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“CARNEGIE LAKE SUNRISE, FALL”: This photographic work by Leigha Emma Cohen, who received third prize in Photography, can be seen in the ArtFirst! exhibition currently at University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP). The Auxiliary has pledged to use the proceeds to support Maternal Child Health at UMCP. The exhibit will continue through May 9, daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, call (609) 497-4211.

University Medical Center at Princeton
Art vs. Illness: The Redefining of Disability

Stuart Mitchner

Disability” is one of those words that lends itself to being deconstructed and redefined. As you walk through the ArtFirst! show at the University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP), you’ll see how almost 90 different artists struggling with disabilities have effectively taken the word apart by creating a world of impressively enabled work.

“Keep Working”

Following the adventurous course of this exhibit, for which a map is provided to help visitors navigate the twists and turns it takes down hallways and into corners and alcoves of the lobby floor, I was thinking of two artists, lifelong friends who came of age in the 1920s and continued working into the 1980s. Until they were in their seventies, neither painter suffered from any “disabilities” beyond coping with the Depression, the Second World War, and, in one case, the stress of dealing with the trials and tribulations of parenting. That particular painter, the most celebrated of the two, took the subway every day from her home in Riverdale to a studio on Union Square. Even when she was stricken with Parkinson’s disease and was confined to her home, she kept painting. She outlived her old friend, who was still working right up to the day the ambulance took him to St. Vincent’s after he collapsed in his studio, also on Union Square. When he was in his early thirties he earned the plum of all WPA commissions, the painting of the murals in the rotunda of the main branch of the New York Public Library. During the war he was an artist correspondent for Life magazine, and was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded covering the Italian campaign. These two painters lived according to the advice that had been handed down to them by their mentor, Kenneth Hayes Miller, which was to keep working even when you’re ill — ”as long as you can hold the brush.”

Probably the ultimate example of creating against odds is Jean-Dominique Bauby’s accomplishment in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which should be out soon on DVD, if it isn’t already. There are quadriplegics among the artists in the UMCP show, and while no one approaches the condition of Bauby, two of them painted with the brush in their mouths and another with his right foot. A fairly large percentage of the ArtFirst! artists were severely disabled in accidents, some in cars, one on a plane, some when they were at work. Several have suffered the effects of polio and yet others work, as did my friend, in spite of Parkinson’s. Some were in the middle of productive lives when they were stricken with mental illness, torn by schizophrenia, or devastated by depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. A number are legally blind. There are amputees, autistics, hearing impaired, mutes. Others suffer from chronic pain or MS. And all that seems like so much dust in the wind when you look at what they have created.

I’m glad I didn’t pick up the exhibit booklet (available at the reception desk) until I’d finished touring the show because one of the things that makes ArtFirst! special is the sense that you’re operating outside the usual gallery/museum boundaries. Instead of being sealed into a closed aesthetic environment where the subject or theme is one among an ongoing series organized by a curator, you’re surrounded by the real-world bustle of a busy hospital.

While the exhibit guide invites you to “redefine your perception of people with disabilities,” what is no less important is the way the show redefines and clarifies your perception of the art. That’s what it’s all about, as the brochure concludes: “It is the art, first!” Or, if you like, “It’s the art, stupid!” Here it’s a wildly varied exhibit unmarred by known quantities such as celebrated or critically established artists or fashionable genres or standard curatorial commentaries. Here it’s truly art for art’s sake, free of the usual predeterminations and distractions. Of course there are distractions of another sort in the form of the everyday hospital traffic of patients in wheelchairs, or stretched out on gurneys being wheeled through the corridors of this unconventional gallery.

Subtle Colors

You may find it instructive to use certain artworks as a way of measuring your response against that of the jurors, artists Tony LaSalle and Gordon Haas. At one point I was struck by the proximity of two works by Ruth McDowell to a prize-winning piece that at first seemed to me to be less accomplished. As I remember it, the jurors’ choice was bolder and brighter but also less finished. In addition to the detail and the formal intricacy, what attracted me to Alders (an acrylic) was the softer, more subtle coloring. It’s even possible that I connected with it because its colors reflected those of the sweater I was wearing, or maybe it was because the tone or hue recalled some familiar landscape. As for Ruth McDowell’s story, she’s 80, and, according to the booklet, “uses her art to inform the public about mental illness” and “to lessen the stigma associated with her bipolar disorder.” If I’d known this at the time I saw her work, would it have affected my response? I doubt it. But it would have been a distraction. It was only after I’d been through the exhibit making notes that I looked up the personal histories of the artists listed in the exhibit guide.

