story & photos by LINDA MITCHELL
"ART BROUGHT ME OUT OF MY SCHIZOPHRENIA," DALE HOWARD [photo below right] told me when I met him for the first time at The Studio, an art-filled space on Third Street in Eureka. It appeared to be an outlandish claim, but Kristi Patterson backed it up. As director of The Studio, a program of the Humboldt Community Access and Resource Center (better known as HCAR), Patterson witnessed Howard's transformation firsthand.
"If you knew Dale four or five years ago, you'd never recognize him today," she said. "He was very, very ill -- not taking any medications and using drugs and alcohol." He also had a compulsion for walking in the middle of the road and was often seen strolling down the centerline on Sixth and Seventh Streets in Eureka, she said.
Tragedy inevitably struck. "He was hit by a car while walking [along] Highway 101 and was badly hurt," Patterson said, adding that Howard's accident may have been a blessing in disguise. "He was in the hospital for a long time and had a tough go of it, but at least he was finally able to get treatment for his illness."
Howard, who is now 47, said a big part of his rehabilitation was his referral to The Studio three years ago. Like the roughly 40 other developmentally disabled adults the program serves, he became part of an environment that, for the artistically inclined, seems a utopian fantasy.
It's a setting where the participants are encouraged to work on whatever inspires them, where they can focus on a single project for the entire day, or move freely from one creative venture to another. Guidance and inspiration are readily available, there's plenty of working space, and people are known by their first names. In fact, if you ask for someone's last name, everyone has to stop and think about it.
Several of Howard's recent paintings, sculptures and mosaics were scattered around The Studio's two large, adjoining workrooms. His work exhibited a bold, primitive power, much of it featuring his trademark "pyramid eye." According to Howard, the symbol represents "the ways of life," and appears again and again throughout his art. "It gives me a way inward," he explained.
Debbie Zeno, 44, [photo at left] suffers from cerebral palsy and has been coming to The Studio for about a year and a half. In 2002 she won a prize in the State Council on Developmental Disabilities' poster contest and was recently commissioned to do a large painting for a local attorney. She donated a sizable portion of the $500 fee she received back to The Studio.
"Debbie lives in excruciating, chronic pain," Patterson said. "She was born and raised in the Bay Area and was attending college and working as a preschool teacher before her disabilities became more severe. She went into the hospital in 1994 for a hip rotation. As a result of the operation, she lost functioning in her legs and began to suffer from chronic pain in her hips. Because of the pain, she couldn't continue with her job or school -- she couldn't live independently."
Steve Beatty, one of The Studio's five teachers (all professional artists), showed me one of Zeno's recent sculptures, featuring a bent, misshapen figure. "He's sitting on a TV and he's got a VCR and all his stuff is thrown everywhere. The satellite dish over there is busted, remote controls everywhere. Debbie says he's a caveman, who's lost with the technology."
So is The Studio therapy or school? There are programs out there "where the artwork itself is less important than act of doing it, where people are getting therapeutic value from doing some simple artistic task," said Ron Jantz, HCAR's operations manager. The Studio is different. "Art is, in its very nature, therapeutic, but The Studio is strictly a fine arts program," Patterson explained. "The fact that people get many different `therapeutic' side effects is just a bonus."
"I never wanted it to be this little art program for retarded people who sit there and do beads," Patterson went on. "I envisioned it to be a fine arts center no different from what you find in college."
Of course, it isn't college. HCAR, a state-funded nonprofit established in 1955, serves 400 developmentally disabled people in Humboldt County by obtaining employment for them with local businesses; by assisting them with the daily chores of living, such as shopping and paying bills; and, in the case of The Studio, by developing their artistic sides. And anyway, the social workers from the outfit that makes most of the referrals to The Studio, the Redwood Coast Regional Center (RCRC), which funnels state assistance money to organizations that serve the developmentally disabled in Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino and Lake counties, are hardly judges of artistic ability.
"What we look for is whether someone has a strong interest toward art," said Peter Narloch, the center's community resource manager, speaking recently from his Eureka office.
