June 24, 2009

Designing for Ability at NIAD

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.

Collage Stamp – Stamp Pads Prototype from matthew baranauskas on Vimeo.

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.

Current Collage Making Experience by Matthew Baranauskas

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.

Collage Roller by Matthew Baranauskas

Comments (8)

  • Wonderful goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff previous to and you’re just too magnificent. I actually like what you’ve acquired here, really like what you’re saying and the way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still take care of to keep it smart. I cant wait to read much more from you. This is actually a great site.

  • @ Timothy, my reference to the Marc Jacobs project wasn’t meant to criticize CG for collaborating with MJ as much as to point out a clear distinction between two very different types of collaboration between designers and disabled artists – one of which is more commercial than the other.

    With respect to the larger ethical conversation around the promotion and sale of disabled artists’ work, it’s a vast grey area that I’m going to attempt to address with a dedicated post in the near future. I’ll include mention of some more disabled artists that have made their way into various levels of the contemporary art world. As for the issue of exploitation, one could argue that all artists are subject to some kind of exploitation at the hands of the market. The parallel market is driven largely by collectors of “naive” art, who frequent a network of galleries such as those who advertise in publications like Raw Vision.

    More to come. Thanks again for the robust debate!

  • @Anuradha,
    Point taken your positive coverage of the show.

    I’m still not clear on what it is, exactly, that you are saying about the Marc Jacobs bags. In your piece you note that the artists deserve the grad project, but in your comments you say you are suspicious of a cult of celebrity around Jacobs and the huge potential for exploitation. I don’t get how any of this is connected — are you saying that CG is exploiting its artists because they are into Jacobs’ cultural status or that the studio projects should not be involved in marketing their artists work?

    Also I would still have to disagree with you on the acceptance of work by disabled artists. The fact that, to my knowledge, only one gallery in the Bay Area (Jack Fischer) and only two in NYC (Ricco/Maresca and White Columns) show their art with any regularity is evidence that is it not integrated into the contemporary art world.

    I’m not sure what you are saying about the birth of a parallel market – are you telling me it is evidence of the contemporary art world not wanting to exploit talent (which I find impossible to believe) or proof that the artists/studio projects have created their own market because of a lack of attention from the contemporary art world or something else entirely?

  • @ Julian, I firmly believe that at NIAD, there is a strong correlation between disability and poverty. Not that every artist there is disabled because he or she is poor, or poor because he or she is disabled, but the center is located in one of the most impoverished downtowns in the US, and that’s the community they serve. This has been corroborated by my experience curating there back in 2006. I’m not comparing rural poverty to disability, but talking about a project that addresses some of the fallout from urban poverty here in our own region.

    Also, I said nothing about a conspiracy re: Marc Jacobs. The “cult of celebrity” (like last century’s “cult of personality”) is a fact of our gossip-rag media and I think it’s culturally ingrained. Happy to engage in a debate on that point in some other forum.

    There are plenty of links to both artists’ own sites with copious images and text, which I could not represent in their entirety here. Hope you will be moved to check them out.

    @ Timothy, the difference between Murakami/Vuitton and CG/Marc Jacobs is that Murakami is completely in control of his brand and his choices. The Creative Growth staff must necessarily act on behalf of their artists, who are not in a position to manage the business generated around their art. This is the central ethical issue that I feel begs resolving with respect to the “outsider” art market (I use quotes because I think the term is a red herring). I disagree that the contemporary art world treats disabled artists purely as curiosities, but I think a parallel market for art by disabled artists has sprung up in part because these artists are not able to be in control of how their work is presented and received within the marketplace. There is huge potential for explotiation there, and it falls to the (overworked, undersupported) staff of organizations like NIAD and CG to protect their artists.

    Lastly, I take issue with your statement that my piece is affirmative because I have a pre-existing relationship with NIAD. My piece is affirmative because I liked the projects, plain and simple.

    A blog post can really only begin a conversation, which is what I have tried to do. I guess it worked.

  • @ Anuradha,
    I’m not sure what you mean by a cult of celebrity. I don’t believe Jacobs’ star status duped them. Other designers have used artists to help create lines of wares — among the more obvious and successful are Prince and Murakami for Louis Vuitton. CG is just licensing their art. As a matter of fact, CG has worked with other designers (smaller though) in the past.

    I’m not sure I would be interested in a larger discussion of the market for outsider art, but I would be interested in a conversation about why the contemporary art world seldom seems to recognize art by disabled artists as little more than a curiosity. Or as something separate from all other kinds of accepted contemporary art. Care to start one here?

    @ Julian,
    Thanks for the back up. I think the piece reads as affirmative because Anuradha has curated for NIAD. And full disclosure for me: Three years I consulted with CG on their publicity effort.

  • Julian Myers says:

    I agree with Timothy, the connection to Rural Studio is odd. It reads as if you are conflating rural poverty and disability.

    Also, this reads as pretty anecdotal and affirmative – I wish you’d had more to say about (and had posted images of) the designs as such. I find the “action shots” pretty hard to parse.

    Not intrigued at all by a “cult of celebrity” around Marc Jacobs. He’s a celebrity, and supports various causes that are more or less right on – which has a payoff for those “concerned consumers.” Where’s the conspiracy?

  • You’re right, it’s a different ball game. I do think it’s great that Marc Jacobs is willing to support Creative Growth in this way. I am, however, suspicious of the cult of celebrity that surrounds him and his business. This gets into a much larger discussion about the market for “outsider” art that will have to be tackled in another post.

  • Great review of a super show.

    But I think comparing CG’s bags with a grad student project is bit of apples and oranges. The point of the Jacobs’ project was to help raise money, in a time of massive funding cuts, for CG’s daily activities.

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