Artists Without Labels

The Nina Haggerty Centre has brought "outsider art" to Alberta

By Curtis Gillespie

The buildings around the intersection of 111 Avenue and 97 Street in Edmonton, halfway between Commonwealth Stadium and the Glenrose Hospital, are rather unprepossessing: a large funeral home, a tire outlet, a couple of pawnshops, and, on the northwest corner, a low-slung single-story structure with a curved window.

This last building—which houses the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts—may appear unremarkable, but a look inside reveals pearl after pearl of uncommon poignancy and beauty.

Artists of all ages, genders and races are busy painting and sculpting, as would be the case at most art schools. The space has a palpable buzz of industry and creative exploration. Sunlight streams in through the huge windows as a spectrum of paint colours are applied across canvases and small clay and wood sculptures take shape. The centre is open every weekday, with professional artists leading emerging artists. Much of the art produced here is on display; it is vibrant, dramatic and raw. There have been a number of events in the centre’s Stollery Gallery, and much of the work sells during these exhibits and showings.

Again, none of this is atypical of art schools. Immediately upon stepping into one of the centre’s work rooms, however, it becomes clear that there is something very different about the artists here. They all have developmental disabilities. Some are profoundly handicapped; others have milder disabilities. Many have speech and hearing problems. But these facts do not explain their presence. They are here because they are artists.

Paul Freeman is an Edmonton artist of growing renown. He’s also the Nina Haggerty Centre’s “lead artist,” meaning he works as a teacher and facilitator, not as a professional support worker. In fact, there are no rehabilitation support workers employed by the centre. Most of the artists do live in supported environments, where rehabilitation staff assist them daily, but this support level recedes once they pass through the doors of the centre.

“We only hire professional artists to work with our emerging artists,” says Freeman, Edmonton’s Enbridge Emerging Artist of the Year in 2003. “We don’t hire people with rehabilitation backgrounds. We’re art school grads trying to help develop the voices of neophyte artists in a non-judgmental fashion. This isn’t a place where we’re going to tell you how to paint a picture, but we’re going to try to help people to develop the skills they need to paint the picture they want to paint.”

Nina Haggerty was born in 1916 and passed away in 1999 after spending nearly 60 years living in Red Deer’s Michener Centre institution. It was only late in life, when she moved into a nursing home, that Haggerty had the opportunity to explore her creative impulses. Already well into her 70s, she was introduced to art through recreational art classes at the nursing home, and later at the Edmonton Art Gallery. The creative door swung wide open for Haggerty. She passed through it to become a diligent and talented artist, but until her death only those closest to her knew it.

I learned about Haggerty while researching a book I wrote, Someone Like That. The book was the brainchild of Wendy Hollo, the former executive director of an Edmonton social service agency called SKILLS and now the director of the Nina Haggerty Centre. She had asked me to help preserve the unique and complex stories of people with develop- mental disabilities, to rehabilitate the societal attitude that people with such disabilities don’t have custody of their own past. Haggerty’s light, colour-filled work was featured throughout the book and on the cover. People responded deeply and immediately to her vision. Following the release of Someone Like That in 2000, a limited edition of Haggerty prints was created and sold out quickly.

This was the first time Hollo thought of people with developmental disabilities simply as artists—artists without labels. The use of art and art-making has long been common in the rehabilitation field, but it has always been turned to- wards therapeutic, behavioural and recreational purposes. To be frank, it was used to keep people occupied and calm. It was never about the quality of the art. This notion began to shift in Hollo’s mind when she saw a slide show presentation about a Mexico City art centre for people with Down syndrome at a conference in Calgary in 2001. “It inspired me,” says Hollo. “The people running this art centre were looking at people with disabilities in a different way. They saw their creativity, their passion for life and their ability to express complex emotions in powerful ways.”

After seeing that presentation, Hollo rushed back to Edmonton to do some research about Canadian art schools for people with developmental disabilities. She found that there weren’t any, at least not the type she was beginning to imagine. Her intensive research would lead her south, to San Francisco and Oak- land, where a visionary in the field, a man named Elias Katz, had been quietly working for decades trying to create the type of program Hollo envisioned.

