ArtFirst! is the Real Winner: Affordable Art and a Good Cause

Linda Arntzenius

In 1970, John Schackerman was riding a motorcycle when he was hit head-on by an automobile. The accident left him with a paralyzed arm and hand. It also prompted the former tool and die maker from Collingswood, New Jersey, to enroll in Rutgers University where he discovered a talent for sculpting. Mr. Schackerman, who uses native New Jersey hardwoods to produce organically inspired art that is reminiscent of Brancusi and Moore, is among the artists whose work is on display in the fourth annual ArtFirst! exhibition at the University Medical Center of Princeton (UCMP).

The international juried exhibition and sale of original art and fine crafts by professional artists with physical and mental disabilities opened with a patrons preview party on Saturday, April 8.

Some 300 art works — watercolor, oil, acrylics, mixed media, sculpture, photography, pottery, baskets, mosaic and jewelry — by close to 100 artists from across the United States and Canada, as well as artists from South Africa and India are on view, and on sale, throughout the main floor corridors of the Medical Center.

All of the artists work with some form of physical or mental disability and all of the work in this exhibition was created post-disability. Many artists have had to make changes in their style, media, or technique as a result of disability. The show includes mouth painters, and artists who have invented unique devices to enable them to work, as well as people who were artists prior to disability, and others who discovered and developed their talent after disability.

"This exhibition has a dual purpose," commented exhibition curator Lois S. Levy. "It raises money for the hospital to be sure, but it also educates. The focus is not on what individuals with disabilities cannot do, but on what they can do with their gifts. ArtFirst! brings a message of "ability" to the public. It raises awareness of the tremendous capabilities of people living with such challenges. In addition, the exhibition provides a market for the artists and encourage others with disabilities to reach beyond their own limitations."

Ms. Levy, who joined the Medical Center in 2002 and curated the inaugural ArtFirst! in 2003, has been working in this field since 1978 and has an extensive database of participating artists. She enjoys turning the Medical Center into an art gallery, and takes particular pleasure in finding serendipitous arrangements as when a stained-glass framed mirror by Rae Adelman harmonizes with a nearby watercolor painting by Brom Wikstrom, a member of the International Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists since 1985.

The staff of the Medical Center also look forward to the annual arrival of artwork. "A group of volunteers worked on a Sunday afternoon to hang all the artwork and the reaction on the following Monday was great!" Ms. Levy said.

The focus of the exhibition is reflected in its title. ArtFirst! says it all. This is first and foremost an art show with international and national artists. According to Ms. Levy, the primary goal is to showcase all genres of art: "If it is good there's a place for it," she said.

Like many of the great artists who have found creative ways of working in spite of their disabilities — an arthritic Renoir strapped brushes to his hands and painted in long, fluid strokes; Matisse, confined to bed late in life, cut out large pieces of colored paper which he pasted onto enormous surfaces — many ArtFirst! artists have found innovative ways of using their tools. A quadriplegic photographer wields his camera using his mouth and chin. Several painters use their mouths or their feet to manipulate their brushes. The exhibition includes work by blind sculptors, a blind potter and photographer, and the work of an artist who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

The Artists

Fine art photographer Tom Lee from Oklahoma City, who became quadriplegic in 1974 at the age of 17 as a result of a car accident, works a manual camera with his mouth and chin and develops his own traditional black and white silver-based prints. Also a photographer, Sheila Ernst-Bifano of Houston, Texas has said that she uses art to gain control of her disabilities. She is bipolar and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ms. Ernst-Bifano uses a computer to strip out the color from her photographs which she then meticulously hand colors with pastels. Michael Hogan of Dorothy, N. J., tackled depression by taking photographic trips to the Pine Barrens. Three of his photographs taken in the 10,000 acre New Jersey Conservation Foundation's Franklin Parker Preserve are on sale.

Stained-glass artist Rae Adelman of Schwenksville, Pa., suffers from a progressive condition that has reduced her fine motor skills and hand strength. She makes stained-glass mosaics. Former nurse Christine Severson from Richmond, Va. is confined to a wheel chair following an on-the-job injury to her spinal cord. Two of her baskets are in the exhibition.

