Richmond’s National Institute of Art and Disabilities has a show on this month that bears consideration in the context of this week’s discussion about the Rural Studio. NIAD was founded at about the same time (and by many of the same people) as its better-known cousins, Creative Growth in Oakland and Creativity Explored in San Francisco. Situated in downtown Richmond, the East Bay’s forgotten city, NIAD serves a population of mentally and physically disabled artists with particularly acute material and therapeutic needs. Very much in the Rural Studio spirit, two recent graduates from CCA‘s MA Design program have applied their skills to the benefit of this disadvantaged community in their own backyard. Several key aspects of the Rural Studio project also apply here: approaching design as a philanthropic act, relying on inexpensive and readily available materials, and encouraging students to realize pragmatic projects within an academic context.
CCA Design for Disability is the brainchild of Molly Ackerman-Brimberg and Matthew Baranauskas. The two spent over a year working with Gallery Director Brian Stechschulte, NIAD’s teacher/therapists, and their “clients,” adult artists with severely limiting conditions including paraplegism and autism. While taking me through the exhibition, Matt Baranauskas explained that as a designer, he initially approached the project with the idea of identifying and solving the problems faced by these disabled artists. It was only after spending time working with the group and making multiple crude prototypes to aid in their art-making, that he began to understand his work differently. Why, he thought, should he just make tools that compensate for disabilities? Wouldn’t that simply make the fact of those disadvantages more oppressive, highlighting the clients’ differences as burdens to be overcome? Instead, Matt and Molly set out to create new tools for art-making, inspired by the needs of NIAD’s clients, but which could have uses for able-bodied and disabled artists alike.
For Matt, these experiments became an abiding concern. His MA thesis, submitted this past May, is a 100+ page document detailing what he learned from the NIAD artists. The tools he developed could apply to anyone. For example, a soundboard that amplifies each drawn mark, creating an audio accompaniment to the act of drawing, was developed to help those clients who are hyper-sensitive to distracting noises focus on their work. What artist hasn’t felt the frustration of distraction in the studio? Matt is now in the process of creating a larger-scale, permanently installed version of this object, at which up to four artists can work simultaneously, alone or in collaboration. Other objects he created include a collage roller and collage stamp, which can scan print images on contact and then reproduce them digitally on paper.
Not surprisingly, Matt found that the NIAD clients came up with their own ways to use his tools. The collage roller was not a big hit, because the artists disliked the distorted images it created. They wanted their collages to look like pictures – hence the collage stamp, which produces a more faithful reproduction. Other artists, more comfortable with image manipulation, might find the collage roller to be an incredible tool.
Molly concentrated her efforts on a single NIAD client, Mia, whose mobility is so limited that she paints using a brush or roller attached to a helmet. At first, Molly focused on replacing Mia’s helmet with a better model. She developed a helmet with a brush that could retract when Mia turned to talk to someone – thereby avoiding painting that person’s shirt, which had been a problem – and a couple that involved clip systems so that the teachers would not have to constantly tape each new brush or marker onto the helmet. (It bears noting that the need to free up teachers’ time and hands was a major factor in both Molly’s and Matt’s projects.) Drawing on her background in fashion, Molly then pushed the project further, developing more graceful headgear for Mia as well as taking her relationship with her full-time caretaker into account. One of Molly’s hats includes pockets into which a caretaker can slip his or her hands, so as to help Mia move her head into difficult positions without causing her to feel manhandled. Another is equipped with sensors that enable Mia to paint digitally with her head.
The project underscores just how useful design can be to addressing real human problems, when designers put their minds to it. Regrettably, this is far from the norm. Even within the community of disability-advocates and artists, collaboration with designers often means Marc Jacobs bags printed with the work of disabled artists, instead of the brilliant, life-enhancing design tools these artists deserve.