Judith Scott sits at the end of a long table wearing a toque, despite the fact that it’s 80 degrees in Oakland. A woman with a severe developmental disability as well as hearing and speaking problems, Scott works intently on her art. She collects bits and bobs wherever she can find them—chunks of foam, cardboard, wood, whatever—and then begins the meticulous process of wrapping these objects in layer upon layer of wool thread. The result, these strangely compelling pieces of mummification, is a kind of art that no one has ever really seen before, a mysterious comment on what’s hidden and what’s known, and it’s giving her a growing reputation in the galleries of Manhattan.

Scott is part of a tradition. As far back as 1920s Europe, pieces produced by artists living in institutions were recognized as startling expressions of experience lived on the outer margins of society. By the 1940s, a systematic effort was underway to find and preserve the pieces, and today the important “Collection de l’art brut” is preserved in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“Art brut,” which translates as “raw art,” captures the idea of creative production that is “uncooked” or unadulterated by prevailing visual and cultural conventions. A brilliant but untrained artist like Henry Darger, who spent his life in an insane asylum, is a classic ex- ample. In North American art circles, the evocative term “outsider art” is used to refer to the same tradition. Created by untrained people who often have no awareness of classic art standards, the work allows unique access to individual experiences that are deeply unconventional. In fact, many trained artists are inspired by outsider art to experiment consciously with shedding their aware- ness of art trends and standards in order to locate and express their deeper individual experiences.

Scott and dozens of other artists work out of the Creative Growth centre in downtown Oakland. The space is large and open, with an airy feel created by high ceilings and ample natural light, the kind of place where pressure deflates and creativity rises. Elias Katz, a retired psychology professor at Berkeley, and his now deceased wife, Florence Ludins- Katz, founded Creative Growth in 1974. It was the first art centre of its kind, one that expressed the Katzes’ desire to move toward facilitating the creative spirit of people with developmental disabilities, a movement that has radically shifted our understanding of the relationship between creativity and developmental disability.

Essentially, the Katzes felt that people with developmental disabilities were inherently creative yet lacked creative outlets. It was in the late ’60s and early ’70s that they began to sense such schools might have some validity, and that people with developmental disabilities might just be capable of making “real” art, rather than creating art as a form of therapy. Katz himself had long worked with people with developmental disabilities, and Ludins-Katz, a practising artist, had been teaching art at a sheltered work- shop for people with developmental dis- abilities. She was inspired by what she saw from her pupils, and she shared this insight with her husband. They decided to begin Creative Growth, which they ran from their home for the first three years. Eventually, they received a grant that helped them open a separate facility, after which they continued to develop the movement. Today, there are about 20 schools across North America and around the world that have followed the model used by the Katzes. These schools are beginning to change the way we re- late to the creative impulse of people with developmental disabilities.

Elias Katz, a tall, white-haired, soft- spoken and endearing man, was born in Brooklyn and lived in New York City until he was in his early 20s, when he entered the army for World War II. The army trained him as a psychologist, since he had such an unusual university education for the 1930s (he explored the uses of film and art in education for his MA and became one of the first people to study children’s relationship to art for his PhD). Katz is 91 years old, but this doesn’t stop him from working daily on his archives at Berkeley.

“The key point,” he emphasized during a long lunch meeting with Hollo and me at a dockside restaurant overlooking the harbour, “is that these schools must be about art, about giving people with developmental disabilities the chance to release the creativity inside them. If you make it a vocational program or a therapeutic program, you might as well do something else. Be certain to call it an art school.”

Hollo’s excitement upon returning from California in 2002 was contagious, and the board of SKILLS quickly approved signing a lease for space for an arts centre in Edmonton. The board also approved $5,000 in start-up money to buy supplies. Hollo found Paul Freeman at the Edmonton Art Gallery, where he was teaching classes to people with developmental dis- abilities, largely as art therapy. She approached him with the notion of opening an art school dedicated to such artists, for the sole purpose of making art. He signed on, but there was a roadblock.