Visually impaired artist d'Elaine Johnson of Edmonds, Wash. works with acrylic on board and has three pieces in the exhibition. Their titles, Aboriginal Arnhem Land, Flowing Waters, and Holy Waters, reflect Ms. Johnson's interests in mythology and the sea.

Paralyzed from the waist down following a car accident in 1989, Beth Livingston, who grew up in Princeton before moving to Bozeman, Montana, finds inspiration in found objects and folk art. Her oil on canvas, South Side, is in the show. Vilama Gade from Kendall Park was born in India and came to the United States in 1988. A self-taught painter with rheumatoid arthritis, Ms. Gade has three works in the exhibition: Himalaya Mountain, Verrazano Bridge, and Zebras.

Self-taught artist and poet Thomas Wilczewski of Long Branch, New Jersey, who contracted polio at the age of four and works from his wheelchair, paints watercolors inspired by local beaches and gardens.

Artists from further afield, include two brothers from India, Siddartha S. Sukla and Sriharsha Sukla, who work in collage, producing remarkable still lives from slivers of glossy magazines carefully constructed into new works of art reminiscent of the Dutch exemplars of the form. Both are hearing impaired and mute. Malaysian resident Ping Lian Yeak is a 12-year-old autistic savant whose painting is titled Happy Fishes.

South African artist Joyce Lichtenstein contracted the autoimmune disease polymyositis some 25 years ago. According to her brother and sister-in-law, Larry and Evelyn Barnett, residents of Princeton, she got even more serious about her work after becoming ill. Her signature image, Poppies, is part of the exhibition: "I'm famous for my poppies," she has said. "I think they are very brave and gallant." The Barnetts believe that the description applies equally to Ms. Lichtenstein.

Among the 29 artists exhibiting for the first time at this year's ArtFirst! is 85-year-old Sylvia Shunfenthal, who started painting just 7 years ago. Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease just three years afterward, the New York City resident has a series of paintings of dolphins in the exhibition, much to the delight of her daughter, Ilene Watrous, of Princeton Junction.

Most of the artists are returning to ArtFirst! including Ashby Saunders, a sculptor from nearby Solebury, Pa., who is legally blind, Joy Raskin, a nationally renowned New Hampshire jewelry artisan, who is deaf, and Jolanta Kokot of Mebane, N.C., who had childhood tuberculosis that damaged one of her legs. Ms. Kokot is a self-taught artist whose graphite drawings are popular among ArtFirst! regulars.

This year's exhibition's jurors are Princeton artist Mary Bundy (known for pastels and portraits), and Andrea Honore, curator and cultural program adviser of Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick. The submitted work is judged on artistic merit alone. Of the 500 submissions, less than 300 were selected.

Everything in the show is framed and the frame is included in the sale price which is set by the artists themselves. Prices range from under $100 to $4,000 and the artists receive 80 percent of the sale price. Over the four weeks of the sale, about 50 percent of the art is sold according to Ms. Levy.


Best of Show awards went to jeweler and metal crafts person Joy Raskin of Bedford, N.H., for her Serenity flatware (Auxiliary Presidents' Juror's Choice Award); self-taught folk artist Jack Beverland of San Antonio, Fla., for his glow-in-the-dark paint on board, Noah's Ark (Juror's Choice Award); and Korean-American art professor Jinchul Kim of Salisbury, Md., for his oil on canvas painting, Turning Face (Curator's Choice Award). Mixed media artist Frank Valliere of Gorham, Maine, who is legally blind, took first place for his watercolor, Jerry's Blues. Patricia Goodrich of Richlandtown, Pa., won first place in sculpture for her piece titled Almost Perfect. Rebecca Martinez took the first prize in photography for her work Station.

ArtFirst!, which is presented by the Auxiliary of University Medical Center at Princeton is on view through May 5, daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free. If you see a painting, drawing, sculpture or piece of jewelry that you want to buy, call Lois Levy at (609) 497-4211 or 497-4191. If the item bears a red sticker it has already been sold.

Proceeds from ArtFirst! support emergency cardiac care and heart-related community education and screening programs at the University Medical Center.

Tours conducted by docents from the Princeton University Art Museum are available by arrangement. To schedule a tour, call Caroline Cassells at (609) 258-7482. For more details, visit (then click on ArtFirst! in the left column.)

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