Insights from Ari Ne'eman

Ari Ne'eman

Recently Disparate Minds had the opportunity to have an encouraging and insightful conversation with Ari Ne’eman about progressive art studios, the incredible work they do, their future, and their relationship to the disability rights movement. Ari is a hero of the movement, particularly as a champion of autism rights and autistic self advocacy; he’s the co-founder and current president of the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and was appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Council on Disability’s Policy & Program Evaluation Committee in 2009 (Ne’eman is the first autistic person to ever serve on the council).

As we’ve traveled around the country speaking with directors of progressive art studios, a common concern, almost everywhere, has been how these programs can continue as regulations regarding medicaid services change - that phasing out the practice of providing medicaid funded services in a “congregated” or “sheltered” setting could threaten their existence. Strangely, progressive art studios seem to find themselves at odds with the broader disability rights movement as a direct result of this. As we’ve researched to understand this issue, we’ve found that representatives of the disability rights movement generally just aren't aware that progressive art studios exist or familiar with their impact or importance. Other than a general awareness of the VSA (a network of providers affiliated with the Kennedy Center offering some art related services to children with disabilities), Ari also had no prior knowledge of progressive art studios, had never heard of Creative Growth or Judith Scott, and didn’t know that at the center of our culture, the art world, there’s an incredible shift occurring in the way that developmental disability is currently understood.

During our visit with Creativity Explored director Amy Taub, responding to a question about developing practices to accommodate future regulations (such as an integrated or community based model that works) said “this is what works”. Studios like Creativity Explored have, for decades, provided day programs supporting artists to have independence, agency, and place in our culture to a degree beyond the the most idealistic dreams of any other form of service provider. Championing the voices and ideas of people with disabilities in national and international forums, in public works and large-scale commercial endeavors. And yet, Taub also conceded poignantly that progressive art studios are an incredibly small fraction of medicaid providers for day or employment services.

Through exhibitions, artists like Marlon Mullen achieve a profound connection to a broader community. 

Furthermore, it’s not only studios that aren’t well known or understood among disability service providers, but art itself. The achievements of artists like Judith scott, Dan Miller, Courttney Cooper, Marlon Mullen, Julian Martin, and Helen Rae feel monumental; it’s easy to forget how small and obscure the art world really is to the majority of the population. The reality is that most people wouldn't know who Larry Gagosian or Jeff Koons are, nevermind Matthew Higgs or Andrew Edlin, even as their influence touches so many aspects of our culture. The social impact of contemporary art isn’t married to public knowledge of its agents; the average IKEA customer has likely never heard the name Donald Judd. The impact that progressive art studios have made and can make, is enormous and unprecedented in history for people with disabilities, even as the most successful examples of artists from progressive art studios remain mostly unknown.

We believe that even though progressive art studios are currently a relatively small fraction of services provided, the work they pursue is essential. We decided to reach out to Ari Ne’eman and discuss this specifically in response to his own comments on the relationship of the disability rights movement to social and cultural change. In this video Ari responds to a question about the lack of social and cultural victories made by the disability rights movement, conceding that the movement has focused on making valuable legal and policy advancements by “soft selling” the cultural and social impact that’s aspired for. He states, “We haven’t excelled at turning out large numbers of people, we haven’t excelled at winning social and cultural victories” and that the movement is “not well-geared towards winning hearts and minds”; as a result of this and the movement being insular in nature, Ne’eman says, “We don't see the broader cultural conversations about disabilities that we see in the context of other identities.”

 

Winning hearts and minds while creating broad cultural conversation is exactly what progressive art studios are doing, better than any other model for support. We conveyed to Ari the feeling expressed to us by many progressive art studios that “congregating” or “facility-based” programs are unfairly regarded to be necessarily less progressive than integrated community-based supports, arguing that although progressive art studios aren’t integrated spaces in a traditional sense, they affect integration and inclusion in their respective communities and cultures through exhibitions, which ultimately provide a categorically more authentic presence for the voices and ideas of artists with disabilities than simply being physically present does.  

We also argue that even though integration is possible and is being pursued by several studios, it may not be without a cost to the studio’s effective functioning, as well as their social impact.  Currently, we argued, these studios are emerging in the contemporary art conversation as a new model for artists’ careers and development, and it’s important that this movement belongs to artists with disabilities and their respective studios. Even ignoring the practical disadvantages of transitioning to a system in which artists with disabilities rent studio space to work alongside neurotypical artists (with facilitators visiting to work with them as job coaches), this is a change that would undermine these artists’ ability to make a case for their place in history not only as artists who are successful despite disability and receiving services, but as artists for whom being disabled and receiving services is an integral part of their identity, their lives, and their creative practice. These artists’ disability and dispositions as recipients of services should be understood as a legitimate cause to congregate as artists, because it should be understood as a legitimate way of being.