As a result, just as the "artists" at The Studio run the gamut in terms of developmental disabilities -- everything from mental retardation to mental illness -- so do they have varying levels of skill. What they share is a love of art -- and that's where the magic comes in.
"It's probably the most fun I've ever had in my life," said Zeno. "I'm learning so much. The teachers are great, the other students are great -- we laugh all day long. The senses of humor that go around in this room, you wouldn't believe it. Some days it's absolutely wild."
But it's serious business, too, as evidenced by the fact that The Studio holds regular exhibits, including one this Saturday at the monthly Arts Alive! event, and sells the artwork through its gift shop and a Web site. "We put together very professional shows here, with postcard invitations and receptions," said Beatty, explaining that helping the participants market their work is an important part of the program, and many of them do quite well.
Take Howard, for example. "He makes five or six paintings every time he's here and sells them all [to his friends] before he comes back the next time. It's hard to get a show of his together," Beatty said.
"We see people's self-esteem just totally skyrocket, especially when they start showing and selling their work," added Patterson, who noted that the artists get a 70 percent cut of the sale of their art. (The normal artist-gallery cut is 50-50 or 40-60.) The prices fetched by the artwork are modest -- generally from $50 to $200 per piece. But making big sales is not the point; developing confidence is.
Eureka resident Patricia Powell is a major patron of The Studio. She has bought more than 10 pieces over the past five years -- to show support for what she considers a worthy organization, but also because she thinks some of the work produced at The Studio has genuine artistic value.
"I've always bought `outsider art,' art that's on the fringes of society," Powell explained. "Outsider art is brave, unpretentious. One thing that really appeals to me [about The Studio] is that the people there are unaware of their limitations. This is the one place where they can create something without the threat of failure.
"So that's a big deal right there," she continued. "But the results are sometimes astounding. Their art is never dull, it's very bracing. You can just see the creative impulse bursting forth."
When I visited The Studio for the first time last month, Howard was working on a mural with several other people. Everyone in the room was dressed in Humboldt County layers, topped off with paint-stained aprons or smocks, making it impossible to distinguish the students from the teachers.
The artists comprised a melting pot of disabilities. "Developmental disabilities include things like mental retardation, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, mental illnesses, things like that," Patterson explained. "Any kind of disability that happened before the age of 18," the cut-off point for being eligible for state assistance.
The mural (dubbed "Studio Madness" upon completion) was the second of what would become a series of collaborative paintings with Augustus "Gus" Clark, a local professional artist. Clark said his relationship with the "HCAR folks" began last June, during the North Coast Open Studio Tour. "Steve [Beatty] brought a lot of these folks up to my studio, and we all really hit it off. They seemed to really respond to my work."
That isn't surprising. A self-described "Expressionist" trained at UC Santa Cruz under the late Eduardo Carrillo, Clark's work exhibits much of the same bold color and naive power found in the work of The Studio artists. Beatty and Clark came up with the idea of a collaborative project. It helped that Clark's studio, one of the "C Street Studios," is located right next door.
The group's first completed mural, which they titled "The Golden String," is filled with whimsical, poignant iconographic imagery, dominated by a massive sun with a mustache painted by Soodie Whitaker, a young man with Down syndrome. Howard's "eyes" peer out at the viewer from a variety of places. It's a surprisingly cohesive piece, considering that several artists worked on it at the same time. I wondered how they had gone about it.
"Gus supplied the wood, we supplied the paints, and anyone who wanted to get involved could," Beatty explained. "Some people just weren't interested, but everyone who wanted to got to paint."
Clark said his plan was to begin with what he called the "old Zen tradition," making heavy black lines, and then filling them in. "At first I thought everyone could do self-portraits, but then I thought, just let them be natural, do their own thing. Everybody has their own voice, and we all worked together in this kind of concert."
He was clearly enjoying himself. "I love it!" he exclaimed. "I'm having a great time, and I'm learning a lot from these folks."
