Visitors to interior designer Matt Swingly’s bedroom space in the Spring 2006 Design House at The Washington Design Center were met with a pleasant surprise. Near the corner of the wall next to the bed hung a trio of Impressionistic watercolors of Washington’s most recognizable monuments: the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Each was loosely sketched and articulated in blue, white and black by Paul Lewis, a virtually unknown Washington artist. And each was a unique representation of sights we take for granted.
These images are seen through the eyes of a developmentally disadvantaged artist. Paul is autistic, and just one of the nearly two dozen artists expressing creativity through Art Enables, an arts-entrepreneurial program for adults with mental retardation and developmental or mental disabilities. Founded in 2001 by a group of artists and rehabilitation specialists, the program is committed to demonstrating that the visual arts are an important and viable avenue for self-expression and employment, particularly for people with alternative learning styles. What they produce is generally called “outsider art” because it is produced by people who are outside the influence of mainstream or academic artistic avenues. They’ve not been taught “what art ought to look like” so in many ways their art is expressed more honestly.
For many participants it is the first time they have been assessed on their abilities rather than being accommodated for their disabilities. These “natural” artists are often better able to express themselves through their art than they are in words, and within the program find an opportunity, some for the first time, to make themselves known within an enfolding community. Candidates for the program share a common history of drawing or coloring on their own initiative, and join the program because they have the desire to work at developing that in-born talent.
Joyce Muis-Lowery, executive director of Art Enables, notes that participants in the program are artistic by nature. “Some are compulsively creative, but they all have two things in common: art is comfortable for them, and they’ve had little exposure to it before this,” she says.
“These artists already have a style when they come here, and we want them to maintain their style. So we don’t teach them, per se, but we give them access to regular art equipment. We’re actually fostering every artists’ idiosyncrasies,” she adds.
Style is a big part of the charm these artists imbue in their painting. “It’s naïve, yet sophisticated,” Swingly says of the art produced at Art Enables. “Although there’s a wide range of styles represented by these artists, the most striking thing that they all have in common is the use of color. Each piece is colorful and unique, and these artists offer a completely different view of things that are so familiar to us. It gives us a fresh perspective,” he says. He also feels that this is authentic art because “these artists work through their challenges from the heart. Their expressions are real and true.”
Swingly commissioned Paul Lewis to paint specific monuments to fit in with the theme of the Spring Design House based on what he had seen of Lewis’s work. Last fall a piece by Paul Lewis was chosen by DC Mayor Anthony Williams for his holiday card, and his work will be displayed with that of other artists in the program at several venues during the summer. “I saw his painting of the White House and knew I wanted his work in that space,” Swingly says.
The studio is located in a community arts building at 65 I Street, SW, and “feels more like a cooperative than anything else,” according to Muis-Lowery. “The idea that people come in and spend money for the paintings gives the artists a great sense of accomplishment,” she adds. Through their participation in the program they learn communication and employment skills, achieve self-expression, become part of the city’s art community and move toward economic independence by earning income from sales. Work is also for sale via the Art Enables Web site.
The staff considers themselves “facilitators” rather than teachers, and the participants help each other by hanging shows and mixing colors. Offering participants the means to create and the opportunity to market the unexpected and spirited art that, by nature, they are inspired to make is one of the most important goals of the program—and hugely satisfying to the staff.
The design community agrees. “It feels good to help this organization,” says Swingly, “and what the buyer gets in return is a piece of wonderful, one-of-a-kind art—that’s completely affordable.” Besides the pieces that are available through shows or on the Web site, “they’ll do commissions,” he adds. “You can say ‘Here’s a picture of my house’ and they’ll produce an original work of art you’ll be proud to hang anywhere.”
Writer Jeanne Blackburn is based in Montgomery Village, Maryland.
WHERE TO FIND ART ENABLES Art Enables is located at 65 I (Eye) Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024; phone (202) 554-9455. Visit www.art-enables.org to find upcoming Art Enables shows, and artists’ portfolios with dimensions and pricing.
A juried show hosted by Art Enables, “Outsider Art Inside the Beltway” will take place on Saturday, July 22, at MOCA DC in Georgetown, located at 1054 31st Street, NW. The exhibit is free and open to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Art Enables work will also be on display at the Barracks Row Festival in Capitol Hill on Saturday, September 16, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Festival will take place on 8th Street, SE, south of Eastern Market.