Artist Bea Olea using a head tool.
Photo courtesy of UCP-LA

This Culver City Gallery is Revolutionizing Tech for Disabled Artists

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Washington Reid Gallery not only features work by artists with developmental challenges — the facility is developing tools that allow for greater independence and expression.

Tech-forward, multidisciplinary artwork has taken over the Washington Reid Gallery in Culver City. Animated gifs blink on a screen, 3D-printed sculptures are positioned throughout the gallery and colorful photographs of miniature scenes line the walls; near the entrance to the gallery, a subtle, yet powerful piece stands out: a stained-wood work etched with a simple phrase “Hope Is Inspiring.”

This piece by Nicolas Canales — accompanied alongside other similar works by fellow artists Maria Mears and Sylvia Drzewiecki — is part of the current show “Imagining Something New,” which aims to opens up a discourse on life with disabilities.

While the Washington Reid Gallery is positioned among architecture firms and exclusive galleries in Culver City’s arts district, it showcases a different kind of artist. The participants in the gallery-adjacent Washington Place Adult Day Program are people with cerebral palsy, as well as other developmental challenges like autism and Down syndrome, can pursue artistic endevours, whether it be painting, photography or digital art.

“Imagining Something New” is only one example of the groundbreaking work United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties (UCP) does with the disabled community. 

Derrick Gordon - Hand Tool Artist
Hand tool artist Derrick Gordon. Photo courtesy of UCP.

In previous shows, the gallery has delved into issues like the shortcomings of the American with Disabilities Act (A.D.A)  and how its regulations aren’t always inclusive of people who use motorized wheelchairs. In their regular practices, some disabled artists use customized tools that take into consideration their individual physicality and mobility. While this isn’t the only organization that supports artists with disabilities, the facility has been on the vanguard, developing tools that allow for greater independence.

Self Expression for Everyone

The Adult Day Program has been in this Washington Boulevard space since 2001 and arts and crafts were a part of their services from the beginning. But it wasn’t until about 2009 that they slowly introduced a fine art component to programming at the center.

“It became a really elevated form of self-expression for not just a few people, but almost everybody pretty quickly,” says Stephani Anderson, UCP director of client services.

By 2011, they had officially launched the art studio. A year later, artist Veronica DeJesus, head arts facilitator and gallery manager, joined the team.

DeJesus describes her approach to managing the gallery as “person-centric.” The shows here develop out of the artists’ interests. Some artists have also curated shows with the gallery and collaborated with fellow artists from similar programs across the U.S.

The artists who develop here come from a variety of backgrounds. They might have some experience with art-making, but that’s not required. The staff at UCP works to help them grow as artists.

“They’re accountable for their art practice and their portfolio and their discourse and their artist’s statements,” DeJesus says, “and I think that’s really cool.”

In order to help artists create their best work, though, they need proper tools. “Everyone in here has an innate ability to express themselves,” says Aragna Ker, adaptive design coordinator. The question that Ker and his colleagues try to answer is “How do we uncover that in this program here?”

For Ker that has come through a series of experiments to build pieces that allow people to paint with stronger grip control or use their feet or heads in the process.

The question is also personal for Ker; his late sister had cerebral palsy. “I kind of understand the dynamics of the way that culture looks at disability,” he says. That’s been an important motivation in his work developing adaptive tools. “It’s an homage to my little sister.”

After seeing Ker’s concepts, Anderson brought him into the fold as well.

“Aragna was the one to figure out all of the different ways to make something functional and quick to change and very accessible to people, let alone to fine-tune something so that it could be steadily held or managed by somebody and really intentional in art-making,” Anderson says. “He really revolutionized things.”

In the beginning, Ker developed new gear through labor-intensive, DIY processes that involved figuring out an artist’s hand or foot size and piecing together odds and ends from Home Depot, then refining the tools by cutting and sanding them. Then, the organization was awarded a grant from The Looker Foundation that allowed them to purchase their first 3D printer. “That opened a whole new world for me,” Ker says. “It did everything I wanted to do, but I just had to learn the program.”

Artist Seong Chon using a foot tool to paint.
Artist Seong Chon using a foot tool to paint. Photo courtesy of UCP.

Ker began developing the designs about six years ago, before he came to UCP. He had spent years working with disabled artists and saw the issues that came with previous painting solutions, like taping a brush onto a shoe. “Being an artist myself, I feel like that’s not very dignified,” he says.

“It wasn’t dignified and it also was not effective,” Anderson says. “You would have to pick a color and then wait for someone to come around and unwrap your shoe and change it out or change the medium. That wasn’t very practical.”

Adaptive artistry 

In a corner of Washington Place Adult Day Program’s studio, one of Ker’s own artworks hangs above a collection of 3D printers and CNC etching machines. It’s a drawing of hands in different positions. Ker studies the artists’ hands and how they move to design tools that work best for them individually. For client and artist Lily Hernandez, he made a long holder that curves at the bottom to fit inside her fist. For Devon Synagogue, the handle of his apparatus curves to fit in between his fingers. Ker shows off other tools too, like one made for an artist who uses two hands to move a pen or brush and one for an artist who uses his foot.

Then Ker shows me the “grip-free” tool. That’s for artist Eric Santamaria, who makes art using the motion of his body in a wheelchair. His tool attaches to the bottom of his chair and, as he moves, he’ll mark up the paper underneath him. Over time, the marks build up to form large, expressive works.

Ker pulls one of Santamaria’s pieces that’s stored in the studio. It’s covered in multi-colored Sharpie marks and, as Ker notes, the paper developed an interesting texture from the indentations made on it through the artist’s movements. Santamaria’s work has been successful too; his prints sell through the company ArtLifting.

But, tools to draw and paint are only one element of what Ker is developing. There’s also a table angled so that artists can comfortably use a Wacom tablet (a graphics tablet generally used in graphic design) and cup holders redesigned to give artists better access to paints. Ker also made a wood platform for a joystick that connects to Photoshop, giving an artist who works with their feet the ability to use the program. Adaptive furniture, he says, is the next step.

An artist at the Washington Reid Gallery is an adaptive tool to use a marker.
An artist at the Washington Reid Gallery uses an adaptive tool for mark-making. Photo courtesy of UCP-LA

“It’s about their environment,” Ker says. “How can we not consider that?”

The adaptive tools have allowed artists at Washington Reid Gallery to flourish and, according to the staff there, other centers have taken notice. Anderson says that they’re investigating different business models that could allow them to make more tools for others. In addition to their facility, they’ve been able to get the tools to UCPLA’s Chatsworth Adult Day Program, which will be hosting its own art exhibition in September.

While these tools started out as a way to help artists create, these adaptive implements have more uses. Ker has tested out the designs with kitchen tools, and DeJesus points out that, during an election, they discovered that the tools helped the artists with electronic voting. These new uses for the tools are a testament to the power of art and creativity. 

“This is the origin story of adaptive technology,”  DeJesus says.

VISIT


UCPLA Washington Reid Gallery 


6110 W. Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232


www.ucpla.org

Los Angeleno