Pair of exhibits features artists with disabilities
By EVAN LAWRENCE
When it comes to the creation of top-quality art, physical and mental disabilities don’t have to be insurmountable barriers.
That’s the message of two shows that opened this month at the Bennington Museum.
“Engage,” presented by the group VSA Vermont, features 39 works by 35 contemporary Vermont artists with disabilities.
“More Like You Than Not,” assembled by the museum’s curator, Jamie Franklin, looks at 150 years of artists with disabilities who worked in and around Vermont, with a special focus on artists with mental disabilities.
The exhibitions “seek to recognize that artistic talent and creativity know no bounds,” said Susan Strano, the museum’s marketing coordinator.
VSA Vermont is part of an international network of chapters of VSA (formerly Very Special Arts), an organization focused on arts for people with disabilities. The network is headquartered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
The Vermont group promotes artists with disabilities and helps them develop as artists. It also helps cultural centers welcome artists and visitors with disabilities, and it promotes accessibility features at cultural venues, said Judith Chalmers, its executive director.
The Bennington Museum is the third and last stop for “Engage.” The show opened last February at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, and it moved to Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury for the summer.
The works featured in “Engage” were selected by a panel of independent artists.
The exhibits “Engage” and “More Like You Than Not” opened Feb. 1 and will run through May 7 at the Bennington Museum. Some of the artists in “Engage” will attend a reception from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday,
April 6, at the museum. The museum is handicapped-accessible.
Information on “Engage” will be available at the museum in large print, Braille, and through audio recordings that can be heard by cell phone. In addition, the organization VSA Vermont has trained the museum’s staff to give verbal tours, which are available by appointment.
To accommodate artists with visual and other impairments, VSA Vermont made the show’s application available in large print, Braille, and on the Internet. Because some artists might not have a digital version of their work, VSA held a technology day event to which artists could bring their pieces to have them photographed digitally. The artists then received digital discs they could submit to other galleries and shows.
Some of the selected pieces came without frames, so VSA had them framed professionally.
“We were involved in professional development at every stage,” Chalmers said.
VSA Vermont requested submissions and publicized the technology day through a number of organizations that serve Vermont artists and people with disabilities, said Paul Gruhler, an artist who served as the show’s curator.
“Getting to know the artists and their families has been one of the most rewarding and gratifying experiences of my career,” Gruhler said. “This is just incredible art.”
One of the artists whose work is included in “Engage” is Robert Gold of Middlebury. Gold was a dentist who taught at Harvard University until 1996, when he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him unable to read, write, or do many other things that most people take for granted.
“Art and driving are the two things I can do without assistance,” Gold said.
Gold had been a visual artist before the accident, working in charcoal and muted colors.
Right after the accident, “my palette changed to vibrant and happy colors,” he said. “The general take on my life was happy instead of angry.”
A few years ago, Gold bought a refurbished Apple computer with Photoshop 1. Unable to read the program’s directions, Gold taught himself to use it through trial and error. He developed a method of printing a colored design on a large sheet of museum-quality etching paper.
“That’s like a sketch for another artist,” Gold said. He goes over it with acrylic paints, sometimes working under a neurosurgeon’s operating magnifier for tighter control of his brush strokes.
Gold said he paints every day.
“Art is centering for me,” he said. “It’s almost like a meditation. I see beauty in my immediate surroundings that I didn’t see before.”
Art on its own terms
Willow Bascom, who lives in Plymouth Notch, was already a practicing artist when she moved to Vermont four years ago.
“One of the first groups I reached out to was the Vermont Council on the Arts,” she said.
Bascom lives with lupus, an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue and confusion. A new medication “helped me get my creativity back,” she said. Not only did it alleviate her fatigue, it also silenced the “internal judge” that made her abandon projects because she didn’t think they were good enough.
“I realized I could keep going and finish,” Bascom said.
Bascom’s work is inspired by her love of indigenous art from around the world. She lived in Saudi Arabia and in Panama as a child. Some of her pictures are based on Panamanian molas, fabric pictures with bright colors and strong shapes. She starts with a black-and-white outline, which she fills in with colored Sharpies and gel pens.
Lately she’s also been working on a Wacom tablet, which allows her to draw with an electronic stylus and color the design in Photoshop. The tablet saves her hands, which are easily tired by conventional pens.
