BY CHRISTINE REDMAN-WALDEYER Fighting for access for our children should not be the boulder of Sisyphus. Pure Vision Arts is about making sure that hill is removed for New York’s artists with developmental disabilities.
As I made my way from Central New Jersey into lower Manhattan I found myself already connected to another world, one where the Holland Tunnel propelled me towards a host of vintage and antique shops, one of culture and art, one that invites the very soul to slow down despite the busyness of the streets.
It is a Saturday when I arrive, am buzzed through two doors and make my way to the third floor where I am greeted warmly by Dr. Pamala Rogers, Director of Pure Vision Arts, and Susan Provenzeno, Executive Director for the Shield Institute. At the door, pops of bright colors are immediate and stirring. I have left the cluttered landscape behind and am drawn in by what is before me – artists sketching, painting, building and communing in ways any artistic community would. From birth we wish the best for our children. We want them to make friends, be successful, feel loved and safe. We let go with tears, but happy tears as they embark on the journey towards adulthood and independence. For parents with children with disabilities those hopes and dreams should not be diminished. Fighting for access for our children should not be the boulder of Sisyphus. And Pure Vision Arts is about making sure that hill is removed for New York’s artists with developmental disabilities. Henri de Toulouse Lautrec had once said that, “In our time there are many artists who do something because it is new; they see their value and their justification in this newness. They are deceiving themselves; novelty is seldom the essential. This has to do with one thing only; making a subject better from its intrinsic nature.” The artists and their artwork are not novelties. They invoke and heighten the senses and invite discussion. From the recreation of biblical scenes by Oscar Azmitia and portraits and landscapes by William Britt, to the recreation of ancient armory by Christopher Chronopoulos and abstract expressionistic paintings by Alba Somoza, one can find themselves immersed in the art. The Studio was first founded in 2002 by The Shield Institute, a non-for-profit human-service agency that both educates and supports New Yorkers with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Located on West 17th Street the studio acts as both a liaison to the broader art community and as a place where artists can form a smaller community within the larger. Susan Provenzano noted that the artists that come to the studio have multiple gains. There is a sense of self-worth, their ideas are recognized as important and the studio facilitates their self-expression.
For artist Alba Somoza, she says the studio makes her feel “happy” and “calm.” Alba’s mother, Mary Somoza, added that coming to the studio allows her to get away from the day to day frustrations, especially when technology fails her daughter. Alba, who leans on a computer to verbally communicate, turns her device off when coming to the studio to work. It is just about her and her art when she is here. Alba and her identical twin sister Anastasia have cerebral palsy. Alba, who has been compared to Jackson Pollock, has the opportunity to earn money through the studio. The studio is not a place of art therapy, despite the very obvious benefits of creating art. The studio takes in artists who are already established, many selftaught, have been creating successfully since an early age, but may lack the access to curators, galleries, and museums. There is a submission process says Executive Director Pamala Rogers. “We deal with professional artists and give them the access any artist would ordinarily have.”
Many have moved forward and exhibited their work at notable places such as Marlborough Gallery, American Folk Art Museum, Galerie Belage, Outsider Art in the Hamptons events, The Outsider Art Fair, New York City, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science, Olof Gallery, Leiden, The Netherlands, The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, Metropolitan Hospital, Art Enables, Washington DC, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Adams, MA, New York Transit Museum, and LWR Fine Arts.
Artists have the opportunity to sell their work if they wish. It is a choice that the artists make. If they sell, they earn 50 percent of the earnings and the other 50 percent goes right back into the studio for art supplies and materials. The money is only used to give back to the artists, noted Pamala, and artists are never forced to sell. Mary Somoza pointed out that the money her daughter Alba earns gives her a sense of accomplishment and validation but also helps Alba pay for the multitude of things that she needs to make her life more enjoyable. For example, Mary notes, you pay for two since Alba needs assistance in getting to the places she needs to be. Alba, along with the many artists represented by the studio, shatters stereotypes. They are sought out by magazines and periodicals that highlight Pure Vision artists, such as Art News, Envision Folk Art Magazine, Raw Vision, Folk Art Messenger, Arts and Antiques, Out of Art, The Villager, Chelsea Now, Autism Spectrum News, Autism File, Antiques and the Arts Weekly,
Arnet. Many have received funding from prominent foundations such as The Clinton Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts and the Capital Group Companies. Pure Vision Arts has collaborated with organizations such as the Museum of Modern Art – Access and Educational Department, Whitney Museum of American Art – Access and Education Department, Greenwich House Pottery Studio, Fountain Gallery, Survivors Art Foundation, Galerie Atelier Herenplaats, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Kunst and Vliegwerk, Leiden, The Netherlands and their artists have been sought out by private collectors.
Mary Somoza, a long-time advocate, one who has been advisor to the former Mayor David Dinkins and Mario Cuomo, especially in the area of providing children with disabilities access to learning in the regular classroom, says you must give those with disabilities a chance. She believes that the studio is doing wonderful things. “It’s a wonderful all-around feeling.” And it is. I am waved over by Yvette Rivera, who is sitting over a wood sculpture and dabbing the sculpture carefully with red paint explaining she plans to add yellow and blue. Milady Bisono also eagerly shows me what she has been working on, a painting of flowers.
Artist Christopher Chronopoulos,
who is present that morning, said he started testing the waters at an early age and was influenced by his mother who sketched. It wasn’t long before he took up a paintbrush and started painting, but he wanted to do something different when he got to the studio and began experimenting with sculpture. Christopher is interested in his Greek heritage, as well as in the Ancient World of Greece and Rome. On display at the studio are replicas of an Egyptian dress and jewels, helmets, and weapons. His materials are foam board, foil and tape, which he paints and plays with to make it look authentic. “Right now I’m working with paint that makes the pieces look like they have been in the elements,” says Christopher. The texture of the paint creates this look.
