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When art teacher Barbara Shroyer introduced her class to the work of Chuck Close and an assignment that would call for using grids, she didn’t know she would set off a creative tidal wave in two of her students.

Erica Tavernier, 16, and Bethany Viray, 17, take Art I with Shroyer.

The rest of the school day, save for gym class, the teens are students of Judy Hume, a life skills teacher at Westlake High School.

The girls, who are best friends, both have Down syndrome and they both have an artistic streak that teachers soon recognized and fostered.

While their classmates worked on the assignment, Shroyer came up with one for Erica and Bethany.

“We tailor and adapt [lessons] to their abilities,” Shroyer said. “They, along with their aides, get them done.”

Though they completed the project two years ago, they are still doing it.

Erica, who said she likes to “make designs” started drawing a series of boxes, reminiscent of a checkerboard.

Eventually, the girls worked out a system that they use often.

Erica concentrated on crafting the grids outlining them on graph and copy paper with her beloved markers and passed them over to Bethany, who likes to color, to fill in with colored pencil or markers.

“It turned into this explosion of a project,” said Hume, who makes sure her students — Bethany and Erica have three other classmates — have the basics down, including sewing.

“I think it’s important that they at least know how to sew on a button,” she said.

While the teens enjoy sewing, its the grid artwork that became their calling card.

The kids were churning them out so quickly, working on them during downtime at school and even at home, they would come into Hume’s classroom with stacks inches thick, said Sheila Church, an instructional aide.

Shroyer has 400 or 500 pages of the art as the background on her classroom’s bulletin boards. About a third of the faculty have them; Church laminated some that are hanging in the offices of the school’s administration.

In honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, the girls’ artwork is displayed on an oversized board in a hallway of Westlake.

The exhibit, which from a distance resembles stained glass, will stay up through October.

It goes along with the school’s belief that its students are part of a global community, said Principal Chrystal Benson.

The students are taught to “embrace the needs of everybody and to respect everybody,” she said. “Life is not about what you get, its about what you give.”

Erica and Bethany said they were excited about the display, joking that it would make them “famous.”

The teens’ artistic talents are not new to their families.

Bethany’s father, Mario, is an architect and her brother’s Mikhail and Marco, like design and art too.

“This is how she expresses her feelings,” said Lilibeth Viray, Bethany’s mother. “Not only coloring, but she likes to draw too.”

Christal Thomas said her daughter, Erica — the baby of four siblings — has always liked coloring, graduating from “Hello, Kitty” and “Little Mermaid” coloring books to those that feature geometrical designs that Thomas picks up at craft stores.

Thomas called Erica “a miracle.”

Born with Down syndrome, primary pulmonary hypertension and a hole in her heart, Erica wasn’t expected to live.

It was a possibility that her sisters, Ariel and Breanna, and brother, Charles, refused to accept.

They wanted their little sister home with them.

Thirty-one days after she was born, Erica came home with doctors warning that the girl would be a vegetable, she probably wouldn’t walk.

When she was 15 months old, Erica walked into her physical therapist’s office on her own and hasn’t looked back since.

She might have Down syndrome, but she’s just one of the gang among her siblings.

“They never ever looked at her differently,” Thomas said. “They never treated her any different.

“There is a misconception,” she added. “Mental retardation doesn’t mean that they can’t learn, they just learn slower.”

Erica’s second love, after art, is reading, Thomas said.

Erica lugs around a backpack brimming with books. The “Dork Diaries” are her current faves, and she said she likes reading on the sofa Hume brought into the classroom, creating a reading nook for her students.

Thomas said that her daughter also has an ability to read people’s feelings, picking up on if someone is having a good day or a bad one.

“She can tune into people. It’s a gift,” Thomas said. “So many people are self-consumed and don’t look at what another person is going through.

“Don’t feel sorry for her. She knows she has Down syndrome, she knows she has mental retardation, but she wakes up and she’s happy,” Thomas said. “She loves music, she loves to dance, she loves her brother, her sisters. She embraces things and loves her life.”

Viray believes the same about her daughter, Bethany.

“We’re blessed to have her,” she said. “She’s sweet and talented.”

“I’m proud of [Erica] and Bethany,” Thomas said. “They appreciate each other and love themselves. They know their disability and it’s not holding them back. It’s amazing.”

staylor@somdnews.com