“We had the idea, we had a location, we had a lead artist,” says Hollo, “but we had no money! Yet we were so fortunate that the board and Paul, and a bunch of volunteers, agreed with the starting principle, which was, ‘If we sit around forever waiting to get a bunch of money before opening, then it’s never going to hap- pen.’ So we just decided to open it and start the school and see what happened. If you build it, they will come . . . though I have to admit we had no idea how many people would actually show up.” Hollo stops, then adds, “Of course, we also had to hope that if we built it, they would fund it, too. We just didn’t know who the ‘they’ was going to be.”

From the outset, Hollo and her advisory committee (people like the former EAG director Virginia Stephens, Grant MacEwan College business department chair Michael Henry, and independent filmmaker Yvonne Dubourdieu) agreed that there had to be a few core principles guiding the Nina Haggerty Centre. “People with developmental disabilities have been seen as subhuman for so long,” says Hollo. “And so we wanted to show the community that people with disabilities are like any of us. They have the same feelings and desires and, like all of us, they have creative potential.”

The operating principles were spelled out. First, the people in attendance were to be considered artists, not people looking for therapy. And they most certainly were not to be “warehoused” at the art school because there was nowhere else for them to go during the day. The key factor in their attendance was their creativity, and a desire to go deeper into that creativity. “It’s all about the authenticity that comes from unselfconscious expression,” says Harold Pearse, a former education professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and now a volunteer at the centre. “You can say that about everyone at the centre. The rest of us are too sophisticated to let our guard down. Here there is no evaluation.”

The second key principle was the sense of community. It was important to create an open-spaced facility, with natural light and a streetfront presence to connect to its neighbourhood. It was also crucial to have gallery space where the artists could display their work. Next, working artists from local communities were to act as the “instructors.” This served several purposes: it connected the school to its community; it provided professional training; it offered examples to the artists of people who were currently producing and displaying art; and it made a powerful statement about people with disabilities not requiring “wrap-around” staffing models to pursue fulfilling endeavours. There would be no rehabilitation staff employed by the centre.

The school opened on a cold, bright day in January 2003. Paul Freeman spent it working with Judy Billard, the only artist in attendance. The painting she started that very day was included in the gallery’s first exhibit. It sold for $100.

A radical program had opened, but it was hard to imagine what success might look like. “We hoped to have a dozen, maybe 20 artists by the end of the first year,” says Hollo.

But word spread. People with develop- mental disabilities and artistic aspiration kept applying. Today, nearly two years later, more space is needed. Up to 30 artists are at work any given day and the centre has worked with more than 200 different artists. Funding agencies (such as the provincial government’s Persons with Developmental Disabilities agency, the Clifford E. Lee Foundation, the Community Initiatives Program, the Stollery Charitable Foundation, the Edmonton Community Foundation and the Robin Hood Foundation) have been lining up to be part of it. A video documentary is in the works. And the provincial government’s Human Rights, Citizenship & Multiculturalism Education Fund provided the financial support for a book released last summer documenting the successes of the human rights aspect of the centre, a book featuring a foreword by John Ralston Saul.

“It is rather hard to believe,” laughs Hollo. “I guess you’d have to say we made the right decision when we decided to close our eyes, hold on tight, and open it up.”

The centre held two major exhibitions in 2004, both heavily attended. David Janzen, a celebrated Edmonton artist who works at the centre part-time, curated the latest show and says he’s now learning from the people he’s supposedly there to assist. “It’s hard to describe,” says the curly-haired and intensely focused Janzen. “I’m learning things that aren’t all that technical, I guess, but that are more about hope and energy and attitude. It’s exceptionally cool.”

There are plans in place to expand the centre and its message is spreading outward. Hollo has spoken at a number of conferences to share her knowledge and experience. Freeman has also spoken regularly on the topic. And though the centre can now be considered a success, no one connected to it will ever forget the place from which it emerged.

“There are people in this world who need to make art, and Nina Haggerty was one of those people, even if it was denied to her for 60 years,” says Hollo.

“And that’s what the centre is all about. Being there for people who need to make art. They might happen to have a developmental disability, but that’s not the point. They are artists. That is the point. It’s about the art.”

Curtis Gillespie worked in social services before becoming a writer. His latest book is Playing Through, Doubleday, 2002.


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