Saturday, November 5, 2011

Santa Cruz, Calif., studio hopes to build a community for artists with disabilities

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel. In the picture, artist A.J. Redmond shows some of his drawings at Claraty Arts Studio and Gallery.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - Tucked away quietly on Seabright Avenue, a short distance from the bustle of Soquel, is an inconspicuous building. If it wasn't for the small sign outside announcing it as the home of "Claraty Arts Studio and Gallery" it would be easy to keep walking.

But what Claraty Arts is doing is much bigger than the humble space it resides in. Claraty Arts is a studio for artists with developmental disabilities, and more importantly, it's a community building space for people who have often times been pushed to the wayside.

"This is probably the only group of people that aren't taught they have a history. In fact this group isn't even told they have a disability," said Andrew Pereira, executive director of Claraty Arts. "They know they're different but no one ever talks to them about it."

Pereira, along with studio manager Adam LaVoy and gallery curator Christopher Sicat, are hoping to get a conversation going about the treatment of people with developmental disabilities. Good intentions, Pereira said, are just not enough when it comes to facilitating change.

"Devalued groups go through a process and sociologists call it identity construction. It's never really been done with this sort of group so what we're trying to do [is give] these folks a space to really get to know who they are and embrace their disability," Pereria said. "We're trying to teach them is to learn about your disability, accept your disability, embrace your disability and redefine yourself, redefine a collective identity, as different devalued groups have done."

Walking into the first room of Claraty Arts, statistics and facts stand out in bright colors against clean, white walls. The viewer is immediately asked to consider the marginalization of people with developmental disabilities.

Enter the next room and you will see walls and tables displaying work by people such as Robin Blake who has completed a series called "Blind Eye," inspired by Helen Keller.

While curious passersby and interested attendees may not know what to expect from Claraty Arts, what they can expect is complex, creative and aesthetically pleasing pieces of art.

"I want people to be surprised by what they see," LaVoy said. "I know people are coming in expecting 'special art' or art that, 'well you know that one's pretty good for someone with a disability' and I think they expect everything to have an asterisk."

Pereira said that through art they've seen breakthroughs with clients, who have often times been silenced. One woman completed a series of porcelain doll paintings, a reference to a childhood where she was continually treated as fragile.

It is through such creative processes that clients of Claraty Arts have been able to express themselves, while excavating and unearthing aspects of their identity.

"Some of the contemporary art practices of today are dealing with process oriented artwork," Sciat said. "So this becomes a social sculpture in which the collective is not necessarily looking for results, for finished artwork but a continuum of creating identity through art."

But art is not just a mode of expression for the artists, it's a moment of reflection and further education.

"Trying to get that conversation going is difficult, and the art we found was a way for being to get more comfortable and ease into it," LaVoy said. "It's a really great vehicle for artists to put out their self-expression but it's a really great vehicle for people who are willing to meet them in the middle and talk about disabilities, or identity, or group construction, or what is sometimes horrific history."

Taking its name from Nell Claraty, a woman who was institutionalized at the age of 9 in Sonoma, Claraty Arts is promoting self-expression as a part of a personal and collective identity development.

"[Nell] comes from this drab gray world of the institution she was behind these walls for 70 years and then she comes to Santa Cruz and redefines herself," Pereira said. He explained that once released, her world exploded with color - she would dress herself in leopard print and purple without a second thought. "She is in a sense our muse, because it's never too late to define who you are and reject the stereotypes society may put on you."