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i am

The art of self: The Arts Center hosts an exhibit of works by artists with disabilities

the e: april 9-16

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Who am I? And how do I fit in the world?

These are difficult questions for anyone, but for those with developmental disabilities, the answers may be nigh on impossible to grasp.

Which is where art comes in.

The Arts Center hosts “I Am,” an exhibit of work by artists with developmental and intellectual disabilities, in conjunction with the inVISIBLE nano festival and celebrating inclusion in the arts. The art in the exhibit comes from artists involved with The Arc in Corvallis, Project Grow and Art From the Heart in Portland, and OSLP Arts and Culture Program in Eugene.

All of the artists have a developmental or intellectual disability. One artist, Ann Mayfield, is blind.

“It’s very tactile,” said The Arts Center curator Hester Coucke, in reference to Mayfield’s red and orange piece created from canvas, paint and rolled pieces of paper. “She was not blind from birth, so she has memory of colors. I think it’s visually very cool.”

The range of pieces is wildly different, Coucke said. Around the gallery are self-portraits and landscapes, acrylic on canvas and textile creatures, a giant map of a utopian Corvallis and yarn as paint, very abstract paintings and very detailed renderings.

Despite the vast differences in technique, style and media, there’s a narrative to each.

“I would say they all come from a place of some life experience,” Coucke said. “It goes from really abstract to pretty meticulous… I would say that the narrative is pretty high, even in the abstracts. There is one that is almost entirely black, but the title is ‘My Brother When His Mom Died in Church.’ So there is a big story behind this. The storytelling aspect is pretty high.”

Coucke said she thinks people will be surprised at the level and quality of the artwork.

“I was,” she said. “Look at that portrait,” she added, indicating a detailed rendering of a man’s face, “that is really what you would call an accomplished portrait.”

While all of the pieces are certainly art, some of the artists have more knowledge than others. For example, another painting depicting a blue boy whose chest is open demonstrates a great deal of anatomical knowledge.

On the other hand, there is a portrait near to that one that is entirely abstract — picture large, frenzied brushstrokes in gray and black, with red eyes and nose — and yet, Coucke said, it actually resembles the artist.

“She is a good-looking woman,” Coucke said, “but somehow it makes sense that she made that… If she was here, you could pick her out.”

Art is an excellent source for helping to answer the big question of “Who am I?” And for those who can’t express themselves verbally, it is also a crucial source.

“(Art) gives them opportunity to tell that story, to go through their emotions which they verbally might not be that able to do,” Coucke said. “This gives them the opportunity to tell what they’ve been feeling, what they’ve been doing, that they love Barry Manilow.

“That painting is called ‘Barry Manilow and His Friends,’” she added, pointing out a portrait of the musician hanging on the wall near the blue boy.

While it may be a cathartic form of communication for some and a weekly activity for others, there are those for whom art is an intrinsic nature — “Artists that are artists not considered developmentally disabled who just want to make a dang good painting,” Coucke said.

Coucke, who selected all of the exhibited artwork from the participating organizations — “I was like a kid in a candy store, picking out the artwork. That is why we have so much,” she said — has quite a few favorites among the exhibit.

One piece, the painting “Violet Black” by Babs Borley, depicts a black canine with luminous yellow eyes on a dark blue background.

“Up close it’s monochromatic, but if you walk away a little bit, there’s so much light there. And the intensity of those eyes is just amazing,” Coucke said. “There’s a vague threat in it — at least I find. It’s a fierce animal. But then again, it’s fluffy too, and that can be a good thing.”

While the back story of some the pieces is easy to figure out — portraits and landscapes tend to speak for themselves — some of the more abstract pieces have a story shrouded in mystery and paint.

“Not exactly knowing what’s happening in the paintings is a plus for me,” Coucke said. “It gives you the opportunity to put your own story in there… Not really knowing is what excites me about this work.”

The “I Am” exhibit is an opportunity for the community — a chance to learn about and be inclusive to a wide range of artist populations, even the unexpected or sometimes even overlooked ones.

“If you’re like me, you’re aware of this population,” Coucke said. “But you’re not necessarily aware of how many artists there are in this population and how well-rounded they are. And that’s a good thing to know.”

Coucke mentioned another artist who lives in Corvallis who teaches art as well as creates it. Her piece in the exhibit is a large, nearly floor-to-ceiling map of a utopian Corvallis.

“If you want to be an inclusive community, as Corvallis professes it wants to be, these are people you need to look at and you need to share art with,” Coucke said. “It is important to see that there’s this wide range of artists. People always talk about the special sensibilities of artists — well, here is a whole bunch of them that have very specific sensibilities. Some of them may not be able to live independently, but their artwork is just as valuable.”

“I hope (the exhibit) works both ways,” she continued. “That they see (The Arts Center) as a place to go to, to visit, to participate in, and that we are more aware of these artists.”

The Arts Center hosts a reception for “I am” from 5:30 to 7:30 Thursday, April 9, and the exhibit will remain on display through May 22. For more information, see


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