Adrienne Olmedo paints with her head. The 39-year-old El Cerrito resident reaches her canvas with a long, thin brush attached to a contraption that she wears like a headband. This creates something of a unique challenge — she must look downward as she paints, which means her work is slightly out of her line of sight. Despite this obstacle, every Friday she sits in front of an easel at the National Institute of Art and Disabilities (NIAD), and gets to work.
“It makes me calm,” said Olmedo, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Over the past two years at the NIAD Art Center, Olmedo has refined her abstract style and developed an eye for striking patterns, said Shantanice Jones, Olmedo’s attendant. “She just starts to see colors and goes with the flow.”
While artists at NIAD may have physical limitations, they are able to push past these boundaries in their craft, in which there are no restrictions. “Adults with disabilities have so many challenges,” Jones said. “The art is where they can escape.”
Olmedo’s work will be displayed in NIAD’s main gallery as part of the center’s newest show, Hand to Hand, which opens this weekend. The group exhibition features a range of contemporary works from about a dozen artists from both NIAD and the United Cerebral Palsy of Culver City.
NIAD partners with about sixty artists who work in media including ceramics, fiber art, printmaking, painting, sculpture, textiles, drawing, and more. On any given day, with support from five or so instructors, as many as forty artists fill the studio space, working on projects of various sizes. Some artists may spend months on a single piece.
While the participants all have some kind of developmental or physical disability, the focus is on the art and creative process. There’s no condescension toward the artists and no pretention surrounding the process; as the center’s tagline states, NIAD is about “creating meaningful lives and remarkable contemporary art.”
“They are the bravest artists I’ve ever seen,” said Executive Director Deb Dyer. “There is a lack of worry about what others think. When you have someone who has been through art school, they think they need to explain their work. When you are putting something as intimate as art up on the wall, you are saying something about yourself. Artists here don’t care about that.”
While a day at the studio can be therapeutic for NIAD artists, the program does not provide professional therapy services. The program’s roots, however, are connected to psychology and disability rights. NIAD was founded in 1982 by husband-and-wife duo Elias Katz, a psychologist, and Florence Ludins-Katz, an artist. At the time, there was growing recognition in California that people with disabilities should not be institutionalized, but instead should get the support they need to live independently.
In California, the Lanterman Act, which was passed in 1969, outlined some of these rights and established regional centers to help people with developmental disabilities access services. NIAD was one of the first programs of its kind to provide a space for people with developmental disabilities to do independent and creative work. Today, a majority of the artists come to NIAD through referrals from the Regional Center of the East Bay, which funds about two-thirds of NIAD’s annual budget of $600,000; the organization raises the remainder through donations and art sales.
Last year, nearly every artist at NIAD sold at least one piece, said NIAD gallery director Tim Buckwalter. He typically sets prices between $30 and $250, although he has sold pieces by more established artists for several thousands of dollars. NIAD takes a 50 percent commission on sales (which is typical of most galleries), while artists take the other half.
The opportunity for the artists to sell their work is key, said Buckwalter. “They get a check. It says to them, ‘My work has value, and it’s actual value,'” he said. “I’m a working artist, too, so one of the things that makes me feel great is when somebody buys something, when somebody is willing to put out cash for something.”
The sales support the center’s larger goal of encouraging independence and self-reliance, he said. The staff members, who all have master of fine arts degrees, do not help the artists beyond offering basic guidance and support. “We don’t work on their work, because then it’s not about them. It’s about us,” said Buckwalter. The staff, however, does challenge the artists by encouraging them to explore new styles and media and by taking them on field trips to local museums and galleries. “In one sense, we’re an art school. We provide teachers who are contemporary artists,” Buckwalter said, noting that some NIAD artists regularly show their work in galleries across the Bay Area.
Hand to Hand‘s guest curator, Anuradha Vikram, said that it’s refreshing to work with untrained artists because their abstract pieces confront viewers in a uniquely powerful way. That’s because the artists put so much of themselves into their art without being overly concerned with technique or style. “The best art of any kind, whether trained or not, is really about reaching people in a direct way,” said Vikram, who splits her time between the East Bay and Santa Monica, where she is the director of residency programs at the 18th Street Arts Center. “The technique really needs to be secondary to what it is you’re trying to do. Sometimes the figuration is limited by expectations and is perhaps more prone to being the kind of art that an artist thinks people want to see from them versus what they most deeply want to produce.”
For viewers of Hand to Hand, “I think they feel that they get some sort of direction connection through this work,” Vikram said. “Perhaps with other artists, there’s more artifice or more distance.”
And for the NIAD artists, “It’s not about being good or not good,” she continued. “You don’t have to worry here … because you understand that people have limitations, and I think that maybe we could do ourselves a favor and all accept that each of us has limitations and that we work with those limitations and that’s okay. And you can appreciate how people exceed their limitations.”