A Showcase Where the Disabled Shine

'Outsider art' displays artworks of those with an unfettered vision

Art has always been about expression. But for some artists, art as a vehicle for communication takes on profound importance.

Artists with mental disabilities often reach out with their creative works to express themselves in ways they are unable to in mainstream society. Increasingly, works by artists who might be called mentally challenged are being shown in museums and sold in galleries.

The movement known as "outsider art" has been gaining ground in the United States for the past 10 years, propelled by a growing recognition that a so-called disability does not stand in the way of the freedom to create with unfettered vision. Curators, collectors, and artists are working to help legitimize the movement further.

The first large-scale exhibit of New England artists with disabilities recently opened in Boston at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Gallery. Titled "Pure Vision: New England Artists With Disabilities," the show presents more than 250 works by 85 artists, ranging from Joseph Copeland's intricately designed cardboard truck and crane to Gayleen Aiken's watercolors of her imaginary family. The show is considered a momentous step toward giving talented but nontraditional artists recognition in New England.

"Outsider art is one of the most important art movements of the 20th century," says curator Margaret Bodell. "The more it's out there, the more boundaries we can break down."

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding outsider art is that before people see it, they think the work won't be great, says Ms. Bodell. But they are always surprised. The skill and style can surpass what is in other galleries.

Bodell describes outsider art as "truly genuine. It has a soulfulness, playfulness, without constraints, intuitive, and self-taught." In the art world, it is often inspirational: Ideas in this room "will get ripped off," says Bodell, a longtime advocate for outsider art and owner of the Bodell Gallery in New York. She hopes to take the exhibit to other cities in the US.

While some of the works here are delightfully childlike, others are calculated and intricate. Christopher Platt, of Watertown, Conn., is an expert draftsman, and he draws the same mansion every day, with one or two variations.

Henry Bromley of New Haven, Conn., made a huge drawing in which he repeatedly wrote the number 1210 in columns and blocks. Lately, he has been fulfilling requests from local rock musicians to do custom art on hoods of cars. A photo of his 1976 Dodge Dart "1210" appears alongside his piece.

Carmella Salvucci, of Boston, fills her paintings with brilliant color, something she has said makes her happy.

Historically speaking, outsider art was first identified and collected by French painter Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s. What he called l'art brut - raw art - was art that had not been influenced by culture. Compared with countries like France and Brazil, the US has been slow to accept outsider art.

The magazine Raw Vision - "the international journal of intuitive and visionary art" - speaks of raw art as "uncooked" and "unadulterated" by culture. "Raw because it is creation in its most direct and uninhibited form. Not only were the works unique and original but their creators were seen to exist outside established culture and society."

For her part, Bodell specializes in seeking out undiscovered outsider artists. Blue-chip outsider artworks fetch high prices at auctions, but "it's way more interesting to work with artists and help develop their careers," she says.

About half of the artists represented in this exhibit participate in New England arts organizations, such as Webster House and Gateway Crafts, which offer people with disabilities opportunities to create artworks and sell them. Most of the works in "Pure Vision" are for sale, ranging from $300 to $3,000.

"Formally showing and selling their art may be a steppingstone to other goals and accomplishments. It can provide a tremendous boost in self-esteem," says Sheldon Bycoff, president of Vinfen, a nonprofit provider of community-based services for people with disabilities and a sponsor of the exhibit.

Janet Poor, a "Pure Vision" team member, adds that "making art is a soothing, calming thing. It's a form of therapy." She tells the story of seeing two of the artists at the opening reception acting so proud and confident. "That may have been the first time in their lives that they have ever been admired." Trusting someone with your artwork is also a growth step for some of these artists, she points out. Some want to sell; others do not.

Many viewers describe the exhibit as eye-opening. "The artists' disabilities fall away once you come through the door," says Bodell. "You're not thinking about disability anymore, you're thinking about the astonishment and brilliance....

"You don't think something's wrong; it's right."

* 'Pure Vision: New England Artists With Disabilities' runs through Oct. 1 in Boston. The exhibit may travel to other cities.

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