How to create community with art, and other lessons from Field of View

An artist residency program for people with developmental disabilities rethinks the value of creative labor

Most stories are more complicated than they seem. To really understand why we–individually and collectively–have ended up at this particular moment in time under the often baffling conditions that inform day-to-day life, the simple story just won’t suffice.

This particular story, which looks at how five Portland-based artists ended up at a very special artist residency called Field of View, is far from simple. To understand how this program came to be begs for a brief glimpse into the ongoing public policy debate over how the State of Oregon should support individuals who experience developmental disabilities, for example. And all the nuances, twists, turns and triumphs in this story illuminate the Field of View resident artists’ resilience and creative capacity–as well as the possibility that art-making could play a vital role in the movement toward a more holistic, integrated city, state, and society.

My journey into this story began on a Sunday evening late this past August. Carissa Burkett, the artist who initiated Field of View, a program of the nonprofit Public Annex, invited me over to her home for dinner, where I met five of the program’s resident artists, along with Lauren Moran, Burkett’s co-organizer. Thanks to funding from the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund, Field of View was able to place these artists, all of whom experience developmental disabilities*, in three-month-long artist residencies around the community in Portland, at sites including King School, Performance Works Northwest, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center.

We sat on Burkett’s back patio that warm night and chatted for a couple of hours about the artists’ experience in their residencies. At the gathering, I met Dawn Westover, a visual artists who makes drawings; Sonya Hamilton, a painter and ceramicist; David Lechner, a visual and dance artist; and Olga Shchepina, a painter and sculptor. I also reconnected with Larry Supnet, a prolific visual artist whom I had met earlier in the year.

What made this gathering of artists especially interesting, in my eyes, was their familiarity with one another–the way they cracked jokes and smiled knowingly. I could tell there was a lot more to their stories as colleagues. “How do you all know each other?” I asked…

Dawn Westover’s Instagram @dawn_westover_art

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As it turns out, the story of these artists coming together goes way back–so far back that it required a detour into the history of the Oregon state legislature’s attempts to improve its services for Oregonians with developmental disabilities. Burkett filled me in on some of the details.

Starting in the late 1980s, the State of Oregon began a concerted effort to close all institutions serving people like the Field of View artists. The horrors of these institutions were coming to light in greater detail–including forced sterilizations, inhumane methods for restraining patients, and various levels of other abuses–recounted in many first person narratives by former patients. Closures of institutions across Oregon were completed around 2009.

Until recently, sheltered workshops were a prominent alternative for individuals with developmental disabilities to spend their time. In sheltered workshops, they generally worked for subminimum wage, possibly even pennies per hour, usually doing what is known as piecework. This includes “sorting hangers, putting little pieces together in little packages…that kind of stuff,” Burkett explained–all of which resembles labor systems in prisons. As stated in a comprehensive report by the National Disabilities Rights Network in 2011, “sheltered workshops and the sub-minimum wage still exist today because of self-interested employers and systematic neglect by federal agencies…,” later noting that, “Sheltered workshops have replaced institutions in many states as the new warehousing system.”

Supnet did not mince words in recalling his time doing piecework, sorting hangers in a sheltered workshop at the Port City Development Center. “That sucked,” he said, “I hated it.”

Adult day service programs were–and still currently are–another alternative option for people who experience developmental disabilities, including those unable to work in sheltered workshops. These programs provide environments where individuals receive care and are offered activities to participate in.

Enter, Project Grow, which became a small haven for the five artists (Supnet, Westover, Shchepina, Hamilton, and Lechner). Project Grow was a program initiated in 2008 by social practice artist Natasha Wheat at Port City Development Center. Wheat explained in this lecture at Portland State University that she was originally hired by Port City as an art instructor, but soon after joining the organization, she proposed an art studio and urban farming center to the Port City. “I don’t think that the person who approved this proposal thought that the project was actually going to happen,” she said. However, thanks to a lot of visioning and intention, the concept was eventually added to Port City’s offerings and services, which, at one point, included a sheltered workshop, an enrichment center, a wood studio, a print studio, and Project Grow, an art and farming program.