Not far from his workspace I am also intrigued by the many replicas of matchbox cars and Lionel trains. Chase Ferguson, who isn’t present but whose art is, uses just paper, cardboard and tape to create three dimensional sculptures. It is hard to resist the temptation to pick up one of the hundreds of cars and turn the work over in your hand. The attention to detail is incredible. I learned that as a child, Chase’s family wasn’t always able to afford the real thing, so he created his own toys using the materials around him.
For the artists, the studio is an opportunity for inclusion and creates a platform and means for another form of communication. The focus is on “ability” and “the here and now,” and it is an opportunity to change misperceptions. The studio functions as a place where artists show and make their work. It’s the only place in the city that provides access and inclusion in the arts, says Pamala. “Their efforts are validated; it is harnessing respect and is part of mainstream art. It is legitimate Contemporary Art,” added both Director and Executive Director. Pamala, who has been with Pure Visions since it was started in 2002, has a rich background in the arts herself. She is an artist, writer, art educator and psychoanalyst with a doctorate in Art Education from Columbia University Teachers College. Her own work has been included in exhibitions in New York’s East Village and Soho. Galleries include NOW Gallery, Phillip Stansbury Gallery, Robin Rice, and OK Harris among many others.
Pamala represents the new direction in the field of disabilities advocacy. She does not see her job as one to diagnose and teach. Her role is to support and facilitate. Coining the term “The Savantgarde” she believes in the idea of neuro-diversity as a unique way of being, not as a disorder to be cured. Her pride in the artists is evident. She is well-versed in each of the artists’ interests, biographies, and experimentation in the arts.
Artist Alba Somoza, too, does more than just create; she’s an advocate through her teaching. She teaches the paraprofessionals to facilitate art, not take over. First taken under her Art Teacher’s wing in grade school, Alba’s passion for art was noticed. “People started asking if they could buy her art,” said her mother, Mary Somoza, and she is a role model to the children she teaches; she is exactly like them.” She teaches art to children who have cerebral palsy at the Standing Tall School in Manhattan. She has also been an intern at The Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2006. Working with a facilitator, she gives tours to children, adults, and special needs audiences.
Alba was born in 1983 in New York City. Her mother is an avid advocate and her sister, Anastasia, became an advocate at the young age of nine, when she asked former President Clinton publicly that Alba be allowed to join her in the regular classroom. Artists such as Alba and Christopher prove that not only have they overcome personal adversity, they are capable of working and finding a career path with the right support. Their works have gone beyond the disability culture and have been mainstreamed. “Art is a fundamental thing that we do,” says Pamala. Socialization through the arts alleviates anxiety, depression; there are many health benefits to Art. It results in expanded verbal expression and impacts behavioral issues in a positive way. It is an important outlet for people; it is an opportunity to be exposed and an opportunity to enhance quality of life. There is a great need for access and inclusion and that is the success of the studio. Mary Somoza noted that those at The Shield Institute were visionaries. They understood our children’s rights to be educated. “I’m her mom; I’m biased.” Mary added that to get to the Board of Education to have services provided for children with special needs is elusive, but The Shield had the vision from 1954. The Shield Institute was first founded in 1921 when a group of women known as The Mother Organization founded a childcare facility to provide services to homeless girls and was joined by another group of women under the name of Ellis V. Levy Auxiliary.
The women were soon joined and supported by a men’s group, called The Brotherhood which pledged to support the orphanage. The groups combined to form The Shield Institute and have evolved to what the program is today, one that supports children with intellectual disabilities and their families.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Christine Redman-Waldeyer is a poet and Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey. She has published three poetry collections, “Frame by Frame”, “Gravel”, and “Eve Asks” (all with Muse-Pie Press) and has appeared in Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Texas Review, Verse Wisconsin, and others. Christine earned her Doctorate of Letters from Drew University and is a doctoral candidate in Rowan University’s Ed.D program in higher education.
WHERE THE ARTISTS HAVE EXHIBITED
Alba Somoza attended The School for the Future until age 21 where she completed a multimedia portfolio and has exhibited her own work under Pure Vision Arts wing at:
2014 Al Fresco, LWR Fine Art, NYC; Transit on the Spectrum:
The Art of Pure Vision, NY Transit Museum, Brooklyn, NY.
2013 Personal Space, Pure Vision Arts, NYC.
2012 Pure Folk, American Folk Art Museum, NYC. Visions from the Edge, Mass. College of Liberal Arts, Gallery 51, Adams, MA.
2011 Innocence & Experience, Pure Vision Arts, NYC. 6th Annual Outsider Art in the Hamptons, Gallerie BelAge, Westhampton, NY.
2010 Labor of Love, Pure Vision Arts, NYC; Pure Vision Arts @ JBFCS, NYC; 5th Annual Outsider Art in the Hamptons, Galerie BelAge, Westhampton, NY; What is a Disability, VSA, Washington, DC.
2009 Paradise Found, Pure Vision Arts, NYC; 4th Annual Outsider Art in the Hamptons, Galerie BelAge, Westhampton, NY; Pure Vision Arts at Marlborough Gallery, NYC; The Outsider Art Fair, The Mart, NYC
—————— • ——————
Christopher Chronopoulos born in 1988 and diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a teenager, lived his entire life in the Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen and has exhibited his work with the support of Pure Vision Arts at:
2014 Outsider Art Inside the Beltway, Art Enables, Washington DC; Drawing Autism, Pure Vision Arts, NYC.
2013 Personal Space, Pure Vision Arts, NYC.
2012 Pure Folk, American Folk Art Museum, NYC.
2011 Innocence & Experience, Pure Vision Arts, NYC