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Giving Artistic Outsiders A Leg Up

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Most of the artwork displayed in the Art Enables gallery is available for purchase. Artists receive 60 percent of the earnings from each piece of artwork sold.
Marc Adams
Most of the artwork displayed in the Art Enables gallery is available for purchase. Artists receive 60 percent of the earnings from each piece of artwork sold.

The art world is notoriously hard to break into, and for those with developmental disabilities, the challenge can be even greater. Art Enables is one local organization helping out by providing disabled artists with the tools they need to do what they love, and to make a living from their talents.

Finding passion in art

For D.C. native Charmaine Jones, art is not just a hobby; it's a passion that might, with a little luck, become a career.

"I'm working on a Christmas card," she says. "It's snowing. I put the snow into swirls. It's for the winter time."

Jones knows a thing or two about life's swirling blizzards. She was born prematurely, and when she was four, she suffered a debilitating stroke that left her partially paralyzed into adulthood. She's unable to use her left hand, and must rely on her right to do everything, like clutching a marker or paintbrush, or opening a drawer to show off more of her work.

Jones, 26, started making drawings as a child. "It starts from your head and starts from your mind," she says. "And it's rejoicing that feeling in me, so I started sketching a few things. And I'm completely trying to continue on to my next path, which is a whole lot of possibilities."

Organization aims to support disabled artists

Jones is one of about 30 local artists who found a home for their passion at Art Enables, a nonprofit in D.C. that caters to artists with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

"There still is a very fundamental need to empower persons with developmental disabilities so that they are not fully marginalized, as it now can happen," says Joyce Muis-Lowery, who founded the organization ten years ago to serve artists long banished to the fringes of society.

She says her organization isn't just about art therapy. Each piece is critiqued or juried before an exhibition, and some are rejected. Standards and expectations are high. And for every piece sold, the artist keeps a 60 percent cut. But buyers be warned: anyone hoping to purchase artwork from these artists will have to check his or her pity at the door.

"We actually don't encourage people to come in and do a sympathy purchase for us, because the last thing we want is someone buying a piece of art and hanging it in the closet or not hanging it at all," Muis-Lowery says.

Low opportunity for independence

Art Enables provides each artist with materials, studio space, marketing and opportunities to sell his or her work. Muis-Lowery says this frees artists to focus on their creations. But the consequence is that these emerging artists depend on the organization for nearly everything that relates to their budding careers, and most have been coming here for years.

Muis-Lowery says that while she would like to see the artists become completely independent professionals, it's not likely to happen with the individuals Art Enables works with.

"They don't necessarily have the resources either themselves or in their support group to have for example framing, access to photography, access to someone who is going to interface with the curator, etc.," she says. "They would have to replace all of those services if they were to launch all on their own."

And even if they were able to secure those services, there still would be no guarantee of ever making it in the art world.

"You see, we hear about the fully independent ones and we hear about the very successful ones," says Jane Haslem, who has been selling art for more than 50 years and runs her own gallery.  Disabled or not, an artist's chances at breaking into the mainstream art world hinge on promotion of his or her work and, well, luck, she adds.

"Some people get good breaks and some are ignored, but the thing that must be remembered is that if you create art and if you enjoy it, your joy in life should come from what you create and what you're doing," says Haslem.

As for Charmaine Jones, drawing and painting is precisely what she enjoys most. Her smile says it all.

"I feel very very very happy from now on," says Jones. "And I'm going to start one painting for my father. I'm going to continue doing that painting. He's going to be so proud of me. He's going to be saying that is my baby daughter." And perhaps when it comes right down to it, it's this pride and recognition that artists like Jones long for most.

[Music: "Work of Art" by Demi Lovato from Sonny With a Chance]

Photos: Art Enables

Video: Art Enables


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