According to Patterson, this is a common response from people who work with The Studio's artists. "The nature of the art people do here is really inspiring for the teachers. All the time you hear things like, `Wow, did you see what Pablo did? I'm going to try that!' The people here have little prior experience and no preconceived ideas of what art should be, so their art is very free. They don't worry about whether or not it's right, they just do it and it turns out great."
Patterson said she's enjoying the unfolding partnership between Clark and The Studio artists. "Gus and I went to school together and I was really excited to see he had a studio right next door. Everybody came back from his open studio so inspired about his work. It's so great that he wants to work with the artists here, and he really fits in. I go in and they're just talking away, eating with one hand, painting with the other."
Zeno said everyone loves working with him. "He makes you loosen up. A lot of the artists here, like myself, are too tight, but Gus just takes you to that place where you open up and paint wild things."
The Studio program was Patterson's brainchild. The 34-year-old Humboldt native says she got the idea when she was living in San Francisco a few years ago. "I was doing supportive living -- working with disabled people in their homes. Some of them went to a program called `Creativity Explored.' It was a lot like what we're doing here, but on a much larger scale."
When Patterson later moved back to Eureka and got a job working for HCAR, she discovered there was no similar program in Humboldt. She decided to take the plunge and launched The Studio in 1997.
"It was all volunteer for a couple of years. We started as a program of the Ink People, but we just weren't able to get licensed under the state. I was still working for HCAR, so I approached the board and they took us under," she said.
Patterson said that without The Studio many of the participants would probably be stuck at home watching TV. "Many people with developmental disabilities, especially those who live on their own without families and without access to transportation, become extremely isolated and depressed. There are other day programs available, but many of the people at The Studio have been unsuccessful there for a variety of reasons. We have people in our program who are assaultive and/or have other serious behavior issues in other places that very rarely occur while they're at art."
She says that while there are also work programs available, not everyone can, or even wants to work. "Did you know that in California, people with developmental disabilities who work in `sheltered' type environments doing menial work like shredding or labeling are paid sub-minimum wages -- some very low, like 30 cents an hour? They are also paid this way for things like being part of housekeeping and landscaping crews. I could go on and on about how I feel that this is slave labor and should be illegal, but I'll spare you and just say that if I had the choice between cleaning toilets for a dollar an hour or painting a piece of art that I might sell for $100 (or not), guess which one I'd pick?"
The Studio program is clearly a passion, and Patterson is obviously proud of its steady expansion over the past seven years. "At first it was just a few hours on Saturdays in Manila, then we moved into one room here [in Eureka], and then it was two rooms, and now we have four."
On the financial side, The Studio presently has a $156,000 budget -- a small chunk of HCAR's $4.6 million annual budget, but significant nonetheless. The problem is that all the money comes from the state and the state's in a severe budget crisis. More on that in a minute.
The growth of the program has been a boon to the participants, according to head teacher Megan Montero. "Once we got this extra room, we opened four days a week so people could come more often. As with any artist, the more time they put in, the more their styles develop."
Non-structured assistance in painting, drawing, sculpting, ceramics, mosaics and performing arts are offered, Montero said. "I really like the way we do things here because it gives people the opportunity to work their own artistic paths."
She noted with amusement that some of the artists are more aggressive at promoting their work than others. A 44-year-old artist named Mary Galleti, she said, has become particularly adept.
"When she has a show, she's out there on the sidewalk yelling, `Come in here and buy my art!' And it works. She had a show last September -- it was all inspired by Elvis -- and she sold 12 out of 13 paintings."
Galleti's disability is Prader-Willi Syndrome. "It causes a variety of things," Patterson said. "Physical things, like a shorter stature, cognitive delays -- and you feel like you're hungry all the time. People with the disease will eat anything, food that's bad for them, out of garbage cans, terrible things."
The Studio has helped Galleti immensely, Patterson said, for the simple reason that it has allowed her a measure of freedom. "Because of the nature of her disability, she's supervised all the time, and her days and nights are just set out for her, what she has to do and when. When she's here she can basically do what she wants, and she's found more of a purpose. When she was working on her show, she was so focused, so serious about it."
