Sherrie has cerebral palsy, which causes her hands to tremble. So when she was hired to work as an artist for L.A. GOAL in Culver City, she was concerned.
"I can't paint a straight line, because my hands shake," Sherrie told Susan Wilder, L.A. GOAL's art director.
"Well, then don't," Wilder replied. "Use the shaking in your paintings, because that will be part of your language. Rather than fighting it, you can incorporate it."
A door that was closed suddenly opens.
The key? An extraordinary program for adults with developmental disabilities, many of whom haven't had much success in a job before, let alone one where they are paid as artists.
Forty L.A. GOAL members will be demonstrating their artistic success in "The Drama of the Door," a unique exhibit opening April 30 at the Skirball Cultural Center's Ruby Gallery. The intention of the exhibit is to provide an opportunity to understand how the doors we open every day determine the lives we live.
The artists have worked diligently on the Skirball exhibit for the past year, exploring and discussing the theme of doors -- doors in their lives that are open for them, doors that create barriers, doors that leave them feeling isolated and doors that give them freedom.
The discussion opened the way for the artwork that emerged: brilliantly colored paintings, black-and-white photographs, richly symbolic, hand-painted boxes and intricately designed wall hangings. Each piece tells a story.
The painted boxes have a door that opens and closes. The outside for some represents what is seen and known by others, while the inside depicts a more private self that can be hidden when the door is closed.
"I never thought that I could be a professional artist," said Lisa, who though visually impaired, has always enjoyed drawing. "My artwork has taken a new direction because of this job. It gave me a whole new life. I was very happy when I discovered I could paint."
Unlike workshops for the handicapped, the employees at L.A. GOAL must adjust to high expectations: to be on time, to do quality work and to negotiate with the staff when something upsets them. According to Wilder, this isn't easy for many people with developmental disabilities.
"They have been ignored or coddled by society," she said," probably because that's the easiest way not to deal with them."
Elaine, another artist who has her work in the show, accepts the responsibility and sees the payoff. "L.A GOAL has meant a lot to me," she said. "I've never been able to do something I really liked before and not fail at it. I do what they ask. I don't always like it, but I do it anyway, because it's a job."
On a typical day in the art studio, Sherrie, Lisa and Elaine sit at a large table covered with works in progress, bottles of bright paints, drawing paper and assorted books. The room is alive with the exciting artwork created here: vibrant designs for note cards, baby blankets and hand-painted furniture.
There are eight artists working at the table, and as they draw and paint, they chat, sometimes about the content of their work or techniques the staff has shown them. Though they're hard at work, laughter often fills the room -- a response to a joke or to someone sharing a recent life challenge met in an amusing way. It's clear that this is a work setting where ideas blossom and creative juices flow, and where disabilities are not the focus of attention.
"I usually painted flowers and pretty things," Lisa said. "For this exhibit, Susan said, 'Why don't you paint something that's hard for you, something that you haven't done before?' I decided to do a trapdoor and paint something I don't like to talk about. I call it my Worry Box."
"I get very frustrated sometimes, and carry things around inside," she added. "I represented that with a dragon, because a dragon breathes fire and fire is very hot, and can burn you. My worries can burn me and hurt me."
The artists at L.A. GOAL often work collaboratively on projects. For this exhibit, a painting by D'Marcus, titled, "The Boxer Rebellion," was also made into a quilt.
"It makes me feel recognized to have people noticing my work and the things that I have done," D'Marcus said. "It's a new feeling. It feels really good."
D'Marcus said that the door in his painting opens to another world, one that is relaxing and away from pressure.
"My art is the strongest passion I've ever had since I was little," he added. "It helps my fear. I feel calm coming here every day and I try to help other people here to be more relaxed. I feel like part of a family."
L.A. GOAL's "The Drama of the Door" exhibit will be at the Skirball Cultural Center, April 30-June 29. For more information about the exhibit, call (310) 440-4500. For more information about a reception and silent auction hosted by Sean Penn, Thursday, May 8, 5:30pm, call (310) 838-5274.
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