The intersection between disability and the arts

Thursday April 4, 2013


Arts Editor

BENNINGTON -- The mission of the newest exhibits at Bennington Museum are similar, to show the intersection of the art world and disabilities. But "Engage," which is curated by Greensboro-based artist Paul Gruhler for VSA Vermont takes a different tactic than the Bennington Museum companion exhibit, "More Like You Than Not." Both on display now at the Bennington Museum.

On Saturday, April 6, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. the museum will waive its entrance fee for Community Day, a series of free events for "Engage" and "More Like You Than Not."

The day is broken up into three main events: Gallery Talks with Bennington Museum Curator Jamie Franklin from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; an artist reception with light refreshments for some of the artists from "Engage," VSA Vermont representatives and Gruhler from 2 to 4 p.m.; and an artist panel moderated by Franklin from 4 to 6 p.m., during which four artists from "Engage" and "More Like You Than Not" will discuss art and their experiences with it.

"I want to be sure to avoid the trap of focusing on their illnesses, because the shows are really about their art. And I really want their art to be at the forefront," Franklin said. "I think we need to allow the works to speak from themselves sometimes."

‘More Like You Than Not'

"More Like You Than Not" takes its name from a quote by artist Larry Bissonnette, who is featured in the exhibit. Franklin scoured two centuries worth of art by people with disabilities to put together the exhibit. Each piece is paired with information about the artist including their disability, if the information is available, since some of the artists are from 19th century asylums and were never properly diagnosed.

"I had been researching work created by individuals who had been institutionalized in the 19th century," Franklin said. "Particularly individuals with mental illness and were creating artwork in the context of asylums in the 19th century."

While the exhibit contains the works of several outsider artists (pieces by people without training who do not consider themselves artists), it is not made up strictly of them.

"There are many outsider artists who have disabilities and many of these artists would be considered outsider artists," Franklin said. But not all of them are, he added.

"This exhibition includes artists who had major physical handicaps there's a whole section devoted to artists with mental illness who were institutionalized in the 19th century, though the clinical and scientific definitions of various mental illnesses were far from being well understood back then and people were often institutionalized for a wide range of reasons of which we don't often know why these people were institutionalized," Franklin said.

The third section of the exhibit is dedicated to progressive studios. Progressive studios are art groups that work with those who were held in institutions or were formerly referred to as "retarded" or "developmentally disabled." One such group featured is the Grass Roots Art and Community Effort, GRACE, out of the Northeast Kingdom, started in 1975 by artist Don Sunseri, who became disillusioned with the art world, according to Franklin, and moved to Vermont , where he worked in a convalescent home.

"(Sunseri) saw the potential of all of the people around him," Franklin said. "And instead of giving them art classes, what he did was he provided them with art supplies and he provided them with space and he provided them with encouragement and then he let them go at it. And that model has been followed now by dozens if not hundreds of organizations around the country and around the world."

One such GRACE artist was Bissonnette, an autistic man who communicates through a process known as supported typing.

"He's an incredibly articulate and poetic communicator, (though) his verbal communication is almost nonexistent, but he communicates beautifully through typing," Franklin said.

"That method has really made the inner thoughts of people available for the first time," VSA Vermont executive director Judith Chalmer said of supported typing.

Another GRACE artist featured in the exhibit is Gayleen Aiken, who was never formally diagnosed.

"(Aiken) is probably one of the most famous or well known of the artists in this exhibition, (she) came to recognition through GRACE," Franklin said.

Aiken, who died in 2005 at the age of 71, was recently featured in the New York Times for an exhibition of her work in New York City.

"It's always difficult. Because everyone operates on different levels at different capacities at different points in their life so I always try to hold myself back when I try to make some sort of qualitative statement about how she was," Franklin said. She was a very happy person though, he added.

‘Engage' and VSA Vermont

"Engage" takes a slightly different approach to showing the work of artists with disabilities. Each piece is displayed without information about the disabilities of the artists, except for some cases where the condition is mentioned in the artist statement.

"This artwork was selected for the merit of the artwork we wanted to raise expectations," Chalmer said. "That raises the bar, raises the expectations Some artists in the ‘Engage' exhibition have told me ‘this is the first time I can be sure that they like my artwork.'"