The studio at the Center For Creative Works in Philadelphia PA is a rich creative community

Ari’s response to this was encouraging and compelling. He expressed that integrating progressive art studios wouldn't have to mean eliminating the studio itself, or even depriving it of its identity as a space for artists with disabilities, it just needs to also be open to artists without disabilities who aren’t paid supports. Ari explained that this isn’t just about the social impact of integration, but also how integration affects the delivery of services. This is something easy to forget, as our focus has been on the handful of studios who are the most progressive and successful in the world, where delivery of services isn’t a concern.  Looking more broadly, that there are a great many programs who provide art, even in an open studio setting that aren’t as effective as they should be - who are not as organized, progressive, or person-directed as they should be. It’s undeniable that the quality of services provided by staff would, as a whole, be better if staff were also working with neurotypical artists. In this sense, it’s impossible to deny that if all service providers providing day programs were required to be open and appealing to neurotypical artists using their space alongside artists with disabilities, they would be forced to use more progressive practices. It’s significant that this idea only makes any sense for art studio programs - they’re the only kind of day program that would be appealing to neurotypical artists if they become open to them.

Ari explained that there has been a focus on integrating and improving residential and employment services more than day services, and he committed to us that he’ll keep progressive art studios in mind as attention shifts to day services. In response to our description of the progressive art studio model, Ne’eman emphasized a few key points that will be important going forward:

  • Focus on benefit to the individual served

Although the social and cultural impact of progressive art studios and their artists is important, it should never be prioritized over benefit to the individual. This means facilitating and supporting career management in a way that always prioritizes the artist’s wants and needs above all other concerns, including social impact, or benefit to the program or its staff. This means not exhibiting or selling an artist's work if they don't want it exhibited or sold, even if that exhibition would provide valuable exposure for the program as a whole. This also means being very careful about collaborative projects, which are often regarded as a good way to connect with the community, but which could also present a high risk for exploitation.

  • Severability of services

The relationship of the program to the artist needs to be such that the artist is able to continue their life and career even if they chose to use another provider. This is a concern that stems from problems identified in residential services in which service providers are also landlords, so ending or changing services means moving out of their home.  

For progressive art studios this has important implications in two dynamics of the model. One is ownership of the artists’ works - both physical inventory and as intellectual property.  Agreements have to be very clear from the start about how this is managed in the event that an artist chooses to stop being a part of the studio or move to a different studio. The other dynamic is the marriage of habilitation/care services and art facilitation/career management services. Having artists work with artists in the studio is essential, so the dual role of artist staff as facilitators and direct care or habilitation staff is an ideal arrangement. The principle of severability of services would seem to  also require that the artist should be able to continue to use the studio even if they prefer to use a different provider for rehabilitation services, or if they chose to discontinue their habilitation or care services. The latter is arguably more essential, and certainly more feasible, as it would simply require that the artist pay for their use of the studio by some other means, as neurotypical artists using the studio would in an integrated arrangement.

  • Eliminating scheduling of regular hours

One of the essential aspects of a progressive art studio described by Lawrence Rinder in discussion of the Create exhibition was that the artists work in the studio during “hours which reflect the common work hours, five days a week 9-5”.  However, artists shouldn’t be in agreement with the studio to attend at certain times as they would attend work or school, but may set goals to invest a particular amount of time and devise plans that use a schedule to meet that goal. In practice, this seems to boil down to a mere matter of language, but it’s based on an important principle; artists in progressive art studios aren’t paid an hourly rate, so they can’t obliged to attend particular hours. Attendance policies or schedules that have a compulsory feeling are left over from less progressive models - an artist's use of the studio should be understood as self-motivated.

The most encouraging insight from this conversation was that the future of progressive art studios may be not only to sustain as regulations change, but to broaden scope and expand as a new definition of what day programming is. If studios are understood not as part of an outmoded form of service, but as the examples of the ideal model for a still relevant and important one, then day programs in general can be redefined, no longer as places where people with disabilities are accommodated, but as spaces for creativity, in which a truly neurologically diverse group of creative people congregate to utilize tools, materials, and work space with guidance and support as needed - spaces that are for expression, entrepreneurship, and all manner of making, whose existence is a statement about the essential relationship of diversity to productivity as paragons of the most extreme expression of those principles.

Full Life

full life

Full Life in Portland, Oregon (founded by Rachel Bloom in 2004) is a unique and dynamic program whose methods are informed by client choice with more depth and ambition than most service providers of any kind that we have encountered. Full Life is funded as a day program and receives no private donations; they’re technically for-profit, although profits tend to go only into the development of more programming. 

Full Life began as an open art studio and is still centered around this format, but now offers a wide range of daily recreational and vocational programs including work in their own “Happy Cup” Coffee Shop, janitorial assignments, employment in a greenhouse and chicken farm, and a wide range of creative arts classes and projects, among many other options. The Full Life staff, a team of 20+ creative people, are all given agency to develop and introduce new programming and opportunities to offer. The schedule is incredibly diverse (and in constant flux), initiating and retiring activities organically. Because staff working directly with individuals are also involved in developing the programming, what is offered (and when) can be constantly tracked based on demand and interest. The art studio portion of the facility is always open for clients to come to between projects or when they lose interest in a project they’re signed up for. 

