'I'm an artist'Creative approach: Dave not only benefits from the arts program at RHD Boston, he won a city-wide contest for his work
Dave plows the paintbrush into the canvas, drags it deliberately. He asks for another color, gets it, and drives that into the painting. Ray Garrett, his art teacher at Outside the Lines Studio in Boston, crooks an eyebrow and says: “What are you doing?”
Dave doesn't answer; he just keeps painting, brow furrowed and eyes narrowed, focused intently on the task at hand. Like every artist at OTL, he has intellectual disabilities. He talks all the time – but rarely says a word when he's painting. He'll later say that he wasn't thinking much about what he was doing, wasn't concerned with method or design. He's just painting, putting what's inside him on the canvas, and creating one of the many astounding pieces of art that come out of this studio and others like it throughout Resources for Human Development programs that are rapidly becoming leaders in the genre of outsider art.
“His stuff is really wild,’’ Garrett said. “Artists struggle sometimes to get at the thing that happens when you’re not trying to make a great piece of art. You’re just doing it. He’s not hung up on making it look good, any of that. He’s just doing it. From an academic side, you’re trying to get to that point. That's where an artist tries to be, and he's there all the time.”
The city of Somerville, in conjunction with Tufts University, recently held a contest for local artists, showcasing their work in T-stations in the city. One of Dave's paintings was selected and is now displayed at the Davis T-Stop at Tufts University – not because he has disabilities but because his art was so compelling. The judges didn't know Dave was an artist with disabilities until he showed up at the unveiling, and shook hands with the mayor.
“I like it when people look at my paintings and say: You did a good job,” Dave said.
Much of what's happening in RHD's arts programs comes from the vision of Dale Anderson, the corporate assistant director in Boston and a leading advocate of arts programs for people with intellectual disabilities.
“We’ve tried to create a place where people want to be,’’ Anderson says. “It really does broaden their horizons. People appreciate your view. When their art sells, when people take something they’ve done and frame it, when people ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over it, that is really significant for people’s self-esteem.
“Art lends itself to getting out creative juices. And people definitely feel very liberated when they feel their art is worthwhile.”
This approach produces brilliant pieces of “outsider art,” such as a monstrous painting by a client named William that takes up most of Anderson's office wall. It's so striking no one can bear to part with it.It also produces remarkable results with the artists themselves. The very nature of art helps people with disabilities in ways that more traditional day programs can't.
“They're in control of the piece they're working on,'' Garrett said. “There isn't a wrong way to do it. It's not like a day program where you're stuffing envelopes or counting hangers or whatever. There's never a time when someone tells you: Oh, you did that wrong. There's no wrong way to make art.
“The great part is when you have someone who starts by saying, 'I can’t do that. I’m not an artist.' But then you'll see them get happy about it, get psyched about it. Then you can’t stop them. They just want to do art.”
The Flying Snitches are running through their set list, the drums thumping, the guitar blasting and joyous lyrics filling the room. The Snitches, a name taken from the Harry Potter books, rock until they are pouring sweat and gasping for breath.
“Wooooooo!” exclaims Jessica, one of the singers. “I'm dying in here.”
“You're not dying,” says the guitarist, with a grin. “You're living.”
The guitarist is Ray Memery, the director of RHD Rhode Island and the driving force behind Studio 413, the arts program in Rhode Island where they are indeed living very large and breaking every barrier they can find. Memery is an accomplished musician, and brought a music and video component to the Rhode Island program that took things in staggering new directions. RHD clients can put their feelings to music, creating songs and video in addition to the art studio, and it's been a raging success.
Memery's description of the program's philosophy is this: “Push the envelope.”
“If you're going to work here, make it best job you ever had,” Memery said. “It's human services. Human. Let's make it about the people here. When you get that we’re in this together, that’s when you have a real connection. Then anything is possible. It's friendly, fun and positive.
“We make strong judgment calls. Regulations are being followed. Meds are taken care of. Our people are in a safe environment. You can come here and feel safe to be who you are. We want an upbeat environment where people are engaged and stimulated, and where you have freedom. You have a crazy idea? Let's try it. The things you enjoy doing, you can do them here.