“There’s no need for art that provides more of, or refines, the culture of the existing society, that is to say, art that perpetuates ‘what is’ and helps us to assimilate,” says Wheat at the end of her lecture. “But we can rather use each opportunity to question our own assumptions.”

Sonya Hamilton at King School

Fast forward to that August evening conversation with the five Field of View artists. When I asked how they each knew one another, I learned that they had all worked together at Project Grow. “One great thing about Project Grow,” noted Burkett, “was there was a lot of professional development in place.” Program participants had the opportunity to earn minimum wage for studio upkeep and farming work. 

For artists like Hamilton, who battled and beat breast cancer during her time at Project Grow, the pull of work and artistic practice was especially strong–perhaps even sustaining. “She would go to work (at Project Grow) Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and then she would have her therapy, her treatments, and then she would stay home and recover,” said Burkett. “Then she’d go back to work. She kept going!”

However, in spite of all its benefits, Burkett saw plenty of room for improvement in the way program participants were being supported. “I really feel like, while Project Grow was a better step, we were still institutionalizing people,” she reflected. As an employee of the program, the separation between these artists and the rest of the society was still apparent to her, in spite of a vision for more community-wide engagement on the part of Project Grow. For Burkett, a higher level of integration was critical–where individual artists could have their own practices out in spaces used by broader communities.

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As fate would have it, the settlement of a 2012 class action lawsuit in Oregon paved the way for a new statewide Employment First initiative, with a focus on building competitive-wage integrated employment for people with developmental disabilities. State funding was decreased for sheltered workshops, which were deemed a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for “unnecessarily segregating people with intellectual and developmental disabilities” (more on OPB).

These changes affected Port City, which was eventually subsumed into Albertina Kerr Day Services. While the inner workings of this transition are hard to explain here, Kandi Hubler, Program Manager at Port City, did provide me with some insight into the process.

Around the time of these legislative changes, Port City’s building lease was up and it was beginning the shift toward providing “community-based services” (entailing more efforts toward integration). This meant undertaking a major transition in the way that it was supporting its program participants, Hubler said. As a result, Project Grow ceased to exist as a distinct program. Project Grow’s urban farm was no longer available to program participants, but art-making opportunities remained. Some Project Grow participants moved to Art From the Heart, another Albertina Kerr Day Service site that offered art-making opportunities and community outings. Others stayed at Port City proper, which has a similar range of offerings.

The five artists moved on to spend their time in new or differently structured settings. A few of the artists I met expressed unhappiness with the day program they migrated to, indicating they were not compensated for their labor in the way they had become accustomed to at Project Grow (for farm work or for helping with tasks in the art studio). “The state has kind of made it really hard for organizations to continue to pay people with disabilities in a group setting,” noted Burkett.

David Lechner, Carissa Burkett, and Allie Hankins dancing at Performance Works Northwest

With the cessation of Project Grow, Burkett realized this was the right time to think creatively and build projects outside the systems in play. She came together with collaborators to found Public Annex, a nonprofit that offers accessible urban farming and arts programming. Then, independently of that project, she tapped Moran, a former Project Grow artist-in-residence, to collaborate on the Field of View artist residency program. They applied for and received a small grant from the Precipice Fund, which allowed them to pay artists a stipend for their creative labor during the residencies.

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For Burkett, the opportunity to work on Field of View was the realization of a longstanding vision. “I wanted the antithesis of what we had. I wanted a one-on-one, focused opportunity for people to make artwork in an environment that they chose–and so that was where it was born out of.” A cornerstone of the Field of View residency program was the principle that each resident artist determined the environment where they wanted to work. With this intention, Burkett and Moran sleuthed for spaces in the community that intersected with the artists’ interests.

Olga Shchepina at Pixie Project

“Most of the places we went didn’t have residency programs,” noted Moran. Shchepina, with Burkett as her companion, set-up a temporary studio in the lobby of Pixie Project, a nonprofit animal adoption center and rescue, where she spent time every week playing with cats and designing and painting portraits. This opened up opportunities for engagement, not only with felines, but also staff and volunteers who were, as Burkett remembered, quite sad to see Shchepina leave after her residency had ended.

