Josh Handler, a resident of the Matheny Medical and Educational Center’s group home in Frelinghuysen, NJ, was one of the first participants 28 years ago in Matheny’s innovative Arts Access Program, which enables individuals with disabilities to create fine art, working with professional artists who act as their facilitators. He flourished as a creative visual artist during the program’s early years, producing several paintings and digital art pieces.
Just as Arts Access diversified into other art forms such as dance, drama, and poetry, Handler, a music fan, expanded into the world of dance, seven years ago, choreographing a dance piece to the music of one of his favorite songs, Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes.” It was featured at Arts Access’ Full Circle celebration in 2019.
This year, as Full Circle becomes a virtual event, due to the pandemic, Handler has selected another of his favorite songs, Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel”, as inspiration for a dance. “I like the song,” he says, “and I wanted to put my own spin on it.”
According to Arts Access Dance Facilitator Alyssa Thostesen, “It’s very important for Josh to ‘keep his fans guessing’ and have each of his dances be different from the last. Prior to quarantine, he created a list of different songs with all different artists to make sure he had a variety to choose from. When the time came to start a new piece on Zoom, he chose ‘Heart Like a Wheel’.”
The piece, Thostesen adds, “has a cast of four, two able-bodied dancers and two dancers using wheelchairs. Originally, Josh wasn’t sure if he wanted to perform the male wheelchair part, but, after a few weeks of working on the choreography, he built up the courage to decide he wanted to be in the performance.”
Full Circle 2021: Art from Afar will stream live on Saturday, November 6 at 4:00pm. This celebration of the Arts Access Program features a visual fine art gallery exhibition and a multi-media stage show, both of which will be professionally filmed for the live stream. The gallery exhibition includes acrylic and digital paintings and sculpture, while the stage show presents choreography, dramatic works, and staged readings of creative writing. There will also be a behind-the-scenes look into the artists’ creative process. To order tickets to Full Circle 2021, click here.
Matheny, located in Peapack, NJ, is a special hospital and educational facility for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities.
The Arts Access Program began in 1993, created by Dr. Gabor Barabas, then Matheny Medical Director, and his wife, Suzanne, with a $35,000 grant from the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. It broke the mold of what had previously been done with art programs for people with disabilities. Eileen Murray, Director of Arts Access, noted, “Art has no boundaries. This has never been more true than this past year, when the Arts Access artists had to take a step back from in-person art facilitation. Their art-making continued, but the artists couldn’t even be in the same town as their facilitators, let alone the same room. Undeterred, these artists have created paintings, dances, poems, and plays all through a virtual platform. They create across city and county lines, their hunger for art driving them. They created “Art from Afar.”
Under the current Arts Access facilitation system, all facilitators must be professional artists, and they are required to maintain a sense of neutrality throughout the creative process. All the creative decisions are the artists’, a challenge because some of the artists are non-verbal. But they all have a method of indicating ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That might be, for example, by looking up or down or shaking their heads in a certain direction.
The sale of every piece of Arts Access visual artwork directly benefits the Arts Access Program and its artists. The proceeds from paintings, prints, and sculptures are shared evenly -- 50 per cent goes directly to the artists in support of their professional careers, and 50 per cent goes to the program to help subsidize the cost of art materials and framing. Artists are also paid a licensing fee for the use of their art in wearable and functional art merchandise, including jewelry, scarves, ties, and mugs, available for purchase on artsaccessprogram.org.
Full Circle has received generous funding from major sponsors such as First Energy Foundation, Investors Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, The Friends of Matheny, and Mariner Wealth Advisors.
Photos courtesy of Arts Access Program at Matheny