Art in Action

John Bisbee’s Some Trees, which took second prize among acrylics and oils, was clearly different from, if not superior to, his Three Trees; it would be interesting to know the jurors’ rationale for choosing one over the other. Some Trees lives up to its more open title; it’s wilder, less confined to specifics than Three Trees. All Bisbee’s acrylics feature thickly, heavily worked surfaces. Seeing the physical impact of the artist in action brought back the time, at 19, when I wandered into a museum in Amsterdam and reeled back into the light of day after an hour of Van Gogh, Van Gogh, and nothing but Van Gogh. The titles didn’t matter, nor did the dates, nor did the place or time of day; nothing mattered but the excitement of the paintings. Look up Bisbee’s bio and you learn that around the same time he received a scholarship to M.I.T. he was stricken by severe schizophrenia and had to be hospitalized several times over the next eight years. While any association with Van Gogh’s purported schizophrenia is coincidental, it makes an interesting subtext to the art.


Winner of the Juror’s Choice Award, photographer Mark Ensselin’s Laura 2 offers another opportunity to read the minds of the jurors, since his Laura 1 features the same subject from another angle. Both these close-ups of a human head are big, bold, striking works of black and white photographic art. In Laura 2 you see the only the back of the subject’s completely bald head; in Laura 1 you see a side-view of the face. Perhaps the jurors found Laura 2 more interesting because it left more to the imagination. Something in the shape of the head and black/white contrast suggests space photography; you can picture an immaculate moonscape. The more impersonal Laura 2 also emphasizes the starkness of the contrast with the black background as well as reinforcing the possibility that the bald female subject has experienced chemotherapy. That, in turn, recalls the health care context of the exhibit, where the traffic in the halls consists of doctors, interns, nurses, and aides pushing gurneys, wheelchairs, and carts laden with medical paraphernalia.

One of the artists whose work gave me special pleasure was Anita Dallar. Her mixed media collages are as colorful and visually musical as the titles, including Bluegrass, Crazy Jazz, Dance, and Sea of Serpents, which received an honorable mention in the category Works on Canvas, Board, Metal, and Glass. The artist, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, cites her influences as history, psychology, and cultural anthropology.

Other favorites: the visual poetry of Leigha Emma Cohen’s views of Carnegie Lake, one of which took third prize in Photography, and The Faces of Eve by Cam Mandakas, first prize winner in Acrylics & Oils. I also enjoyed Cityscape, an acrylic by John Sears, Brooklyn Lights, an oil by Daniel Neufeld, and Hex River Valley, an oil by South African artist Joyce Lichtenstein, who has Princeton connections by way of her brother and sister-in-law.

The Bare Ceiling

At one point, I had to move aside for a gurney bearing the prostrate form of a white-haired man, who reminded me of the white-haired painter lying on his back in the Intensive Care unit at St. Vincent’s. The most voluble of men, the person whose credo was to keep working in spite of illness, had been put on life-support and couldn’t speak. Since he had nothing to look at but the blank ceiling, I was wishing I could hold a reproduction of Rubens or Courbet or Caravaggio where he could see it. But his friend, the other artist, told me that would probably only make it worse. “It’s better to let him imagine it,” she said. “That’s what he’s doing.” A day or two before he died, I went to the third-floor rotunda outside the Main Reading Room and sat among the four enormous panels he’d painted back in the late 1930s under the title, the Story of the Word. I heard people speculating about the identity of the artist. They seemed to think he’d been dead for decades. While they were gazing wonderingly up at his spectacular ceiling painting of Prometheus bringing the gift of fire to mankind, I was thinking of the white-haired painter staring at the blank ceiling in Intensive Care.

ArtFirst! will be on view daily through May 9 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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