Bascom said Gruhler knew her work and invited her to apply for “Engage.” She praised VSA Vermont for taking her disabilities into account during the application process.
“One of the things I appreciate is that while they didn’t have special allowances for the artwork, they gave me extra time to do the application,” she said. “Art is judged as art, but they help as needed. It’s a really fine distinction that they do well.”
Tracing a historical context
The companion exhibit “More Like You Than Not” takes its title from artist and autism advocate Larry Bissonnette, who has a picture included in the show. The exhibit grew out of Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin’s longtime interest in what he called “the intersection of art and mental illness in the 19th century,” and the idea developed in a conversation between Franklin and Gruhler, the curator for “Engage.”
Historically, Franklin explained, “because artists with disabilities were segregated, they developed along a separate trajectory.
“I wanted to provide a historical context for artists with disabilities in this region,” he added.
The first three artists in the show had physical rather than mental disabilities. Portraitist John Brewster Jr. and silhouette artist James H. Whitcomb were deaf. Martha Ann Honeywell was born without arms and only three toes. All three had successful careers as itinerant artists, a common way of life for artists in the early 19th century, and all of them worked within established artistic genres, Franklin said.
Deafness may even have given Brewster some advantage, because deaf people learn to pay close attention to facial expression.
Honeywell was “as much a performance artist as a visual artist,” Franklin said. She used her toes, mouth, and arm stubs to create microcalligraphy (extremely small writing), cut-paper pictures, and embroidery for audiences who could buy the pieces as souvenirs.
The second section of “More Like You Than Not” features art created within Vermont’s mental health care system. In the early 19th century, Franklin said, treatment of the insane changed from harsh confinement to more humane conditions, including fresh air, a lack of restraints, and encouragement of cultural pursuits such as reading, writing and artwork.
Many of the middle-class patients at the Vermont Asylum for the Insane would have received instruction in drawing, painting, and needlework as part of their education.
“It wasn’t formal; there was no art therapy until the 1950s,” Franklin said.
One of the pictures in this section – a circa-1945 drawing of a Central Vermont Railway locomotive by Merrill Bennett (1908-89) -- was discovered as workers cleaned up the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury after flooding in 2011 from tropical storm Irene.
Eight drawings featured in the exhibit were created by recent clients of the Brattleboro Retreat. Because of confidentiality regulations, their names can’t be released.
“I love the work because it’s so mysterious,” Franklin said. “It’s powerful nonetheless.”
Therapy and art
The last section of “More Like You Than Not” showcases an artist from Williamstown, Mass., and three Vermont artists who have worked through progressive studios, which provide materials, space and encouragement to artists with and without disabilities.
“They provide a platform,” Franklin said of these studios. “It’s not art therapy, but art as therapy. The creation of art is the opportunity to express oneself, which is itself therapeutic.”
This section includes one of dozens of hand-illustrated books by Gayleen Aiken and three of the 26 almost-life-size cardboard cutouts of her imaginary “cousins.” It also features paintings by Larry Bissonnette and Merrill Densmore. Densmore liked coloring books and paint-by-number kits until GRACE, a progressive studio based in Hardwick, encouraged him to make his own images.
“Merrill just did it,” Franklin said. “He had none of the angst of an academically trained artist.”
The artist from Williamstown is Jessica Parks, who has autism.
“Her parents used her visual arts ability to help her connect with other people,” Franklin said.
With help from the Shields Institute, an advocacy organization for people with autism, Parks has marketed her work nationally.
“These are artists,” Franklin said. “They just happen to have disabilities.”
Although many of the artists have compelling personal stories, the two exhibits focus on their artwork, not their disabilities.
“You won’t see anything about the artists and their disabilities on the walls at the show,” Chalmers said. “We want people to focus on the art. At the same time, if we don’t come together as artists with disabilities, we can’t make a community statement.”
Bascom said she went to see the opening of “Engage” last year in Burlington “not knowing what to expect.
“I was stunned by the creativity, variety and beauty, and how much of the artists came through in their work,” she said. “People will come back impressed by the artwork that happens from people with disabilities.
“We’re all people. We all have things that happen in our lives and get commas and periods after our names, but we’re still individuals. It’s a continuum. We all move back and forth on it.”