The program serves around 160 individuals who attend five days per week, split fairly evenly into two 5 hour shifts (morning and afternoon) with a one hour overlap. Their most impressive achievement is that they offer this wide range of opportunity to their large community of clients with incredible flexibility. Each person chooses his or her daily activities at Full Life (not only with a team in an annual or quarterly planning meeting, but independently every day).

This scheduling board hangs in the reception area; the programming offered is updated daily and each person comes to the reception desk in the morning to plan their day - their name is written under the activities that they wish to attend and then staff use this schedule to understand their own schedules for the day. Opportunities on the board include everything from paid employment in the community to foosball tournaments and karaoke.

Steve the Program Director states “everyone has the right to work, if they want to”, elaborating that an individual granted a subsidy to live on due to unique social, physical, and intellectual struggles should be offered opportunities, but not forced to be employed if they’re satisfied with an unemployed life. Full Life is committed to offering individuals the opportunity to excel in whatever manner suits them, rather than attempting to encourage them to be excellent in some consensus paradigm of what it means to be productive or employed. An individual decides whether or not to work each morning and everybody is encouraged to do well in whatever they choose to do. Ultimately, in spite of this unconventional approach to considering employment, Full Life offers about as much traditional employment as any program of its size serving a comparable population. 

The question of whether art is understood as recreation or career isn’t answered by Full Life, but is instead determined by the ambition of each artist. Full Life sells some artwork, but customers are almost exclusively Full Life staff. Artists are permitted to take works home and to make artwork as gifts for friends.

An important lesson to take away from Full Life is the depth of meaning that some of the projects achieve as a result of the cultivation of a community driven by individual choice. Although they don’t tend to produce cohesive bodies of work for exhibition, they do complete works that have deeply understood meaning within the context of the Full Life community.  A large, collaborative, and ever-changing window display is a voice of the community, that is for many a more intuitive way to speak to the outside than a delicately presented gallery exhibition.

These championship belts also play an important role in foosball tournaments that staff person Rob Gray describes as “a very big deal around here.”  Works like these can be viewed as art objects, somewhat like aboriginal masks in a museum case, where the intensity and adoration with which they are crafted could be well understood and respected. But within the realm of Full Life, they have a greater and clearer meaning than they could really achieve elsewhere. Because work is allowed to be entirely personal, many works are kept by the artists or created for a particular person; one could likely collect from the staff offices a very endearing collection of works.

This philosophy grants the freedom for the facility to become an art studio in a more natural sense. It’s a place that not only creates projects, but also explores ideas. Staff are empowered to develop programming at any time and are therefore able to devise projects that respond to the concerns and interests of the artists in the moment. Some projects are intended to develop skills and introduce concepts that empower, others resemble something more like a collaboration between staff and artist (truly between artist and artist). The result is a committed team of staff, an empowered and satisfied group of clients, and an exceptionally strong culture of mutual respect. There are truly beautiful examples of artists enabled to achieve excellence,  such as the poetic works of Marvin Asino, who is supported by Full life to participate in readings and access local creative writing communities. The culture cultivated by Full Life’s deeply person-directed methodology is described by the various creative projects they produce collaboratively, whose sole function seems to be expression of their community, such as this video, “when you least expect it”

Progressive Practices: Materials, Archives, and Inventory

“I am glad that I had the guts to make these things, and that people like them, because I want them to live for a long time after I am gone.” - Patrick Hackleman 

A remarkable aspect of the progressive art studio history is their independent emergence across the world. Creative Growth in Oakland, California is widely regarded to be the first; they were among the first to be established (Gateway Arts in Brookline, MA was founded shortly before) and they were, by far, the first to break into the art market and support artists that are recognized nationally and internationally. However, the relationship of this first program to subsequent programs elsewhere doesn't strictly follow the typical narrative of a pioneering idea. Their legacy is significant; Franz and Elias Katz went on to establish Creativity Explored and NIAD, and many programs have looked to the bay area as they developed (utilizing the example of Creative Growth as a proof of what's possible with this model). However, versions  comparable to the progressive art studio are widespread and usually come into being without any knowledge of Creative Growth or any other studio. It has been and continues to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. 


Art-making is an intuitive and fantastically effective solution to many of the issues that various service providers for adults with developmental disabilities strive to resolve. As those of us who work within the field understand, the endeavor to provide the least restrictive environment isn’t a merely passive endeavor, It requires a proactive, thoughtful, and ambitious effort to provide not just a safe space, but also  independence, validation, and opportunities to make valued contributions in the community. In a setting based on these aspirations, art-making is a perfect answer, and in some form it tends to be introduced at some point, but in most cases with woefully insufficient ambition or perspective. 


Once art is introduced in settings comparable to day programs, a door opens and an important opportunity emerges. From that point on, the success of the program is dependent on how much the staff believe in the potential of the works created to be great, meaningful, and valuable - and how they express that belief. The degree of belief spans a vast spectrum, at one end the artist’s potential is overlooked entirely as they’re encouraged to waste time by following step-by-step instructions to create mediocre craft objects, and at the other end their potential is hindered only by the limitations that the art itself has to be great - a limit that has not yet been discovered by anyone ever. How a progressive art studio demonstrates respect for their artists and belief in their potential is first expressed in tangible terms - how the work is handled and presented (in not only exhibitions, but at all times). The standard of these practices sets the tone for every aspect of the studio’s functioning, permeating the culture of the organization and influencing how the artists perceive their own work and potential.

