Artists with disabilities showcase work at new StudioWorks gallery

“Untitled”: by Sally Hardman and Kim Epps

“Untitled”: by Sally Hardman and Kim Epps

Contemporary theories about historic visual artists are always intriguing. Two current ideas suggest that Michelangelo was mildly autistic and Vincent van Gogh may have been bipolar. These surmised illnesses certainly didn’t hurt them creatively, since we consider them to be two of the finest artists in history.

And what is creativity anyway, other than the need to express yourself? The art studio and gallery StudioWorks understands that all humans are born with the creative urge; the organization, according to its mission, is “committed to the inclusion of artists with mental retardation in the art community.” StudioWorks is part of Louisville Diversified Services, the largest provider of job-related services for mentally retarded adults in Kentucky. A non-LDS program, Creative Diversity Studio in the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center, is similar in that it also works with artists with disabilities.

Ashley Noe is the site director of StudioWorks; she’s been with LDS for more than two years. With a BFA in ceramics from the University of Louisville, she is perfectly suited to work there. Apparently LDS thought so too, which is why she was approached with the StudioWorks concept.

LDS offers job training as well as job placement; in the case of StudioWorks, participants create art to sell, so being an artist is their job. All works are for sale in the gallery, with 80 percent of the selling price going to the artist and remaining 20 percent going toward supplies. “They make an income and do something they love to do,” said Noe. “Not at a hourly rate but by sale.”

The other staff artist is painter Ben McLeod. Since the gallery has been operating only for a couple of months, not all of the proposed work stations are up and running. Noe and McLeod are instructing participants in painting, and Noe hopes to get ceramics started soon. Eventually they’ll add printmaking and fiber work, and they plan to have visiting artists teach as well.

Eight artists work in the program currently. Some are “completely independent,” Noe says, “where Ben and I are not involved; some are less independent and we have to help them.”

The group’s first endeavor was to create splatter paintings based on Abstract Expressionism. Before they started painting, they discussed Jackson Pollock and saw a video of his work. “Letting Go,” a group project by the StudioWorks artists, is a large acrylic on board painting consisting of colorful wiggly lines. This painting is the first work sold by the gallery.

The individual paintings are the strongest, especially when the artists are working in representational or abstracted figure modes. Eric Huggins is inspired by the work of African-American artists Jacob Lawrence and William Johnson. His cityscape triptych “Carriage Ride,” made of acrylic on canvas panels attached to metal supports to form a screen, has the same flat, colorful slice of life that made Lawrence famous. Huggins seems to have found his voice.

Julie Baldyga comes from a local artistic family. She favors Louisville scenes, including the acrylic on canvas “River of Glory.” All of the familiar elements are there — water, the Belle of Louisville, a bridge — but what makes this painting appealing is the unusual perspective, with the focus at river level.

The nonrepresentational “Untitled” by Sally Hardman and Kim Epps is one of the most impressive in the exhibition on technique alone. The acrylic on canvas painting consists of three textured rectangles against a background of blue and red. The shapes seem to glow and hover when surrounded by the dry-brushed white paint.

It is not a leap of faith to see these disabled people as artists and StudioWorks as the newest combination fine art gallery/studio on the block. The artists are talented and worthy of good notice, with excellent instructors and a promising facility. StudioWorks holds its Grand Opening this Friday from 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

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