"Engage" is designed to be appreciated by people of all abilities. Each piece is accompanied by an audio description to assist the visually impaired.

"One of the purposes of the Engage project is to really demonstrate how accessibility in the arts make the arts a richer experience for everyone," Chalmer said.

Sighted people are encouraged to use the auditory experiences as well.

"It's really what we want, for communication to work and for people to recognize each other and recognize each other's strengths and the value they bring to society," she said.

Director of public programs at the museum Deana R. Mallory said via email, "Having Engage here at the museum has been a catalyst for us to examine our accessibility, and to actively seek out ways to improve it. We have taken a big step in that direction thanks to the training we have received from VSAVT in verbal description techniques, and we are now fully prepared to offer ASL Interpretation when requested for any of our public programs. We will continue to work on things like providing label copy in Braille, and purchasing assistive listening devices, as funding becomes available. Being accessible to the broadest possible audience is a major goal of the Bennington Museum, and these exhibits have helped us make a major leap forward toward that goal."

VSA Vermont is part of the larger nationwide coalition of VSAs. Their overarching mission is to find the intersection between people with disabilities with the arts.

Also, they seek to make the arts more accessible and introduce people to artists with disabilities.

"Our purpose is to allow the arts to do their magic and really bridge communication differences," Chalmer said. "(We're) making opportunities for those with or without disabilities to enjoy what humanity does best, which is create and engage in culture together."

Other programs offered by VSA Vermont include Start with the Arts, which is helmed in Bennington by arts instructor Carol Newell. Pieces by Start with the Arts students are on display now at the Bennington Free Library through June 22 as part of their WallWorks series.

VSA Vermont also uses professional development to help teach artists and teachers to use the arts to broadly engage students.

Awareness Theater Company, is another aspect of VSA Vermont, which recently worked with nonverbal artist Mark Utter to make his play "I Am In Here," into a movie.

"Some of the scenes are difficult being dropped off at the wrong place with no way of communicating that," Chalmer said. "Some are poignant. Like not being able to tell his mother he loves her."

"I Am In Here," will be presented alongside Bissonnette's film "My Classic Life as an Artist: A Portrait of Larry Bissonnette," on April 11 at 7 p.m. at the Bennington Museum in the Ada Paresky Education Center. Both Utter and Bissonnette will be on scene during the screenings.

"Engage" began its tour at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery in Burlington, it then moved to the Catamount Arts Center in St. Johnsbury. It will finish in Bennington.

"It has been a really huge pleasure to collaborate with the Bennington museum every person on the staff has just been excited and really engaged in the process of exploring the possibilities," Chalmer said. Also at the Museum

In addition to "More Like You Than Not" and "Engage," this weekend is the Community Day for "Victorian Extreme: American Fancywork and Steampunk 1850-Now," on display now through May 27. The exhibit is made up primarily of works chosen by Franklin from the museum's permanent collection including "Bug Art," "Hair Wreaths," "Crazy Quilts" and "A Stitch in Time: Steampunk Art."

"Bug Art" is made up from almost 11,000 specimens of butterflies, moths, beetles, and ladybugs. It was created from preserved insects in honor of the 1876 centennial of the United States. The pieces featured are the "Centennial Wheel" and a portrait of George Washington.

"Hair Wreaths" is a collection of wreaths woven from materials such as feathers, leaves, seeds and even human hair. One piece of display is a wreath made from human hair in the 1850s by Angelina Estabrook of Guilford. The piece was donated by her grandsons Vincent E. and C. Raymond Squires in 1966.

"Crazy Quilts" is a collection of opulent quilts made in the 1880s from silks and velvets colored with dye. They were inspired by an exhibit of Japanese arts on display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

"Crazy Quilts," inspired the only new pieces in "Victorian Extreme," a collection of three functionally non-functional sewing machine/clocks called "A Stitch in Time." The pieces were assembled by Steampunk artists Bruce Rosenbaum of ModVic, Steve Conant of Conant Metal and Light and Steve Brook of Steampunk Fabricators." For a demonstration go to


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