Because progressive art studios don’t necessarily emerge with the intention of becoming fine art organizations, and often exist within larger organizations for which fine art has not been a part of their history or culture, they tend to reside within a system that isn’t prepared to understand the process of maintaining an art practice. As a result, many basic concepts such as the nuanced quality of materials or the concept that a great piece can be ruined very easily, aren’t broadly understood. Advocating for respecting the work and believing in its potential must be a constant effort, on every level, from the working culture within the studio, to the relationship between the studio and both its parent organization and the community; every choice has to adhere to clear principles with great conviction.  

The Canvas' Jeff Larabee working with a selection of archival markers and surfaces 

The Canvas' Jeff Larabee working with a selection of archival markers and surfaces 

High Quality Materials      
The first expression of belief in and respect for our artists’ endeavors is the investment we make in the materials provided. High quality art materials are expensive and great art can be made using very inexpensive materials; Henry Darger and Joseph Yoakum created amazing bodies of work in this manner. However, their work has yellowed and faded over time, with restoration efforts already being utilized to preserve their original integrity. The principle that a studio should follow is to use the highest quality archival and lightfast materials feasible for each artist; this must be a highly individualized facilitation process. New, very prolific artists, or artists who haven’t yet matured in their practice may work with student grade materials, but it’s not unreasonable to provide a very expensive sheet of handmade paper to someone who routinely spends months dedicated to completing a single drawing. 

A program should strive to develop a budget capable of maintaining a baseline for quality of materials that, at a minimum, accounts for archival integrity while also allowing room for larger investments in artists who demonstrate promise. As often as possible, these investments and the precious nature of materials should be communicated to the artists. Learning to be attentive to the distinctions in quality and craftsmanship of tools and materials is an important aspect of being a visual artist; developing reverence for a beautiful surface or rich pigments can be an important step in an artist's development. 

Great Photo Documentation and an Archival System
For a progressive art studio to create a clear and complete archive of works is an ongoing  difficult and time consuming task; even medium or small sized programs easily produce hundreds of individual works each month. No other kind of art organization has such a labor-intensive professional archiving process as the progressive art studio; art schools produce a lot of work without storing or documenting it and galleries, museums, and private collections preserve and document large quantities of works, but they aren't created in house. Therefore, developing a great system to achieve this inevitably requires a bit of thought and innovation. Much like great materials, an archival system can be a huge investment (including proper lighting and camera equipment), but the benefits are equally huge.  

The best and most thorough studio archive project we’ve encountered is NIAD’s inventory, which is available to view online in the form of a Tumblr blog - a great resource for what an inventory should ultimately look like. At first glance, it gives you an impression of the program overall, listing works by all artists, with the most recent work at the top. What makes it really powerful, though, is its searchability. You can search a specific artist's name to access their complete body of work, as well as search by medium or year. 

Marlon Mullen's work in NIAD's online archive 

Marlon Mullen's work in NIAD's online archive 

There are many ways to achieve a similar system offline. The key is that each work have a distinct identity - a unique accession number that’s included in the filename of the digital image and physically written inconspicuously on the back of the work. These numbers can then be used to store Information about the work, including artist name, title, medium, size, framed or unframed, and whether it’s currently part of the inventory or sold previously in a simple searchable document (database or spreadsheet) separate from the images. This can be great resource for the program to track its own progress, to be aware of and critical about its trends. 

An archive such as this makes the difference between being perceived and dismissed as a space for recreation or therapy, and being recognized and revered as a powerful and productive cultural institution. It’s also an extremely beneficial resource for gallerists, collectors, curators, and the press, providing convenient access to an impressive collection of incredible bodies of work.  

As important as these pragmatic benefits are, though, is the statement and attitude implicit in developing an impressive archive is more important; the work is either treated as if it’s worth documenting, or as though it is not.

A Clean, Ordered Storage Space and Clean, Careful Handling Practices

Many years ago I worked with a young woman who was caught up in a network of behavior modification obsessed service providers carefully executing “proven” methods to move arbitrary behavioral metrics incrementally. Regretfully, I was never able to fully support her to escape this pseudo scientific culture she was immersed in, but I was able to have her attend our studio for a few days a week, where she was provided with beautiful sheets of pristine drawing paper, on which she made fantastic drawings that were subsequently stored away carefully. During this period of time I visited her home, a state owned “intensive care facility.”  Standing in her living room, I was struck by what the the physical nature of the space asserted about the relationships existing within. There were small thrift store artworks hung weirdly high on the wall out of reach, thick glass brick windows, and a tv bolted to a quaint, wooden piece of furniture that was also bolted to the floor with a simple, but sturdy iron armature holding a sheet of 1.5” thick plexiglass in front of the screen, to protect it.

