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The Arts

Out of the shadows

Two exhibits celebrate the accomplishment and vision of artists with disabilities

BRATTLEBORO—Two shows at the Bennington Museum — “Engage” and “More Like You Than Not” — are a must-see for anyone who is interested in the areas of mental health, mental or physical disability, and the role that art can play in healing.

“Engage,” curated by Greensboro-based artist Paul Gruhler, is an exhibit of artwork by 35 Vermonters with mental or physical disabilities.

Much of the art on display was created under the auspices of Grass Roots Art and Community Effort. The organization, with the wonderful acronym of GRACE, is part of what has come to be known as the “progressive studio movement,” where those with disabilities or other needs not met by a traditional teaching environment may avail themselves of the space, materials, and encouragement of an intentional setting.

GRACE was founded in 1975 by artist Don Sunseri, an artist of international renown who, burnt out from many years teaching and disillusioned by the New York City art world, moved to Vermont in 1970.

Sunseri, who died in 2001, “worked in the kitchen at St. Johnsbury Convalescent Center, seeing the creative potential of the residents that surrounded him on a daily basis,” according to the exhibit catalog. “He started providing opportunities for them to make art, supplying them with materials, encouragement, and a supportive environment.”

The work in “Engage” ranges from the sophistication of Lyna Lou Nordstrom’s “Fragile Earth Theory,” which uses the collagraphic printmaking process and gives an embossed effect, here utterly spare and graceful; to the naiveté and simplicity of Gwendolyn Evans’s “Solitary Communion,” a compelling piece done in relief, since Evans is blind. It shows a woman opening her arms to a crescent moon against a blue-black starry sky.

I was drawn to William Morgan’s photograph, “Middle Road to Plainfield,” the whole scene bathed in an orange glow; and Steve Chase’s painting, “Dr. John,” which looks like it could have come out of the fauves, a portrait whose facial angles are distinctly outlined and multi-hued. It has strength and structure and at the same time a willful spontaneity.

I also was taken with two paintings by Alexis Kyriak, in part because she was such an arresting presence on the panel that took place on the day I visited the museum.

But the paintings, it turns out, are strong on their own merits: each painting is done in acrylic on canvas. Each is of a full-bodied woman emerging out of darkness; in the case of Matron, all is lit except the head, which has been painted out in black.

Perhaps the artist was simply unable to paint the face as she wished and this was a pique of frustration — in any case, it works esthetically, formally.

Perhaps, too, the blackening of this part of the physiognomy signifies the artist is not ready to have that much identity.

Of her work, Kyriak (who, unsurprisingly, did have art training as a young woman) said, “the process has been instrumental in my coming out of darkness,” but she has not “stepped back far enough to see myself in the art.”

She added, “Our gift [art-making] and what is within us that is light –– that is what makes the art.”

The panel was made up of Kyriak and two other artists represented in the “Engage” show: Robert Gold and Willow Bascom.

Robert Gold had been a dentist until a traumatic brain injury in 1996 changed his life. His piece in the show is a digitally altered photo of a scene out of the windshield of a car, “Barns Around Orwell.”

But, he said, thanks to vocational rehabilitation, he started using the computer and working in digital media, a change that has been freeing for him.

Healing started, he said, when he had “something positive to do every day.” When asked what he would like people to take away from his work, he said, “As my mobility becomes limited, I have become taken with what’s close — beauty is right next to you!”

Willow Bascom’s disability came about as a result of lupus, which settled in her fingers and had cognitive effects as well.

Her art takes something from Panamanian stitch work, which she saw while growing up in the country, as well as the art of Saudi Arabia, where she also spent time as a child.

Her piece in the show, as is the case with the illustrations in a children’s book that she had for sale, Paisley Pig and Friends: A Multicultural ABC, consist of whimsical line drawings of animals that are brightly colored. Lines ripple out from them and follow their contours, creating fanciful flat patterns.

She uses technology to make the process easier, as she scans in her line drawings and uses the computer to color them.

“I love when people say ‘Your art makes me smile!’ I was dark for a while and I got to find that ability in myself — that is what I like best,” Bascom said.

If you go to “Engage,” I recommend you take around with you the folder of artist statements as you look at the work. Context and the artist’s perspective matters — often the case, but especially so here.