A cloudy future
Things are serious on the fiscal front, there's no doubt about that. "The system [for assisting people with disabilities] as a whole, across the state, is closer to collapse than it has ever been," Jantz, the operations manager, said grimly.
"The state that California is in, it's hard for everybody -- anyone in human services and education is really frightened," Patterson added. The hoped-for passage of two bond measures in this week's vote would likely stave off the elimination of The Studio program, and of larger HCAR programs as well. But, as Patterson said, there are deeper problems.
"Workmen's comp [for the staff] is a big, big part of [why we're struggling]. It's gone up so much," she said.
Workers' compensation costs are more than double what they were last year, Patterson said, same with their medical insurance. "Our expenses keep going up, but the money we receive from the state stays the same, and in some cases has been reduced."
To balance the books they've had to let one staff person go and impose general belt-tightening. There is, momentarily at least, no money available for art supplies. Community donations have helped, but the program is still running at a deficit and supplies are dwindling.
Patterson is submitting grant applications to fill the gap, including one to the Simpson Foundation and another to the Humboldt Area Foundation. She figures she needs between $10,000 and $20,000 for supplies. While she received a $3,000 Simpson grant a couple of years ago, this is the first time she's sought major money from private sources.
One last visit
I went back to The Studio a month after my first visit there, to check on the progress of the murals. The artists had completed a total of seven paintings and were ready to begin the eighth. They said they'd like to create more before the Arts Alive! opening, but supplies had become an issue. Their last three murals were painted on beat-up cardboard, curling at the edges, buckling in the middle. It was pitiful.
On the day I was there, though, the group had a real canvas to work on, donated by Beatty. "It was an old painting of mine that wasn't working anyway," he said, shrugging. "I painted over it and brought it on in."
The artists are accustomed to using recycled materials. One of the other completed murals, a menagerie of wild creatures frolicking in a green-painted jungle, was painted on a large square of plywood donated by Zeno. "I had already painted the jungle background, then I brought it in and the other artists added to it. It was just a jungle with no life, and look what they did with it."
"It has a weird title," Zeno added, laughing. "It's called `Schmoo and Lucy would go crazy.' I started the picture for my two cockatiels, a jungle theme. Gus said if I took it back home, my birds -- Schmoo and Lucy -- would go crazy. That's how it got the title."
Clark arrived shortly after I did and was immediately mobbed like a rock star, with everyone vying for his attention at once. He introduced me to one of the artists I hadn't met yet, Jaimal Guynn, an energetic 23-year-old wearing glasses and a stocking cap. [photo at left]
"Jaimal's learning disability isn't considered severe enough to qualify for Regional Center services, so he's a person who could easily fall through the cracks," Patterson explained. She came up with a work exchange plan: Guynn volunteers time before and after class washing brushes, cutting paper, doing janitorial work and other chores in exchange for studio time.
"He and his mother both say that they don't know where he'd be without The Studio," Patterson added. "It gives him a purpose, and he's made many friends here."
Guynn said his art has become more "peaceful" as a result of being at The Studio. "I think when people do art, they express their feelings and emotions. When I used to get angry or depressed, I'd draw my feelings. Now when I draw my feelings, it comes peacefully."
Guynn has worked on almost all the murals, as has Gerri Sadler, 63, [photo below right] who lives in "one of the E Street houses" downtown, a group home where several of The Studio artists live. She frequently paints her house and its residents, as well as landscapes and paintings with political themes.
Sadler, who has moderate mental retardation, said she wants people to know that disabled artists are just the same as everybody else. "We want to show the world we can do it," she said. "Don't say we're M-R. That's not right. You are what you are. You do your best."
The artists began the new mural on Beatty's donated canvas while I was there. quickly painted a figure in the upper right hand corner, then Zeno joined her, then Howard, then others. As I watched them work for a while, I remembered what Clark had said about the artists painting together in a concert, with their own unique voices. I could almost hear an accompanying orchestra.
Clock wise from left: Steve Beatty, Megan Montero, John Bensch, Kristy Patterson and Gus Clark hold their portraits painted by Gerri Sadler.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.