The contrast between the sensibility of this environment and the practice of giving her that valuable, delicate sheet of drawing paper, not only without protecting it from her, but with the presumption that when she was finished, it would be greatly more delicate and valuable than before, could not be more stark (and for home staff accompanying her to the studio, this notion was downright counterintuitive). This example is extreme, but defines a stigma that proves to be a significant barrier to any progressive art studio, especially those that exist as a part of a larger service provider. Day hab programs tend to be spaces defined by a preoccupation with safety, filled with reinforced or disposable versions of ordinary objects. Assembly workshop programs avoid jobs that entail the creation of delicate products or handling of delicate parts. In a setting that fashions itself to be a productive environment, the stereotype that those with disabilities are clumsy and careless is insidiously destructive. Progressive art studios’ designs and intentions aren’t just divergent from traditional programs for people with disabilities, but are actually opposed to and incompatible them; as much as they resemble day programs in form, they are, in almost every dynamic, the exact opposite. 

The inventory at  Grace  Studio in Hardwick, Vermont. In addition to providing access to art to people with disabilities in their community, Grace owns the estate of the late Gayleen Aiken, who previously worked there. Grace received a grant specifically to provide their staff with professional training in handling and maintaining their collection.

The inventory at Grace Studio in Hardwick, Vermont. In addition to providing access to art to people with disabilities in their community, Grace owns the estate of the late Gayleen Aiken, who previously worked there. Grace received a grant specifically to provide their staff with professional training in handling and maintaining their collection.

A well-maintained and professionally handled inventory of works makes an important statement against this stigma. Progressive art studios need to learn how to handle, package, and store work with the utmost care, not only for obvious practical purposes, but for the sake of the principles that these practices stand for. The understanding that people with developmental disabilities can also create precious art objects worth treating with the highest standards of care is essential to the vision and message.

Like a great archival system, a robust, dependable inventory opens doors for progressive art studios and their artists. A well cared for body of work is an infinitely more compelling proposition to a gallerist than a handful of works carelessly piled onto shelves, stuffed into flat files, or hung arbitrarily on the studio walls. One of the most prevalent, troubling, and confusing phenomenons we discovered during studio visits across the country was artists who were invested in art-making for years having almost no inventory or documentation of work to show for it. 

Julian Martin

  

Untitled (motorbike), pastel on paper, 15" x 11", 2014

Untitled (White on Cream), pastel on paper, 15" x 11 1/4", 2010

Untitled (Orange Shape and Khaki), pastel on paper, 15" x 11 1/4", 2010

Untitled (parrot), pastel on paper, 15" x 11", 2014

Like other progressive art studio artists at the Outsider Art Fair, Julian Martin works from found imagery culled from magazines (often art publications). Whereas Helen Rae pushes found imagery to greater levels of complexity and reality, and Marlon Mullen and Andrew Hostick retell images in their own vocabularies, Martin pares the image down to a series of perfectly resolved moments in which a series of forms (each powerful and resolved in their own right), is described with an abundance of velvety pastel marks applied deliberately and seamlessly with a deft touch. Martin achieves a ubiquitous softness - soft colors, shapes, surfaces, and materials, yet always precise and controlled in application, saturating the surface while maintaining the boundaries of each form with conviction.

Initially, Martin’s work seems aesthetically akin to the work of many young artists currently revisiting concepts of early abstraction with suggestions of the figure, such as Brooklyn-based painters Austin Eddy and Tatiana Berg. However, where these artists revisit and re-imagine the ideas of artists like Picasso and Dubuffet, who were themselves appropriating the aesthetics of outsiders, Martin is the real thing. Not in that he is a “real outsider” (at this point Martin is quite well established professionally, certainly as much an insider as any artist living and working in Melbourne), but rather that his works, in sum, lack any tone of irony or nostalgia; the strength of resolution that each of Julian Martin’s drawings finds is achieved through a minimalist’s sensibility, preoccupied with the absolute rather than a historical context, more comparable to Malevich, Gottlieb, or Mondrian than Cubism or Art Brut.

The proposition underlying Martin's work seems to be that a found image may, inevitably or inherently, possess a more perfect resolution that can be exposed through a measured and thoughtful process of reduction. Unlike Mondrian, the absolute is not found in total abandonment of the original, but in the poetic and specific distillation of the identity and expression of the image.

Martin has attended Arts Project Australia in Melbourne since 1988 and has exhibited extensively at various venues in Melbourne since 1990. He has also shown previously at Fleisher/Ollman (Philadelphia), several Outsider Art Fairs (NYC), Museum of Everything (London), MADMusée (Belgium), Phyllis Kind Gallery (NYC), Jack Fischer Gallery (San Francisco), among others. Martin is represented by Fleisher/Ollman and Arts Project Australia.

 

Louis DeMarco

Fear Love

Cloud Chart

Halo Chart

Hank the Hawk

Louis DeMarco is a Chicago-based artist who has been making art at Project Onward since 2005. His works manifest bits and pieces of a robust alternate reality of his own invention, serving as the basis for creative endeavors of all kinds. The ideals of this other world seem to be characterized by clarity and definition, both aesthetically and conceptually. It’s a place without chaos but not without evil, and where the intangible becomes tangible, concrete, sortable, and clearly arranged. Each work provides new insight into this other place and as the endeavor proceeds, it’s a vehicle for the charismatic and poetic voice of its author. 

