A Conversation with Sophia Cosmadopoulos

Sophia Cosmadopolous (right) and LAND's Rudy Bansraj (left)

Our conversation with Sophia Cosmadopoulos is the first in a series of interviews with dedicated leaders, advocates, and facilitators within this field - those directly championing the great works of artists maintaining creative practices in progressive art studios. Cosmadopoulos is currently a coordinator and facilitator at LAND Studio and Gallery, a progressive art studio provided by the League Education & Treatment Center in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Her valuable perspective is also informed by an uncommonly dynamic career in this field, with direct experience at several other studios including Creativity Explored in San Francisco and Pure Vision Arts, YAI Arts, and the former HAI in New York CIty.

Sophia graduated from Oberlin College in 2006 with a degree in art history and a focus in studio art. Sophia has worked in art studios for adults with developmental disabilities for over 10 years. She joined the LAND team in May of 2015. In her free time, she is a freelance writer focusing on Outsider Art. She also teaches independent art classes to artists with disabilities at YAI Arts.

DM: How did you become involved in this work?  Meaning, both : How did you become interested in art? and How did you get started working with people with disabilities?

SC: I have made art since I was young. I took particular interest in high school where I was enrolled in a higher level studio art class though the International Baccalaureate program. I continued studying studio art and art history at Oberlin College, but became somewhat disenchanted by how exclusive and alienating it could be. In 2006, I volunteered for a month at Creativity Explored where I fell in love with the open, exciting and creative atmosphere it offered its artists. The experience inspired me, and left me looking for similar communities that were creating art in such free environments. When I graduated from college, I began volunteering at HAI working with artists with mental illness, and from then on, have worked in the outsider art field at Pure Vision Arts, AHRC, YAI and now LAND, concentrating primarily on artists with intellectual disabilities.

DM: Artists who work in progressive art studios sometimes experience a distinct moment of revelation, in which they discover that, as artists working with artists with disabilities, they're accessing a peer relationship with people with disabilities that most neurotypical individuals can't imagine, don't understand, or would even deny. Was there a particular moment in your career in this field that you can identify as pivotal, when you first realized that understanding people with disabilities through their art was a profoundly powerful and important thing?

SC: Yes absolutely. I had a moment of “revelation” when I started volunteering at Pure Vision Arts (an art studio in Manhattan for adult artists with intellectual disabilities). It occurred with an abstract artist named Alba Somoza who is quadriplegic and is non verbal. I had been working in the studio with her for over a year, observing her making her large drip paintings. Because she was non-verbal, I had limited interactions with her and spoke in short sentences, asking her yes or no questions which she was able to answer with a shake of her head.  Outside of the studio, she volunteered for an organization supporting children with CP. One day, Alba was preparing for a tour she would lead in the studio and needed to use her communication device. The device followed the direction of her eyes and responded to the tapping of her head on the chair. I distinctly remember when her assistant plugged in the device. It was quiet in the studio and suddenly I could hear Alba’s voice through the machine something I had never heard before. I was blown away by her intricate thoughts related to her art and her process. More than anything, it exposed my own assumptions and misunderstandings of disabilities. I had assumed that someone who was nonverbal must have mental impairments too. It was this moment that made me realize the boundless possibilities of artists like Alba. Since, I have become struck by how essential the medium of art is. I felt strongly that I wanted to dedicate my work to helping others negotiate their voice through art when words fell short.

Sophia with LAND artists Stephon Bryce, Christine Lewis, Michael Pellew, and Kenya Hanley

DM: As facilitators, we're always learning simultaneously as we strive to provide guidance and support to the artists we work with. We wonder, how would you describe the process of facilitation; what is your role as a facilitator and how has your understanding of it changed over time?

Studios like LAND, that service adults with intellectual disabilities, operate in a variety of ways. Over the years I have realized my preference is a hands-off model where artists receive little instruction and instead work independently using the media and subject matter of their choosing. When given this freedom, I see the quality (and authenticity) of their work increase exponentially. I prefer my role as a facilitator to be predominantly behind the scenes. My job, in addition to the roles of a day hab coordinator, is essentially one of curator and promoter. I work to increase the artists’ visibility by marketing their art to contemporary galleries, museums, fairs, and publications. Our goals as staff are to assist our artists in discovering the depths of their capabilities and passions. Instead of redirecting them from their fascinations, we are here to celebrate and encourage expanding upon them. We have an artist named Michael Pellew who is a heavy metal fanatic, making drawing after drawing of the members of Metallica, Megadeth, Slipknot, etc. As a result, we play metal in the studio. We send cards to his favorite musicians including Dave Mustaine who returned the favor with a photo of himself with Pellew’s art. The staff take him to metal concerts to see his favorite bands live. We even organized (with the help of Ace Hotel’s Ben Sisto) LAND of Metal, an entire evening of live metal music at St. Vitus in Brooklyn to celebrate Pellew and his love of music. The artists thrive in this nurturing and supportive environment, as does their work.

DM: How do you foresee Land developing or expanding over time as a progressive art studio? What sort of impact does our current post-election uncertainty, especially in this field, have on these long term goals, as well as your immediate concerns as an advocate for these artists?

SC: I believe progress primarily lies in inclusion. I have worked in a number of studios and art programs for "at risk" populations. A concern of mine is that programs like these, and the work that comes out of them, often remain in isolation. My goal is to continue to shed light on our artists’ essential cultural contributions and to move away from such insular models. I believe their art is some of the most creative, contemporary and exciting art being generated today. Through constant exposure, I hope the work produced at LAND is not just included in outsider art venues, but in contemporary art spaces as well. It’s time we diversify the artists represented in major museums, galleries and fairs! In this current political climate, I fear that our most vulnerable populations, like those with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, will be at risk of losing the services they rely on. Our program is funded entirely through Medicaid which is being threatened under the incoming administration. If I were to try find the positive in all of this, I would say it might encourage programs like LAND to find alternative and more secure funding sources. We have been astounded by the outpouring of support we have received since the election. Perhaps, in the end, we will see people getting more involved with social services like LAND.

LAND has partnered with many prominent galleries, museums, and other non-profits for the exhibition and collection of their artists' work; they will be exhibiting in the upcoming 2017 Outsider Art Fair, January 19 - January 22 at the Metropolitan Pavilion in NYC.

Sophia as depicted by Kenya Hanley. Sophia explains: “He only ever does these portraits when the sitter is wearing blue jeans and he usually signifies which train you live off of- that's why there's an A on mine.” All images courtesy Sophia Cosmadopoulos