Allie Hankis, David Lechner, and Carissa Burkett at Performance Works Northwest

Each residency was a new and different opportunity for growth for each artist. While Lechner, had plenty of experience as a visual artist, he had never been offered the opportunity to work in a dance studio–an ideal creative environment for his natural expressiveness. During his residency at Performance Works Northwest, he created movement, sound scapes, and drawings that would emerge in improvisation-based choreographies in the dance studio, where he worked weekly with Burkett and a rotating cast of guests.

Tracing work from Dawn Westover’s art class

Work-in-progress by Dawn Westover

Field of View also provided a level of viable professional development. Westover’s attraction to work with older adults led her into a new professional role: Art Educator. Every week Westover and Burkett would travel to a local senior center, where Westover would lead a workshop with a group of seniors. She introduced them to her drawing technique, a particular approach to tracing and revisioning preexisting images, including pop icons. Though teaching was an entirely new venture for Westover, she came out of the experience feeling positive. “It was easy,” she said confidently. “I wish I could go back there again.”

Sonya Hamilton with Lauren Moran at King School

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Field of View proved an edifying and meaningful experience for its organizers and resident artists alike. Moran reflected back on her experience working with Hamilton during her residency at King School (which is also the home of the contemporary art museum KSMoCA), during which Hamilton taught art in Micaela Ellis’s first grade class. A gifted sculptor, Hamilton showed children how to work with clay. “I want to do it again,” she said, reminiscing about her experience.

“I’ve been working with self-taught artists for almost five years now,” said Moran. “I feel like I’ve worked with some of my favorite artists, you know, because I get to see their process and see things come to life. It’s always been really impressive to me.” Speaking directly to Sonya, she added, “I feel like I learned a lot from watching you work with kids, (and) the way you thought about how you wanted to design projects for them…I feel like you have a real sense of socially how you want people to connect.”

For Burkett, the introduction of a Field of View resident artist into a public school classroom was an exciting chance for integration on a number of levels. Not only was it an opportunity help demystify the experience of living with disabilities for these children, but it was also an opportunity to model art-making as a vocation. “I think a lot of kids aren’t taught that adults make art too, and this could be a profession that you go into,” she said.

Larry Supnet at Independent Publishing Resource Center

Supnet spent his residency period with Field of View at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, screen printing and creating visual art pieces. Around the same time, Burkett also invited Supnet to co-present a lecture with her at a freshmen entry class about outsider art at Portland State University. One of Supnet’s ambitions was to do more public speaking, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. “It was awesome,” said Supnet. In the future, Burkett and Moran are hoping to expand the program, adding in more professional development opportunities for the artists (e.g. creating websites).

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If the artist’s enthusiasm was any indication, Field of View has already evolved into a valuable platform for both artistic and professional growth. Most artist reported that they would love to go back to their residencies and/or develop their creative work further. In the meantime, there will be an exhibit of the work of the five artists in Wolff Gallery, running through December 30, with an opening reception on December 1 from 6-8PM.  

“Anything you want, you can put your mind to it..Just do it!” said Supnet, reflecting on his ambitions and trajectory as an artist. “Don’t give up on life.”

His message resonates. While public policy begets a slow evolution of services, grassroots organizing on the part of Field of View has manifested an alternative value system for supporting these artists, one that prioritizes individual and collective meaning making across lived experiences–an important step towards a more integrated society.

If the story of Field of View has a moral, it’s that creative practice and artistic work can be a sustaining force, rippling out to the benefit of broader communities. While shifts in social services may have rocked these artists’ day-to-day experiences yet again–their stories of resilience and creative capacity resonate through their commitment to art-making. Add their fortitude to the innovative organizing of Field of View, and there’s certainly proof that change is afoot.

NOTES

You can support this work by coming to the exhibition opening at Wolff Gallery, 6-8 pm, December 1 or visit the exhibition, open through December 30, 2017. Several of the artists are available for commissions. Thanks to a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, Field of View residencies will be offered through Public Annex starting in 2018. Follow Public Annex for more information.

Dawn Westover’s work can be seen at We. Construct. Marvels. Between. Monuments. at the Portland Art Museum through February 18, 2018.

* Permission has been given by the artists to disclose this information.

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