“A natural comedian, DeMarco infuses humor into serious topics such as disappointment, anxiety, paranoia and relationship negotiations through his series of “Words to Live By” signs, executed in a brilliantly colored Simpsons-esque palatte. Originally a riff on Tom Hanks’ character’s terminal illness (a “brain cloud”) in the comedy classic Joe Versus the Volcano – charting and mapping continue in DeMarco’s popular Cloud Chart series, which catalogs “bad states”, followed later by a series of antidotes (“positive states”) in the Halo Chart series.

DeMarco is also an accomplished bass player for the rock band DHF Express, fronted by fellow Project Onward artist Adam Hines. DeMarco writes original lyrics and music and is developing several screenplays for musicals and comedies. He joined Project Onward in 2005 and currently lives in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood.” (more)

FLASH tv

Below is the latest episode of Full Life’s television program FLASH tv, which includes a lot of great information about Uplife, a new inclusive community art space in Portland, Oregon. Full Life is a singular and wonderful program also located in Portland (see our overview here).

FLASH tv, produced by the Full Life Allstars and Rob Grey, is the most successful outlet for creative performance we’ve discovered at a progressive art studio. The charming, low budget production has an open-ended concept (including sketches, interviews, and absolutely anything else that they come up with), creating a context for new ways of thinking about and engaging in performance, as well as documenting real life experiences. Like many Full Life projects, FLASH tv doesn't produce a marketable art product, but instead demonstrates something more profound about the ideals of the progressive art studio through a pure and focused commitment to tapping into the rich, creative minds of the artists.

all 36 episodes of FLASH tv are available right here: http://www.flashtvpdx.com/

Chris Mason

 

 

Ebony and Ivory holding up peanut butter and jam on toast and milkshakes, modeling material, 2014

Not Titled (woman with snake skin shoes), ceramic, 290mm x 230mm x 250mm

Not titled (woman with snake) , ceramic, 260mm x 170mm x 230mm

Not titled (woman with snake), ceramic, 260mm x 170mm x 230mm

Not titled (standing nude), ceramic, 200mm x 220mm x 140mm

Bare Butt in a Beanie, modeling material, 13 x 21 x 15.5cm

Chris Mason’s small-scale sculptures describe his subjects with adoringly realistic attention to the nature of their forms. In miniature, he achieves the weight and feel of flesh in a manner that’s simultaneously idealized and strikingly true to life. Mason has had an active and accomplished career in Australia and exhibited previously in New York, Chicago, and Paris. Mason has been working at Arts Project Australia, a progressive art studio in Melbourne, since 1998.  From Arts Project Australia:

“Chris Mason is an accomplished artist in a variety of media, including painting, drawing and ceramics. His eclectic subject matter ranges from trains and aircraft to mermaids and voluptuously large women. Mason has a demonstrated ability to render the exterior and underlying structure of the female body, particularly in his sculptural work. Mason has a passion for writing stories that often relate directly to the themes in his art making and this sense of narrative is apparent in his work.” (see More)

John Patrick McKenzie

John Patrick McKenzie has been working at Creativity Explored in San Francisco since 1989; we were able to meet him briefly during our tour of the Creativity Explored studio last year.  He's has an exceptionally reserved and focused character, and didn't allow our visit to distract his attention away from a methodical and specific preparation of his work-space. McKenzie's works on paper are the perfect expression of a wonderfully inventive sense of humor that couldn't be expressed otherwise. His text, color choices, repetition, and occasional incoherence all contribute to a poetic charisma that is profoundly endearing.  From Creativity Explored:

"Swirling, multi­angled, and disorienting, the placement of his language comments on the contradictory, sometimes overwhelming, nature of media attention and celebrity.  McKenzie’s original script and arrangement of text are tactile examples of his interpretation of the world, and can be both hilarious and poignant. " (more)

Spindleworks

Established 1978, Brunswick, Maine

Spindleworks, a fantastic and accomplished progressive art studio in Brunswick, Maine, was not one that we were able to visit in the course of our research trip last year. Spindleworks is unique from most other studios in that it offers woodworking and has a rich history of Fiber Arts such as wool spinning and weaving. Below is our conversation with Spindleworks' program supervisor, Brian Braley.

Disparate Minds: How did Spindleworks get started initially and how has it developed/progressed in the time you've been there? What are your current goals? What are your long-term goals?

Brian Braley: “We’re trying to prove that people with this unique handicap have a unique vision because of this handicap, a vision that can be presented artistically in a way that is valuable to everyone.” - Nan Ross 1978

Spindleworks was started in the late 1970's by Nan Ross, a weaver and writer from Brunswick. At the advent of deinstitutionalization in Maine it became quite clear that individuals with intellectual disabilities needed a positive alternative that would allow for self-expression, and creativity. At a time when adults with intellectual disabilities were hidden away, and denied rights, Nan believed that creative expression could serve as a method to give voice to their unique perspectives. The initial 6 artists learned to spin and dye wool, and eventually began to work in various fiber media such as rug hooking. Although there is still a strong fiber presence at Spindleworks, we now offer programming in painting, woodworking, sculpture, weaving, embroidery, music, photography, printmaking, video, and theater.

