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(Photo by M.B. Hersh)

ART FIRST, AND THEN REFLECTION: Seventy-five artists with disabilities are currently featuring their work in a 350-piece exhibition throughout the main lobby corridors at the University Medical Center of Princeton. The show, now in its second year, attracts artists from around the globe.
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In Hospital's ArtFirst! Exhibit, Disability Is Entirely Secondary

Matthew Hersh

Art is in the air at the University Medical Center of Princeton. Literally.

It hangs throughout several public corridors at the hospital as part of the ArtFirst! art exhibit that began last week. The exhibit, which is sponsored by the medical center's Auxiliary, features approximately 300 professional art pieces by 75 artists. The art will be for sale, with a portion of the proceeds going to the development of the hospital's new Breast Health Center.

So what is it about the show that makes it unique? Well, the art first, as the name suggests, but it should be noted that all of the artists considered for this second annual exhibition are physically or mentally disabled.

"It's about the art," said Lois Levy, the director of ArtFirst! "We really wanted to shout out about their talent and we want people to think of disabled people as being able to do great things."

Ms. Levy prefers to not classify this as 'art therapy," but as a gift for art that grew out of disability, adding that many in the exhibit were already artists before suffering from a disability that forced them to relearn their craft. Other artists began studying art techniques and taking classes when their disabilities limited them from pursuing activities that had once occupied their time.

However, the disability factor cannot be overlooked. Several of the artists suffering from degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis or with partial paralysis have adapted their disabilities in a way that influenced their art. One artist, Carol Saylor of Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with progressive deafness and blindness, or Usher's Syndrome, and she has been legally blind for 20 years. Ms. Saylor was a painter prior to her disability, but her sight impairment made painting virtually impossible.

"I started exhibiting her work when she was painting, and then I never saw her work again until a few years ago: she became totally blind," Ms. Levy said, in recounting the progression of Carol Saylor's work. "She was losing her hearing, and she was devastated."

Instead of resigning herself to what fate had in store, however, Ms. Saylor channeled her art through a form in which she could work: sculpture. She now works with clay, papier-mache, plaster, bronze, and wood. She has also exhibited in several shows including the National Exhibits by Blind Artists and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her work as a sculptor has also won awards from the Women's Committee of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

According to Ms. Levy, another artist had suggested that Ms. Saylor try sculpture because it is a more tactile art form.

"She never thought she'd be any good at it, and she has evolved over the years and her work is very sophisticated," Ms. Levy said. "She's just a brilliant sculptor."

While this is only the second year of ArtFirst! at the hospital, the show's concept dates back over 25 years.

"The first show I did like this was in 1979 when I was working at a rehab hospital," Ms. Levy said. "Back in 1979 people literally did not know anything about disabled people, they saw somebody in a wheel chair, and they wouldn't talk to that person, but to [their attendant]."

Ms. Levy said that at that point, she felt it was necessary to bring attention to individuals' abilities, and not disabilities.

"I started seeking sources to find artists and I've created a database with over 750 names from all over the world," she said. But her move to Princeton came only two years ago, along with another prominent hospital official.

When Princeton HealthCare System President and CEO Barry Rabner came on board in March of 2002, he had already been familiar with Ms. Levy's exhibit when they had worked together for the Main Line Health System in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

"He loved the show," Ms. Levy said. "So he told the Auxiliary about the show, and [then Auxiliary President] Barbara Curtis was so excited about it."

The work is not what the typical viewer expects to see, Ms. Levy added. And she's right. It's not. The art itself is evocative and executed with sophistication and skill, but one cannot help but remember the obstacles overcome by these artists who will not let disabilities hinder their talent, as Ms. Saylor said of her ability to work through blindness:

"I am not a body, but a mind and a spirit; the body's eyes have nothing to do with vision, and the body's ears have nothing to do with listening."

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