Exhibited at the Inquiring Mind Bookstore and other venues in the mid-Hudson Valley, the works are now on display at the Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art, 103 Abeel St., through the month of December. Perusing the vividly patterned, boldly executed artworks at KMOCA, one is struck by the inventiveness and uncensored emotion that radiates out from these colored drawings and paintings on paper, and from the lyrical designs decorating an array of wooden boxes, framed mirrors, and walking sticks.
In a consumerist society steeped in conformity, comfort and entertainment, in which the more primal aspects of life are experienced by many of us only vicariously, such outsider art, unfettered by the self-conscious constraints of skill, style and intent, sings. The art-making is not only a way for these 30 men, most of whom have had no art training whatsoever, to express experiences and feelings perhaps never before given voice, it also was a revelation of imagination — a blooming of the creative soul that reaffirmed each man’s deepest sense of identity.
The dozens of artworks were culled from many years of workshops by art specialist Sarah Mecklem. She created the Art Garage, as the program of art therapy at Waryas House is called (the studio space is actually located in a handsome masonry garage) in 1995. Her talent as a teacher, working one on one with each student and often involving a collaborative approach, was responsible for getting people who had never before put pencil to paper on the path to producing works of surpassing beauty. In a few cases, these men emerged as bona fide artists. Angel S., for example, produced the large cross of cigarette boxes (also shown in the Kingston Sculpture Biennial of 2005) as well as a matching table and box, along with exquisite works on wood, depicting flowers and other motifs from nature, done in colored pencil. Although he’s graduated from the two-year residency program (which is a project of Abilities First, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing rehabilitation services), he periodically returns to the garage to work on his art.
As part of the art program, Mecklem, who is an artist herself, takes her students on visits to local galleries and the museums at SUNY New Paltz, Vassar and Bard, as well as to Storm King Art Center and DIA Beacon. She also has on hand books of animals, birds and other sources of imagery. Sometimes an individual will trace or copy a form, which is then blown up on a photocopier and transferred onto a box or other surface, each remove bringing the image closer to the invention of the artist.
Life in pictures
Mecklem begins by handing each new student a pencil and paper. In the case of William F., whose diptychs of brightly colored, jagged abstract shapes adorn one of the front walls of the gallery, the student at first “held the paper and gestured ‘you, you, you,’” recalled Mecklem. “I said, ‘No, you.’ I did one drawing for him, which he colored in, and then gave him some shapes to trace.” She noted that William was fascinated with confined, colored shapes, first executed in craypas, later in colored pencil. He also began dividing the paper in half, which lends an interesting tension to two distinct areas of shapes.
“I ask them to draw a picture of how they got to Waryas House,” Mecklem said. “I’ll ask them to elaborate: what did you see, how long did it take, where did you come from? I try to generate a thinking and memory process.”
After making drawings on colored paper, each man creates a papier-mâché mask, a self portrait of sorts. That’s followed by a wooden name plaque, with each man’s handwritten name carefully incised into the wood with a burning tool. The students go on hiking trips, during which they harvest a stick that they then peel, sand, and decorate with burned incisions done over their line drawings — not an easy task, given the rounded surfaced of the stick.
Of the clutch of the walking sticks for sale at KMOCA, the most impressive is an eight-foot crooked pole entitled “The Book of Delightful and Strange Designs,” with birds, elephants, trees and other images inspired by a book on the history of art. It was made by Chris R., who also crafted a haunting composition on a small panel with a burning tool that was inspired by a Vermeer. Mysterious figures seem to emerge out of the mottled surface, which includes a depiction of a woman at the window, an unmistakable homage to the Flemish master.
Burning buildings and basketball games
After several months, each student is given a sketch book, which accompanies him everywhere and becomes an invaluable repository of ideas. Mecklem also will on occasion set up a still life or otherwise have the men draw from life. The striking still life on dark colored paper by Raymond I., whose singular, fluidly drawn shapes of silverware and bottles against a green and black background is infused with a keening loneliness, was inspired by a place setting.
Other works by Raymond in the show are two fanciful depictions of basketball games. Each is viewed from above the court, the composition completely flat, like a complicated game board. “He was wondering what to draw. I knew he loved basketball, so I suggested he depict the game,” said Mecklem. Raymond’s painting of a burning building — the flaming structure bright orange against cool blues and greens, the entire page consisting of camouflage-like shapes — is also noteworthy. “His way of seeing things is fascinating to me,” said Mecklem. “He’s so meticulous.
“I’m always prompting,” she added. “Sometimes it’s a struggle for them, related to ADD. A guy will put six lines on a piece of paper and say, ‘I’m done.’ I have to delve in to what holds their attention.” For example, she had Ian D. follow the tracing of a box by her finger with a pencil, which he then filled in with details to create a radio (Mecklem has a collection of boomboxes, which are a favorite motif.) The man then added whales — inspired by a whale watch he’d gone on — which are unlike any you’ve ever seen: rainbow-colored cetaceans in magic marker and paint with ears, arms, and strangely positioned fingers.
Fred W., who suffers from depression, “had a hard time getting involved in art, but when he did, he did some wonderful work,” Mecklem said. Indeed: Fred’s painting of a winter scene in the show is pure poetry. The simple composition consists of three trees with starkly truncated branches silhouetted against a black ground. They are like mournful figures in the night, the harshness of the scene softened by falling snowflakes. A giant purple full moon hangs low, its round edge overlapping one of the trees, as if it were a caught balloon. No snowflakes fall over the moon — although the overlapping branches are snow-flecked — which has the effect of bringing the farthest thing in space forward, a somber, dark-blooded heart
While many pieces have sold, there’s still a great selection available. Prices range from $3 for a black-and-white card to $200 for the large walking stick; most of the drawings and paintings range from $45 to $90. A large wooden box, perfect for storing toys, is $180. Two ceramic pieces and several lively wall relief pieces fashioned out of wood shapes are also for sale. The gallery takes a 33 percent commission. Ten percent of the remaining proceeds go into an art fund that pays for the guys’ visits to galleries and other cultural events; the remainder of the money goes to the artist, of course.
KMOCA is open Saturdays from noon-4 p.m. or by appointment. Visit www.kmoca.org for more information.