These artists with disabilities and college students collab’d to make BioArtJune 10, 2016 Category: Featured, Long, Purpose
Seven years ago, the Center for Creative Works (CCW) in Wynnewood was not an especially inviting place.
“It was known as this decrepit, run-down warehouse,” said Stephanie Petro-McClellan, the arts and education programming supervisor. “I knew when I started working there that my first job was to change its reputation.”
Previously called the Lower Merion Vocational Training Center, CCW was founded in the 1970s as a place where adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities learned and performed basic tasks such as stuffing envelopes.
“The participants would come in and they were immediately told to sit down and wait for their envelopes,” said Petro-McClellan, who has worked at the center for six and half years. “If they finished their jobs early, they weren’t allowed to get up — they just had to wait for someone to notice they were done and then they would get more envelopes.”
But with new leadership, the implementation of a vibrant arts program, and a variety of burgeoning partnerships with the surrounding community, the center has evolved to be anything but decrepit. Since the hiring of Director Lori Bartol and many new art instructors, the center has evolved into an active artmaking place where those same adults can participate in open studios and learn skills such as printmaking, woodworking, sculpture and the like.
CCW, run by Resources for Human Development, has attracted 45 new participants, most of whom regularly showcase and sell their work in Philadelphia museums, craft fairs, and through the center’s online store. Typically, 60 percent of earnings go to the artists, while 40 percent go to the Center.
“There are many people who don’t understand art, and there are many people who don’t understand people with disabilities, so sometimes when I speak about our program, people don’t take us seriously at first,” Petro-McClellan said. “There are people who don’t realize that our artists come to CCW to work. They don’t just take what they make home — they sell it.”
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This past spring, students from Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College worked alongside artists from the center as a component of Professor Kristin Lindgren’s Critical Disability Studies class. (Full disclosure: This reporter was a member of the class.)
“Our course grew organically from conversations with students who wanted to do advanced work in disability studies,” Lindgren said. “Initially I talked with each student about doing an independent study, but I quickly realized that we all had a lot to learn from one another and that a seminar would enable greater exchange of ideas across disciplines.”
On Tuesday nights, Lindgren and her students gathered to read and discuss various articles, books and other works related to disability studies. Each member of the class was also assigned to one of three groups of artists at the Center and, once a week, each group would meet to make art together.
"I quickly realized that we all had a lot to learn from one another."
The course culminated in a two-week public exhibition at Haverford titled “Symbiosis: Art, Science, & Community,” during which art from the semester-long collaboration was displayed and five pieces were sold.
Natalie DiFrank, a child and family studies major, was one of the first students to approach Lindgren with the idea of a partnership with CCW. The center had been DiFrank’s placement for an education course she took her sophomore year, and she wanted to find a way for this relationship to extend to the larger student community.
“I absolutely loved the work the artists were doing and I knew that I had to continue collaborating with them,” said DiFrank, who also made a short film about her experience at CCW.
Though CCW has teamed up with students from Thomas Jefferson University, University of the Sciences and Moore College of Art & Design in the past, the Haverford partnership is the most integrated relationship CCW has formed with a school, according to Petro-McClellan.
“This is the first course-related collaboration we’ve done,” Petro-McClellan said. “It is also unique because it allowed us to switch between us visiting Haverford and Haverford visiting us, whereas with other collaborations it is always the interns or volunteers coming to CCW.”
Traveling to Haverford, located fewer than two miles away the center, also gave the artists the opportunity to use academic spaces to create new types of art. For example, Lindsey Lopes and Sarah Waldis, two senior biology majors in the class, introduced the artists to “BioArt” in one of Haverford’s lab spaces. To make BioArt, the artists used Q-tips to blend certain kinds of bacteria onto petri dishes, eventually producing colorful, textured patterns.
One of the artists who sold his work at the exhibition, Timothy O’Donovan, said that painting and drawing help calm him.
“I feel more in control of my life and my emotions when I make a piece of artwork,” said O’Donovan, who likes drawing landscapes and diagrams of the heart.
Both Lindgren and Petro-McClellan said they plan to continue the partnership next year, adding that the diversity of talents and perspectives that the students and artists contributed throughout the semester enhanced the final exhibition and made it more accessible.
“The exhibition was a fantastic way to showcase both the collaborative projects and the talent of the individual CCW artists,” Lindgren said. “I’d love to see every student engage with disability and disability studies in some way during their college career.”