Monday, October 20, 2003

Good News

'Outsider art:' Embracing difference

The story of "Visionaries and Voices" is another reason Cincinnati is a good place to live.

It began as a grass-roots effort to find practical ways to celebrate and support self-taught artists, especially those with disabilities. It's also finding ways that art can improve the lives of people normally not mentioned in conversations about "arts" and "culture."

Keith Banner, a social worker with Butler County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilties, helped start the "outsider art" effort here. When he visited the homes of MRDD clients, he found many doing art in isolation. "Some of the art was so good," Banner said, "that I wanted everybody else to know about it," He met with community groups such as United Cerebral Palsy and others serving citizens with a variety of disabilities.

Visionaries and Voices artists have exhibited at a few galleries, libraries and churches. But this month they moved to their first studio/gallery of their own. It's located at Essex Studios, 2515 Essex Place in Walnut Hills. The Studios also house about 100 other artists.

By assisting self-taught artists, Visionaries and Voices is providing Cincinnati a platform for broader acceptance of people normally not heard from, and art rarely seen.

There now are about 50 self-taught artists involved. Some go to the studio to work; others just show their work there.

The idea and work are creating a buzz in art circles. There is a growing number of collectors of "outsider" art nationwide, says Banner. A few visited Cincinnati last week to see the current exhibit "Life as We Know It," the first in the group's new studio/gallery.

Equally important, Visionaries and Voices is helping people normally unheard find a voice. Listen to mother and teacher Cheryl Bartenberger: "In one evening, my son's life changed dramatically with a traumatic brain injury. The old, known ways of living no longer worked, but art and the creative process gave him a reason to live," she says.

"Exploring art and painting abstracts began to add color and meaning to his life. He developed an inner sense of worth and beauty that helped him through the physical and emotional pain of starting his life anew."

Visionaries and Voices helped Bartenberger's son, Alex, become part of the art community and meet other artists with disabilities. She said she watched him and other artists "blossom (so that) life is now about what the artists can create and offer to society, not about being disabled." These self-taught artists, she says, are "an inspiration to society, using art and the creative process to overcome huge obstacles in adverse situations."

The effort and audience are building in Greater Cincinnati - thanks in part to financial help from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and others.

This is fresh, fascinating art, with incredible human stories behind it. Bravo to Visionaries and Voices, those who support it and the artists involved.

Go see the exhibit. Call (513) 861-4333 for times and information.

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