The creative voice of Spindleworks’ artists has also grown over the years and has proven to be an unstoppable force; the artists have developed a reputation of producing high quality work through numerous exhibits including the Portland Museum of Art, Space Gallery, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. Spindleworks hosts a variety of exhibitions throughout the year including juried community shows, themed exhibits, theater productions, installations, and collaborations. One of these collaborative projects is the annual All Species Parade which was created in partnership with Arts Are Elementary (a program that incorporates visiting artists into school curriculum). The parade engages community involvement through the creation of costuming and floats in celebration of the diversity of the planet’s species.  Through the parade and annual exhibit Spindleworks has raised thousands of dollars for a local animal shelter.

We continue to seek the creative and professional growth of the artists we serve.  This is achieved through professional development curriculum that includes portfolio prep, resume writing, business card creation, public speaking, and self advocacy.  Being a professional artist is and should be a career choice for adults with disabilities; many of our artists make more money creating art than they did while holding other jobs in the community. These financial benefits are very important for the artists as the employment options are generally limited in the rural setting in which we reside. Program artists receive 75% of the proceeds from the sale of their art and the remaining 25% goes back to fuel our supply budget. Our long and short term goals are sustainability. We are not currently seeking extensive growth, but want to focus our efforts on generating consistent funds to ensure that we can continue to maintain a safe and beneficial environment for the artists in our community to fulfill their independence.

DM: About how many total artists with disabilities do you support in your studio? Also, how often do they attend and how much time is spent in the studio per day?

BB: We currently support 49 artists from the surrounding Mid-coast and Central Maine area. On a typical day we have as many as 30 artists in attendance. Artists participate in anywhere from 1-5 days a week depending on their desire and approved funding. Our program is a 5 hour day from 9-2 M-Thursday and 9-1 on Fridays. In 2011 Spindleworks started a sister program Spinoff Studios located in Gardiner, Maine which currently supports 18 artists. Spinoff has a morning and an afternoon shift totaling 4 hours each.

DM: How do artists served by Spindleworks find out about and become involved in the art program?

BB: We are well known in the community due to various collaborative efforts with local businesses, galleries, events, and other nonprofits. Additionally, we frequently get referrals from case managers, community members, volunteers, and friends. The artists themselves are our best spokespeople; many of our artists have created their own business cards and use them to talk about their art and our program. We accept only artists with intellectual disabilities that have a strong creative desire. There is a several week assessment period to help determine ongoing interest and potential fit for the program.

DM: What is your philosophy with regards to artist facilitation?

BB: Spindleworks staff serve as mentors rather than teachers. We believe that program participants have an inherent ability to create art and our role is to provide the right tools and environment to promote creative growth. The key to good mentoring is observing what someone can or cannot do on their own and knowing when to offer help. By modeling professional creative practice we encourage independent thought and action, rather than attempting to dictate the creative process. We ask difficult questions which forces the artists to make their own choices, and we don’t hesitate to push the artists to reach their potential. Sometimes it takes that little push to get someone to open their peripheral vision and try new things. We are eternally patient with whatever pace ensues, and unwilling to allow anyone give in to their own doubts. We understand that despite our best efforts that we will often fail and it is through that failure that we are able to use our problem-solving abilities to overcome obstacles. Spindleworks is a non-competitive and non-judgmental environment. We encourage mutual support and maintain a peer helper chart so that program artists can share their skills with others. This has allowed artists to develop self-esteem in their abilities and has led to several artists teaching workshops with skills that they have gained from experience.     

weaving by artist Lloyd Whitcomb

DM: How do you anticipate recent cuts in state funding to impact Spindleworks and do you feel there's a successful way of counteracting this?

BB: The State of Maine is implementing a system known as the Support Intensity Scale which places a number and a value on an individual.  We fundamentally disagree with this methodology as it doesn’t measure people based on their potential. Essentially the harder we work toward someone’s creative growth, the less we would get paid for the service. We estimate that the changes would reduce our funding by 35%. It forces Spindleworks and other similar programs to do more with less. Although the impacts of these changes are not yet fully realized, we have focused much of our energies on developing an action plan to adapt. These strategies may include changing our program structure, growing our revenue stream to include additional grant and in-kind donations, and reduced operating costs through additional efficiency. In the face of these changes, we refuse to sacrifice the quality and safety of our program. We continue to advocate through our government officials the value and need for continued full funding of these important services. Unfortunately, there have been recent efforts in state government to remove the public voice from the equation so that the Department of Health and Human Services can make changes without public forum.

Artist Earl Black at the loom, All images courtesy of Spindleworks

Joe Zaldivar

"Mel's drive-in on Sunset Strip, West Hollywood."

"Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana, home of the Indianapolis Colts, and was home to this year's Final Four and the NCAA national basketball championship."

"Street map of Ferguson, Missouri including north central St. Louis county and Lambert airport area."

"Detailed street map of South Gate and Lynwood and portions of Compton, Cudahy, Downey, Paramount and Watts."

