Monday, April 20, 2009

New documentary shows how art gives some people with disabilities a voice

From The New York Times:

Judith Scott couldn’t hear or speak, yet she found a language with which to describe her inner world. Hawkins Bolden couldn’t see, yet his statues stare at you with haunted eyes. And both Royal Robertson and Ike Morgan, isolated by mental illness, communicated through paintings what they couldn’t express any other way.

These four artists, whose lives and work are the subject of a new documentary, “Make,” which is screening on Saturday evenings at 6 through May 2 at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Chelsea, belong to a category that some call outsider or self-taught artists, although these are terms that the film studiously avoids. Certainly all of them lived and made their art outside mainstream society, and Mr. Morgan, who is still living, continues to do so. But, as Frank Maresca, one of the owners of the gallery, which is also showing a group exhibition of the four artists, said, it is not their disabilities or their harrowing stories that make their work interesting.

“All of these people were born with a gift,” Mr. Maresca said, “and it was through their situations that the gift grew the way that it did.”

Their situations were extreme, to say the least. Ms. Scott — who is the most established of the four, having had museum shows and been the subject of a book, as well as another film — was born with severe Down syndrome in 1943. Her twin sister, Joyce, was developmentally normal, and as children they were inseparable. But when they were 7, their parents sent Judith to an institution, where she remained for 35 years, so isolated that for a long time her sister didn’t know if she was alive.

In the 1980s Joyce Scott located her sister, moved her to the Bay Area, where Joyce lived, and enrolled her in a workshop for artists with disabilities called the Creative Growth Art Center.

There, after showing no interest in the paints that were offered her, Judith suddenly, with no prompting, began to create strange, cocoon-like sculptures by wrapping found objects in layers and layers of multicolored yarn (pictured). She continued making these, in many variations, until she died in 2005.

A psychologist interviewed in “Make” speculates that the sculptures, which sometimes take on anthropomorphic shapes, represent memories of her childhood bond to her sister. That no one knows for sure lends her work — as with all the exhibition — an air of mystery.

To Mr. Bolden, who was blind from the age of 7 or 8 as the result of an accident, the tribal-looking sculptures that he created out of old pots, discarded kitchen equipment, pieces of carpet and other detritus found around his Memphis neighborhood were scarecrows to keep birds away from his vegetable garden.

“I think it brought him a really intense joy to scare the birds,” one of the filmmakers, Scott Ogden, said of Mr. Bolden, who was over 90 when he died in 2005. But as for whether he considered these figures art, Mr. Ogden said, “I think he didn’t even understand the question.”

Mr. Robertson, who lived in extreme poverty in Baldwin, La., and died in 1997, didn’t consider his paintings, depicting alien landings and apocalyptic disasters, art either, but a form of prophecy.

Only Mr. Morgan, whose colorful, impressionistic paintings are based on pictures in books or album covers, thinks of his work as art. Yet he also sees it as a job, the only one he had in the 25 years he spent in the Austin State Hospital being treated for schizophrenia. (He was released several years ago.) “It’s given him a sense of purpose,” Mr. Ogden said. “He spends every waking minute making art.”

For Mr. Ogden, 35, an artist who lives in Brooklyn and shows his work at Ricco/Maresca while supporting himself primarily as an art handler, “Make” is the product of a more than decade-long obsession. He was a student at the University of Texas at Austin when he encountered the work of Mr. Bolden, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Morgan at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Tex. “I just got blown away,” said Mr. Ogden, who with his baby face and few days’ stubble looks as if he should be in an indie rock band. “This stuff looked so different from what I was seeing in art school.”

He became friends with the proprietors of the gallery, Bruce and Julie Webb, former Dallas punk rock kids, as he described them, who fell in love and discovered a shared passion for old signs, carnival banners, Masonic objects and other curiosities, as well as self-taught art. Even though Mr. Ogden had little money, he started collecting. Sometimes he would watch the gallery and take care of the Webbs’ dogs in exchange for art.

Because of his fascination with Mr. Morgan’s paintings, the Webbs encouraged him to visit Mr. Morgan at the hospital in Austin, which he did. (“I was nervous,” he said, but “Ike is such a sweet guy, I felt comfortable with Ike almost instantly.”) The Webbs also took him to see Mr. Bolden in Memphis and sent him to visit Mr. Robertson in Louisiana. When he arrived, Mr. Robinson was standing on his front porch, holding a Bible and giving a sermon to the thin air. He welcomed him into his house and talked “for about six hours straight — I don’t think I said a word,” Mr. Ogden recalled, adding that because of Mr. Robertson’s deep Cajun dialect he understood only about a third of the monologue.

A few years later, in 1999, when he was in graduate school at Queens College, Mr. Ogden made a short video about Mr. Morgan. Later he filmed Mr. Bolden, with whom he had developed a friendship, and Ms. Scott, whose work was already well known. Mr. Robertson had already died, but Mr. Ogden was able to borrow footage from others who had filmed him. Through a private detective he also tracked down Mr. Robertson’s estranged wife, Adell, though it took years and several visits before she agreed to be interviewed. In 2003 he teamed up with Malcolm Hearn, a freelance editor, who helped him shape his footage into a narrative.

Mr. Maresca, who with his business partner, Roger Ricco, has been involved in the world of self-taught art for decades, said that despite the examples of a few familiar self-taught artists like Henry Darger and Martín Ramírez, it can be hard to call the art world’s attention to work that doesn’t fit into any period or movement. Ricco/Maresca did a show of Mr. Bolden’s work 20 years ago, and it “fell on blind eyes and deaf ears,” Mr. Maresca recalled. Aside from Ms. Scott, whose work now sells for tens of thousands of dollars, the artists in the “Make” film and show still lack any substantial market.

Mr. Ogden, however, is passionate about promoting their work (there is a tattoo of Mr. Robertson on his left bicep), and he hopes the film and the show, which runs through May 16, will bring it to the attention of young audiences.

The title of the film reflects its main theme: “this urge to create that is unstoppable,” Mr. Ogden said. Despite their hard lives, he added, none of the artists in the film felt sorry for themselves. “Art made a way for them to communicate with the world, whether anyone was listening or not.”