Especially if you are steeped in the “art world,” the magic and majesty of art can get lost. The wonderful and inspiring artist statements remind one why we value art and art-making to begin with.

* * *

“More Like You Than Not,” an exhibit of work by patients and other individuals with mental challenges such as autism, is curated by Jamie Franklin, head curator at the Bennington Museum. The title is a quote from one of the participants, Larry Bissonnette.

One of the works featured in MLYTN, a drawing by Major W. King, “Reply to a Christmas Present of a Watch,” and dated 1885, first sparked Franklin’s interest in the field. “When it was sold at an auction in 2010, the drawing’s history was completely unknown. However, thanks to the artist’s inclusion of his own name and, especially, his doctor’s name, Dr. Joseph Draper, who turned out to be the Superintendent at the Vermont Asylum for the Insane (since 1893 the Brattleboro Retreat) during the 1880s when King was a patient, I was able to uncover the work’s ‘story.’”

“At that point,” continues Franklin, “I became engrossed and started to seek out as much information on the topic of art created by individuals diagnosed with mental illness as I could, with a particular interest in work created during the 19th century.”

This interest dovetails with Franklin’s passion for folk art, another category of art by untrained individuals...the art of direct expression, unalloyed by style trend or art school “shoulds."

The paper of the “Reply” drawing referred to above is divided into sections and includes a hen, a tree/flower, a bird-person, mountains. The perspective is primitive, stylized with fine ink lines, though it’s not entirely benign––the bird person struts with a smile but is being watched from four corners by grotesque faces and animals’ eyes.

Much of Franklin’s research centered on the Vermont State Hospital and the Brattleboro Retreat. Most of the work in MLYTN comes from the archives of these institutions.

One of my favorites in the show is a piece from the State Hospital at Waterbury. It was saved after the damage done by Tropical Storm Irene by David Schutz, Vermont State Curator. A lovingly rendered and very detailed pencil drawing of a Central Vermont Railway caboose by Merrill Bennett, it was created around 1945. Known to have a fascination with trains, there is nothing flashy about this drawing — it is what it is, and it is a beauty.

Of the artwork shown in this exhibit, there are only a few pieces done by living artists. Ironically, for a show that wants to bring the work of those who have too often lived in darkness to the light, due to relatively recent health care privacy laws, the identity of the creators of five works in the show, executed between 2006 and 2010, must remain anonymous. These works come courtesy of the Brattleboro Retreat Art Therapy Program, a program that has existed since the 1950’s and was terminated shortly before this show was put together. Fortunately for Jamie Franklin, his contact at the Retreat, Sarah Blascio, stayed on and was able to arrange loans of the work for the museum.

Jessica Park and Larry Bissonnette are the only artists in the show who are still living. Both suffer from autism and both have had an impact on the autism community––Jessica, through her mother’s ground-breaking book, “The Siege,” written in 1967, and Bissonette through his own activism.

Their artwork, however, is as different as could be. Bissonnette’s one painting here, acrylic on board, is an ebullient slathering of brightly pigmented impasto, his name blazoned across the top, the bottom an impressionistic city-scape. Park’s work is “the world through high-definition, rainbow-colored glasses,” to quote the curator’s note. Her paintings having an other-worldly, psychedelic aura. One of a handful of commercially-successful artists in the show, her work is marketed and sold by Pure Vision, a progressive studio and gallery associated with the Shield Institute in New York City.

I shall end with some favorite quotes from the artists of “Engage,” statements made during the panel held at the museum. From Alexis: “If it weren’t for the illness I wouldn’t have painted, and if it weren’t for the painting I would not have been integrated.” From Willow: “I realized I was an artist but they called me an illustrator. So I decided I was a children’s illustrator and I was happy with that. Now people call me an artist!” From Robert: “The process is like meditation––it creates a harmonious state.” Again from Alexis, “Life cares. It didn’t just dump us here!”

One after the other of the artists on the panel and those in the audience extolled Vermont’s social services for the disabled. Alexis Kyriak summed it up: “Vermont is where you come to be everything you can be.”

Come experience the healing power of art at the Bennington Museum through May 7.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #200 (Wednesday, April 24, 2013).

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