on August 4, 2013 - 12:01 AM
A row of hollowed-out televisions, rescued from curbs and garbage heaps around Western New York, lines one wall of the University at Buffalo Art Gallery in Amherst.
The insides of the TVs have been stripped and replaced with pieces of painted cardboard or construction paper scrawled with ink, unidentifiable bits of detritus, abstract drawings and, in one instance, a flashing electronic orb that lures visitors to peer closely into a multilayered diorama.
A hilarious sculpture made of a telephone receiver sprouting eyeballs on the end of spindly wires greets visitors to the gallery. A jellyfish pieced together from unspooled answering machine cassette tapes dangles from the gallery ceiling, while a miniature city of ochre medication bottles rises up from the floor.
One entire room is dedicated to a sculptural installation by David Finch, in which spotlights illuminate beautifully twisted pieces of bullet-proof glass scrawled with song lyrics that seem to float in midair.
It’s all part of “Crossing Lines: Mind to Minds,” a collaborative exhibition featuring artists working with two Buffalo disability services agencies, Aspire and Southeast Works. The show, which opened Thursday and runs through Friday, is a resounding argument for the power of art to unlock buried potential.
Many of its sculptures and collages are the result of a unique exchange program, in which artists from one agency worked on a piece of art for a week or so before sending it off for artists from the other agency to expand upon. Some of the pieces were exchanged four or five times before they were completed. They serve as records of collaboration between artists for whom speech, writing and other traditional forms of communication are often difficult, if not impossible.
For Aspire artist Matt Milholland, whose orange-hued TV sculpture was filled with drawings inspired by Japanese culture and music, the opportunity to create art and music has allowed him to blossom as a person. Speech can be difficult for Milholland, who was making the rounds in his powered wheelchair during Thursday night’s opening. But art and music, he said, come to him much more naturally.
“It gives the people that are looking at my artwork a window into my soul,” said Milholland, 31, as he peered into the sculpture he created for the show. In his experience working with Aspire’s iXpress program, which is designed to enable adults with disabilities to unlock their creative potential, Milholland has launched an impressive array of projects ranging from large-scale artworks to an original song, “Lyrical Samurai,” which is available on Youtube.
“I have a little bit of a stutter when I speak, but when I rap I don’t have it. I don’t have that. It just goes away,” he said. “The aspect of making art just opens people’s eyes to the fact that people in wheelchairs can do the same stuff.”
Jennifer Barton, coordinator of habilitation services at Southeast Works, said the projects on view in “Crossing Lines” are the result of enabling participants in the program to “completely and utterly express who they are.”
“Think about the limitations they get put on them by the people who are providing services for them or the people who are involved in their routine, telling them you can do this, you can do that,” Barton said. “This gives them a way to just be themselves and do whatever they want, say whatever they want.”
The show is remarkable for the way it enables communication on a more abstract level, something that comes so naturally to many of these artists because the normal ways of exchanging information – talking, texting, tweeting, Facebooking – are sealed off to them.
“We were trying to find universal means of communication,” said Lisa A. Brown, an art facilitator with Aspire’s iXpress program. “Even within Aspire, not everyone communicates the same way. Some people don’t ever talk and they just blink once for yes and twice for no.”
But give that person a paint brush or a collection of cassette tapes, a bunch of donated shoes from Amvets or a pile of bullet-proof glass, and suddenly that two-word vocabulary of “yes” or “no” becomes infinite. Suddenly a creative urge kept buried by language and circumstance bubbles up and manifests itself in unexpected and beautiful ways. Suddenly you see the person in the wheelchair.