In May 2011, artists from the Matheny Medical and Educational Center's Arts Access Program and the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest's WAE Center were represented for the first time in the spring/summer Collaborative Art Exhibition of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. The spring-summer CAE is part of a year-long exhibition series showcasing hundreds of amateur and professional artworks created by the community at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences as well as members of the Greater Newark community it serves.
This May would have marked the 10th anniversary of this annual exhibit by artists with disabilities, but the Collaborative Arts Exhibition was canceled by the coronavirus. Instead, these artists will be celebrated in a virtual exhibit, which can be viewed here.
Matheny is a special hospital and educational facility in Peapack, NJ, for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities. JSDD’s WAE Center is a holistic, creative and expressive arts learning center in West Orange, NJ, for people with disabilities. Both programs are dedicated to enabling people with disabilities to produce fine art through the use of innovative systems and techniques.
The virtual NJMS exhibit will feature paintings and digital art by 23 Arts Access artists and 14 WAE Center artists. While other organizations serving individuals with disabilities have participated in the exhibit over the years, the partnership between Arts Access and JSDD's WAE Center has been constant. "One of the great things," said Eileen Murray, Director of Arts Access, "is that the collaboration has evolved and changed over the years, bringing a freshness and newness to each exhibit. We all benefit from each other’s work and love of the arts."
Marilynn Schneider, Director of the WAE Center, pointed out that the connection with Arts Access goes back even further than 10 years. "It was at a DDD (Division of Developmental Disabilities) gathering held at Matheny in 2002 or 2003 where I first met an amazing group of artists working with individuals with disabilities," she recalled. "From that day forward, we established a relationship of respect and support. We share a mutual understanding that people with disabilities have talent and a desire for self-expression."
In past years, a large group of artists from Arts Access and the WAE Center attended the live exhibit. "They not only enjoyed seeing their work on the walls," Murray said, "but they were intrigued and inspired by the work that the other artists were doing."
Chris Saglimbene, an artist at Arts Access, says “I’m always honored and humbled by the opportunity to have my artwork, that I worked so hard on, seen. Especially being seen in Rutgers, which is so intricately woven into the fabric of New Jersey, is amazing.” Chris also recognizes that “everything right now is in a weird space. While I really miss in-person events, I understand the importance of social distancing and why the virtual events need to happen. For the safety of the artists and the viewers.”
Another artist at Arts Access, Isabell Villacis agrees that the event going virtual “is the best thing people could do to keep us all safe and well until this over. And to keep us healthy and prevent it from spreading.” Though the way the exhibit will be seen has changed, Isabell’s excitement for hasn’t, as she says being selected for the NJMS exhibit “feels awesome!” She adds, “I feel very happy and honored to be part of this special celebration!”
One of the WAE Center artists, Kristen I., said she feels "honored" to be part of the NJMS exhibit. "It is a privilege for my artwork to be displayed at Newark's Medical Center," she said. Another WAE Center artist, Kevin M., added: "It makes me feel blessed when they choose to show my art for others to enjoy. I feel special when people see my work and tell me they are proud of me."
Schneider added, "It is thrilling to mark this 10th year with our colleagues and artists at Arts Access. Working remotely this year creates an opportunity to bring the work of these artists to people who have never thought about artists with disabilities." Acknowledging that "COVID obviously threw a wrench into our plans this year," Arianne Petersen, Arts Administrator for Arts Access, pointed out that "we adapted. We worked together quickly to find tools and resources to help us build a virtual gallery. I think that brings it all back to not just the collaborative nature of this annual event but the triumphs and tenacity of the human spirit. When we work together, we can overcome great obstacles."