Three years ago, photographer Micaela Walker found herself in a dark, harrowing place.
She had given birth to twins Roan and Lula in 2010, but Lula arrived with an unidentified genetic disease. Less than two years later, she died. Struggling to find an ember of hope following her daughter's memorial service, Walker lit a sparkler; with friends and family by her side, she spelled out Lula's name, searing the memories — both happy and sad — into the night sky.
Walker, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, eventually shared the "light writing" activity with a group that had provided a sense of community and belonging when Lula was still alive. Extreme Kids and Crew is a non-profit that provides art-based programming and a sensory gym for children with special needs. Walker and Lula had visited an open play session, and the experience had been incredibly positive for both mother and daughter.
"Extreme Kids was instrumental in my understanding of how much joy and acceptance was possible amidst all of the sadness and fear of having a disabled child," Walker said in an interview.
Now vice president of the organization's board, Walker has merged her faith in Extreme Kids' mission with her passion for photography in her Light Writing project — all while helping the children tap into their inner Picasso.
For the project, Walker set up a dark room and encouraged kids to play with the light sources she provided — miniature flashlights, glow-in-the-dark jewelry, traffic control lights, among others. She was initially worried the kids would be afraid of the darkness or weirded out by the multiple exposures required to capture the images. But they showed no apprehension once they saw the table of goodies.
"One girl, who is non-verbal, walked right in, put sunglasses on, grabbed everything and cradled them," Walker said. "This made one of my favorite shots."
Extreme Kids welcomes children with a variety of disabilities, and Walker found that nearly all of them could participate in the Light Writing project.
"I was trying to think of something that any child could do," she said. "Regardless of their development, motor skills, mobility, or sensory capabilities. This came to mind."
The best part of using art at Extreme Kids is that there is no wrong answer, Walker said. For children who spend the better part of their lives struggling to fit in, programs like Light Writing offer an escape.
"There are no rules, no conscriptions to making art," she said. "Many people find it unsettling to be confronted by something which doesn't conform to the expectations set out by society as to what is 'normal.' These kids, in their very existence, don't conform. So it's important to have a space to be accepted exactly as they are and to express themselves without judgment."
Extreme Kids has two locations in Brooklyn, one of which will be undergoing a renovation this summer. Once that space is complete, Walker looks forward to creating more images in her series, and possibly even developing a Light Writing program that can be replicated around the nation.
**See more from Walker's Light Writing project**