Untitled by Steve Accola, an Interact artists who recently received a grant from the Jerome Foundation for his work.
If Chuck Close started out his artistic career in a wheelchair, would he have been as successful and respected?
Curator Welles Emerson poses this question to me as we sit in her office at Interact Center in Minneapolis. As Visual Arts Director, Emerson overseas a team of 80 "artists/clients." These are artists with disabilities, but Emerson wishes the word "disability" never entered the conversation:
I see in the artists here an unparalleled dedication to and focus on their work. They regularly spend three to five days a week, working six hours a day making art. They make art because they have no choice - it's who they are, they're artists.
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"Eye of the Beholder" by Sindibad
Unfortunately people unfamiliar with Interact and its work are likely to see the disabilities of its clients - the wheelchairs, the speech impediments or the down's syndrome - first. But Emerson says that doesn't last long. She regularly brings in professional artists to teach and partner with Interact artists.
The artists who come here, as soon as they see the art, they stop seeing the disability and just focus on the art and the artistic process. The art is exceptionally interesting and is being created outside of traditional parameters.
Interact's goal is to provide its artists with the materials and resources to create their art. Emerson stresses her job is not to make anyone a better artist, but simply provide them with access to information and supplies that allow them to pursue their own vision.
"Blue Pizza" by Chris Mason
Emerson describes the work of Interact artists as broad and diverse, often defying categorization. She regularly uses the phrases "outsider art," "visionary" and "fringe."
She says while the artists she works with are freed of many of the restrictions of mainstream artists - funding, working a day job, etc - they are also denied its benefits, namely community respect and recognition.
Interact is working to change that, says Emerson, creating a main gallery space with professional lighting for artist exhibitions.
The art benefits from being exhibited in a formal, neutral way that elevates the work and is not distracting. Don't want it to fall into a stereotype of either folk art or visionary art. We frame with high quality frames and we try to present the work in a way that the viewer can bring whatever they want to the experience.
"Blue Angel" by Anna Halverson
While Interact artists are not caught up in the gallery world's pressures and spin, they do love to get recognition for their work, whether it's through an audience or a sale. While getting a tour of the artists' studios I stopped by to check in on artist Donovan Durham, who I profiled a few years ago. Durham gave my hand a vigorous shake, and then leaned up to whisper in my ear "Hey Marianne, do you want to buy one of my paintings?" Ever the one-man salesman, he insisted I take a look at his latest work.
Imagine that drive and enthusiasm times 80, and you have a sense of the creative energy that Emerson is charged with curating and exhibiting. And she is passionate about getting the word out. Back in 2008 Midway Contemporary Art hosted an exhibition of work by Interact artists. And high profile community artists like Wing Young Huie regularly come in to work with the artists. But Emerson says exhibitions are still dominated by artist families and friends.
We also have the Interact supporters who support our philosophy and mission of radical inclusion and social justice, and then we have artists in the community who are delighted and blown away by what's made here. But we'd love to expand to an even broader art audience. Because really I think there's something for everyone here.
Bird Food Soup by Bill Borden
Newcomers will have the opportunity to take in the work of Interact artists this Thursday, when the gallery opens its latest show "Eat Art" and an accompanying side exhibition titled "MUD: The Art of Coffee." The reception will feature, in addition to the art, a performance by a vegetable orchestra.