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Long Branch Theatrical Couple Uncovered Creative Potential of Artists with Disabilities

By Sanford Josephson

originally published: 06/12/2018

Long Branch Theatrical Couple Uncovered Creative Potential of Artists with Disabilities

In the early 1990s Gabor Barabas, MD, was medical director of the Matheny School and Hospital, a special hospital and school in Peapack, NJ, for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities. His wife, SuzAnne, who was director of the Peanut Butter Theatre for children, couldn’t help wondering about the creative potential that might reside inside the minds of her husband’s patients if they were given the opportunity to express themselves. 

SuzAnne Barabas, now artistic director of the Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company, suggested to Dr. Barabas that the Matheny residents be paired with professional artists, who would act as their facilitators. “I felt it was important to bring in artists to establish the program, not therapists,” she says. “We wanted instructors without any clinical knowledge, who had no preconceived ideas about potential limitations or about what a student could or could not do. Anything was possible. We viewed the participants not merely as students but as apprentices.”

To get the program started, the couple first presented the idea to Robert Schonhorn, then Matheny’s president, who encouraged them to move forward. They then obtained a $35,000 seed grant from the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. “The artist instructors,” SuzAnne Barabas explains, “were asked to focus on how they could facilitate each student’s vision  -- whether it was in painting or sculpture or photography or writing  -- and never to influence that vision. The focus was always on process and facilitation, and then the outcome would follow. A primary goal was to foster independence and build confidence and to create an environment away from the classroom. When the first room was designated for the program (in 1993), it became, she says, “a studio away from the school and hospital.” 

The first project was called “wheelsizing”. “We would put a large canvas on the floor,” Dr. Barabas recalls, “and the artists would create paintings with their wheelchairs. We would ask them, ‘What color did they want on the canvas?’ And they started to paint.” Some of those early paintings were exhibited at the Newark Museum and at a local gallery called the Garage. How did that happen? “We showed them the work,” SuzAnne  Barabas says, “and the work spoke for itself. Accommodations were not made because an artist had a disability. We entered various works into art contests and won various awards, and we never mentioned beforehand that the submitting artists had a physical disability.” 



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Dr. Barabas, now executive producer of the New Jersey Repertory Company, remembers that one of the Matheny artists won an award from the New Jersey Lawyers Association. “The entries were anonymous,” he says, “and, all of a sudden, we wheel in a wheelchair with augmentative communication devices at the awards dinner.” 

In addition to painting, another early success was sculpture. “The sculpture students,” SuzAnne says, “made machetes out of clay, and then it became important to find a way to get to foundries and make molds of the machetes and, ultimately, to create bronze pieces. It was felt that it was important for the students to go through the whole process, and, so, the funds to do this were allocated by Bob Schonhorn. We wanted to emphasize the value of each sculptor’s work, and we made sure also to frame all the paintings professionally.” 

Long Branch Theatrical Couple Uncovered Creative Potential of Artists with DisabilitiesAfter SuzAnne Barabas helped launch the program, the next step was building an arts center. Aided by a major fundraising campaign, the Robert Schonhorn Arts Center was constructed in 2000. “As the idea expanded to create an arts center,” SuzAnne says, “the goal was to put the building as far from the school and hospital as architecturally possible so that the student artists would have to ‘travel’ to get there.” As a result, the arts center is not attached to Matheny’s main building.

This year, Matheny (now known as the Matheny Medical and Educational Center) will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Arts Access Program at Full Circle 2018: Then and Now, to be held on November 3 in the Robert Schonhorn Arts Center. Although the program, in its early stages, focused mainly on the visual arts, it has grown to include other disciplines such as dance, drama, and writing. Full Circle will feature a visual art gallery exhibition of paintings and digital art created by Arts Access artists and a stage presentation showcasing performance pieces by Arts Access choreographers, dramatists, and writers. 

Eileen Murray, who has been director of Arts Access since 2011, explains the program’s philosophy this way: “We provide the creative freedom for the artists to express themselves, but it is the artists who bring this work to life. The art you will see at Full Circle represents 25 years of creativity by a remarkable group of artists.” 

“From the get-go,” Dr. Barabas points out, “we were convinced that we could build a model program that could be replicated, that had potential to not only serve the population at Matheny but could also serve the larger population.” That goal has been achieved, as the Arts Access method has been adapted by other organizations for the disabled such as the Arc of Mercer County in Ewing, NJ, and the WAE Center of Jewish Services for the Developmentally Disabled in West Orange, NJ. 

Through the years, the Arts Access Program has won many awards, and the work of Arts Access artists has been exhibited at several venues. In addition to the Newark Museum, they have included the New Jersey State Museum, ABC World Headquarters, and the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. But the program’s prestige was perhaps best described a few years ago by Nicholas Paleologos, executive director of the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, who, serving as honorary chair of Full Circle in 2015, said: “I am so very proud of the work being done here. No arts program is more unique than Matheny’s.”

For more information on Full Circle or Arts Access, log onto artsaccessprogram.org.

Photos courtesy of Arts Access Program at Matheny



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