestures, she directs another person with painstaking precision. The so-called "paint facilitators" at Matheny are trained precisely to serve as conduits for the artists. They ask Kane question after question about color, shape, line, form and texture; she answers "yes" or "no" with her hands (a nod of the fist means "yes," and an open hand means "no"). The process is so precise, it can take years – even a decade – to complete a single painting.

Artist Ellen Kane. CBS News

"I don't know of another program like Arts Access – one that is as fully committed to the complete freedom of choice in the art-making process," Murray said. "No matter what the medium – painting, dance, writing – every decision is in the hands of the artist with disabilities, and in depth and breadth and philosophy, I don't think there's any other like it.

"The work is outstanding and I've always felt that it deserves to be on a big stage."

Sotheby's thought so, too. The famous auction house gave Kane and four of her fellow artists the chance of a lifetime: an exhibit in New York City, and a chance for buyers from the world to purchase their artwork.

Several of Ellen Kane's paintings were featured in a show earlier this month at Sotheby's in New York City. CBS News

"We really wanted to be able to use our platform to help give visibility to this program that is just so impressive, and to the artists and the artwork that are really just remarkable," said Sotheby's sale coordinator Dana Chernock.

When the big day came, Kane's biggest cheerleader was there: her mom. By the end of the day, Kane had sold three of her paintings for hundreds of dollars each. 

CBS News correspondent Tom Hanson asked the artist's mother, Pyong Su Kane, "Knowing that many of her paintings have been sold, how does that make you feel?"

"I feel fly!" she exclaimed. "Congratulations, Ellen!"

And for someone non-verbal, on the walls of one of the world's great auction houses, Ellen Kane's art spoke louder than words.

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