“Be yourself. Celebrate you. Normal is boring.”
Nobody gets bored in Rhode Island's programs. There's an infectious energy in the place, and visitors walk around slack-jawed in wonder at the cutting-edge things Memery and his young and talented staff are doing. Most clients are eager to join or form a rock band. Staff members will fill in on guitar and occasionally bass, as clients sing and play the drums (Mark, a Rhode Island client, ably plays the drums for the Flying Snitches).
The songs that come out of the writing program Memery runs are staggering, in that some of them are heartrending in their poignant beauty. “Tears of Blood,” written by Bobby for From the Lungs you Breathe, tells the story of a young man trapped inside a failing body, set to heavy metal music. But it's not about depression as much as catharsis.
“Sometimes it's not all sunshine for people with disabilities,'' Memery said. “There’s anger. And fear. Poor self-image. Isolation. Depression. OK. That's in there. So get it out.
“And at the end of the day, here's a thing I can hold in my hand – a CD you can listen to, or play for other people. It's yours. You have something to show for it. That pure recognition of you – that's what art does for people.”
Jeremy is the lead singer of the Flying Snitches, and at Memery's encouragement he's taken ownership of the band – setting rehearsal times, checking the equipment, getting everyone together on schedule. He's mulling the title of the band's debut album – “The Flying Snitches Rock if it's Raining or Not” or “The Flying Snitches Take Over the World.” He talks about how much he loves music, how much fun it is.
Prompted by Memery, Jeremy tries to explain what he's learned through being in a band. He answers by saying how important it is to avoid arguing and getting mad at each other, cultivating positive energy and working together on something you care about. And he boils it down, finally, to one perfect thought:
“You always know tomorrow can be a good day,” Jeremy said.
Rhode Island does everything from painting to songwriting to video to tai chi. Just about anything they can think of, they'll try. It all springs from the same idea, that art-based programs can reach people in a unique way. The innovative step that RHD has taken across the country is hiring artists to work on staff.
“Their sole experience is in the realm of art – and we're teaching them to work with people with disabilities,” said Noal Presley, the director at RHD Missouri, which runs Blank Canvas Studios. “People with disabilities are more like us than they are different. An artist can learn the skills to work with our support staff. But it's hard for a social worker to learn to be an artist. I mean, I can't draw stick figures. So that's what we have here in our arts program – artists creating other artists.”
In Rhode Island, Nate Carroll, RHD Rhode Island's arts coordinator works with a young man named Billy who churns out drawing after drawing of different kinds of trucks. He runs out of paper, and goes through supplies until he's using whatever is at his fingertips to draw on whatever he can find.
“His work is phenomenal,” Carroll said. “It's psychedelic and wonderful. It's wild. This is the kind of thing that develops organically; they tell us what they want to do, whatever their creative outlet is, and they use it to express themselves. You can do anything here; make a mess, spill paint, get clay all over yourself. Sometimes really interesting art will come out of it. And sometimes you'll have that 'eureka moment' where something really cool happens.”
Carroll gestures at a young man across the room.
“When he first came in here, he didn't say a word. He sat in the corner and cried. He was so shy. Now he comes in and he's high-fiving everybody, he gets on stage and sings. He's a really active, social member of the community. It's pretty amazing.”
That's a common story, the way art brings people out and engages them. An artist in Boston named Jose was battling intellectual disabilities so severe that when he first began working in the arts program he wouldn't paint or do anything except retreat to a corner, pull his coat over his head and hide. In September he had a gallery show. A crowd attended, his art sold, and a young man who used to never say a word walked around beaming as people gushed about his art.
“It's good,” Jose said. “I'm glad.”
As other RHD clients milled around the show, a young woman named Susan introduced herself. For years when she talked to people she'd say “I'm a client.” Today she says with a big smile: “I'm an artist.”
“That's what art can do,'' Anderson said, with a smile. “It totally changed her identity.”