Editor’s note: The exhibition “Persistence,” currently on view at the Plainsboro Public Library, focuses on artists who despite various physical and neurological challenges — visual impairments, cancer, age, and more — continue to create artwork. Here a first-time curator who also has a disability classification shares the creation of “Persistence” and how he himself persevered to realize it. The article was written for the Progressive Center for Independent Living’s recent newsletter.
As a person with a documented disability, I have often asked myself, “How can you be a creative and artistic thinker without having to face criticism or be judged because of how a disability defines you?”
But now I believe the question has been answered. A few years ago during a family conversation, my parents suggested I try to see if there were any artists in the greater Trenton region who had documented disabilities, see what mediums they work with and what kind of challenges they faced in creating art, and then use my findings to put together an art exhibit.
My initial reaction was that it sounded like a crazy idea. I felt it was going to be impossible to put together because it would take endless amounts of research, and then I had to find people who would be interested in being part of such a project.
But in the spring of 2017 I took action. So with the sponsorship of the Trenton Artists Workshop, in which my mother is involved, I embarked on opportunities to network with people who may have answers in helping me make this possible.
One night at Trenton Social restaurant, I ran into Donald Ehman, who handled artists’ services for the New Jersey State Council for the Arts and talked to him about my idea for the project. We shared contact information and we started communicating. Soon afterwards he sent information from a variety of sources in the area about groups that dealt with artists in the area of my focus.
The show originally was to focus on younger artists who were between the ages of 18 and 30 and had documented disabilities. I titled the show “Unique and Talented.”
Thanks to the information Ehman provided, I started communicating with several people who were part of groups. One of the people was Megan Di Franco, a director of arts programs at the disability group ARC and who had an office at Artworks Trenton. I scheduled a meeting at her office and went over my plan for what the show was going to be about and why I was putting it together.
In return, she assured me that there were individuals associated with ARC Mercer who were active artists who fit the demographic I focused on and believed they would be interested and we would be keeping in touch throughout the project.
Things seemed promising, but a little over a month later; she emailed me and said that she was leaving ARC Mercer for a position elsewhere. She was apologetic about her departure from ARC and wished me best of luck with the show.
At this point, it was back to the drawing board, but I still remained confident about what I had originally planned. I worked on a press release that could be published in the local newspapers.
The release was a call for artists, and it was published in the summer of 2017. By September, I had received several responses; but it wasn’t enough to fill my quota.
In November, 2017, while attending a reception at Artworks, I met a painter named Kenny Alexander who lives in the Mill Hill neighborhood of Trenton. He is visually impaired, and was losing confidence in doing artwork because of his disability. I talked to him about what I was doing, and I was glad I had spoken to him because he became enthusiastic about participating in the exhibit.
We exchanged contact information and I promised him that I would eventually visit his studio and pick out work that he would be interested in exhibiting. After my conversation with Kenny, who is over 40, I became more open minded about the age range of the artists who would participate in the show. I then felt it would be better to have artists of all ages rather than the age range I had originally thought of.
So I began to focus on people I know who were categorized as disabled — including a friend of mine, Mark Wilkie, who has neurological classifications; Priscilla Algava, a mentor of mine who has been battling with cancer over the past couple of years and has been undergoing an extensive amount of chemotherapy; and a professor I had while studying art history courses at Mercer County Community College, Mel Leipzig, who is 84 years old and devotes a lot of his time to painting.
When this project started, Leipzig was working on a painting of a student at Lawrence High School, Michael Austin, who has autism spectrum disorder. Leipzig submitted the painting he did of Michael Austin and worked with the school to get Michael Austin’s drawing into the show, which a lot of people have told me helped Michael become more active in creating art.
I also included Rio Smith, who was paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, and Justin Jedrzejczyk, a talented painter who was diagnosed with a condition that affected his eyesight.
Because of how these artists are able to cope with their (perceived) disabilities and not let it affect how their artistic abilities, I renamed the show “Persistence.”
The show was hung at the Trenton Public Library and opened on February 22. The opening attracted a large number of people. Larger than what I was anticipating. An artist talk that took place a few weeks later also had a great turnout. During the session, the artists went deep into talking about their disabilities and challenges they face because of that but vowed to continue creating art despite their challenges.
Since this show was a success, I am grateful to say that I worked on a follow-up exhibit of “Persistence” at the Plainsboro Library this January. It features several of the original artists, who have created new work for the show, and includes another artist who has had physical challenges, Karey Maurice.
Having launched and completed a project like this, I have realized that you do not have to be perfect in creating art. Matter of fact, some of the world’s most famous artists weren’t perfect either. In the end, it’s the art that matters most and not the ability. Staying “Persistent” is the key to creating art.
Persistence, Plainsboro Library, 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro. Through Wednesday, January 30, Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Friday to Sunday 10 to 5 p.m. Reception and artist talk on Sunday, January 20, 2 p.m. Free. 609-275-2897 or www.plainsborolibrary.org.
Byron Aubrey is the son of U.S. 1 Preview Editor Dan Aubrey.