From intricate maps to extensive interiors, Zaldivar's colored pencil and marker works on paper are a spectacle of diligent truth to their various subjects - street/public transit maps, LA area landmarks, disposable local business mailers, and pop culture references. Self-taught and prolific, he has been making art since early childhood; presently he's a studio artist at First Street Gallery Art Center (part of the Tierra del Sol Foundation).  

Zaldivar recently exhibited work in Wunderkammer, an invitational group show at Pitzer College's Nichols Gallery and previously at First Street Gallery. He currently has work in Own It, a First Street Gallery benefit show at the Ginger Eliot Exhibition Center. He has also acquired several commissions from local businesses including Claremont’s Some Crust Bakery and Folk Music Center, Spaggi’s restaurant in Upland, Nate & Al’s Delicatessen in Beverly Hills, Western Rentals in Fontana, and Hamer Toyota in Mission Hills. 

 

You can follow Zaldivar and see more of his works here.

 

Larry Hurst

"Larry Hurst is a prolific and detailed painter. His paintings depict scenes of nature inspired by photographs that range from realistic to surrealist interpretations.  He is also a very talented model house builder and has produced scale models of several houses that he has lived in. Larry has been making art for over ten years and learned to paint while living in Texarkana, TX. " (See More)

Hurst is originally from Chicago, but now lives and works in Eugene, Oregon with the support of the OSLP Arts & Culture Program at the Lincoln Gallery, the recipient of a grant from the Collins Foundation, and the most recent addition to our directory.

Project Onward

Established 2004, Chicago Illinois

Project Onward was the third studio we visited in Chicago, located in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport; their stunning 13,000 square foot space includes an expansive studio and three galleries. Project Onward was founded in 2004 by Rob Lentz, Mark Jackson, and Colleen Sims, originally as a Gallery 37 program with only six artists. They quickly became recognized for the talented artists working in their studio and began serving artists throughout the city. In 2013, Lentz and Jackson relocated Project Onward to the Bridgeport Art Center after outgrowing a small studio and gallery space in The Chicago Cultural Center. After nine years as a Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs affiliated program, Project Onward became an independent non-profit that receives no state funding.

Project Onward’s philosophy and approach is distinct from other programs we’ve written about thus far. The key variance, in pragmatic terms, is that admission into the program is dependent on a portfolio review. This means that all of their artists had a creative practice of some kind prior to their involvement with the studio. Project Onward implements this model very successfully and is one of only three programs (that we’re aware of) operating this way. Most programs have basic criteria for the admission of artists; generally, they require some interest in art-making. Project Onward looks not only for interest, but commitment to an established creative practice. As service providers, most progressive art studios are obliged to provide support to as many people as possible who may benefit from their model - the goal is to facilitate individuals with creative tendencies and interests in developing creative practices.

David Holt's work space in the Project Onward studio 

Project Onward’s engagement with its artists, however, is more comparable to that of a gallerist than a service provider, focusing on professional development, exhibition opportunities, and marketing support. For the past year the studio has been completely independent from the task of human services (including Medicaid Waiver funding); thus far they’ve been quite successful in art sales, achieving visibility, and fundraising. They also received a seed grant which covered all costs for the first year. When seeking private donations, they emphasize the promise of supporting artists to create high quality artwork. For the future, their goal is to pursue business partnerships, new revenue streams, and foster opportunities for their artists that extend beyond the studio - residencies, teaching artists, etc. 

In our conversation with Artistic Director Rob Lentz, he asserted that Project Onward’s role isn’t compatible with day habilitation. The incredible work created by artists at Project Onward makes a very strong case for the power of this model. Walking through their galleries, it’s undeniable that a high standard of excellence is present (during our visit work was on view by Michael Bryant, Adam Hines, and Sereno “Glitterman” Wilson), which results in the ideal environment and culture that progressive art studios should strive for. The most important insight to be gained by other studios from Project Onward is the importance of ambition and rigorous criticism, if not in admission process then certainly in facilitation methods.

An installation of drawings on cardboard by Adam Hines. Hines has an inventory of over 6,000 works.

In defense of service provision in the progressive art studio (the ambition to inspire new artists with disabilities to develop creative practices), it should be noted that there are many great artists who would have no studio practice in the absence of initial support and guidance in the studio. Judith Scott, arguably the most successful artist to emerge from a progressive art studio, didn't have one prior to her involvement with Creative Growth (or an interest in fiber art), until she participated in a fiber art workshop at their studio.

Artists from the studio have shown previously at Judy Saslow Gallery and Intuit: Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, among other venues. Recent achievements at Project Onward include the installation of an Andrew Hall piece at the 47th Street Red Line Station in February. Hall was commissioned by the Chicago Transit Authority to create a public work for the station after his proposal was chosen over hundreds of other artists in a competitive selection process.

Sereno "Glitterman" Wilson's work space in the Project Onward studio

Project Onward hosts new exhibitions every six weeks - the current exhibitions on view are Small Wonders through April 11 and Master Builders, a “collection of meticulous blueprints, detailed models, and uncanny drawings of architectural landmarks”, through May 9.

drawing on cardboard by Michael Bryant