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Art as an Image-Builder and Career

At Gateway Crafts, artists with special needs find commercial outlets for their pottery, paintings, designs

THE art produced at Gateway Crafts runs the gamut - from primitive to surreal to abstract. The themes can be cheerful and childlike, or very dark. But each piece - whether butter dishes in the shape of animals or impressionistic cityscapes - has clear individuality.

For the artists here, that expression of individuality is crucial, says Rae Edelson, director of the program. All of them have ``special needs.'' Many have been referred by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation (DMR), some are sight impaired, and others have had serious head injuries.

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For each of them, ``art is an image builder,'' says Ms. Edelson, who beams enthusiasm for the work being done in this second-story workshop on Harvard Street in Brookline, Mass. The painting, pottery, fabric design, and poetry not only generate pride and accomplishment, they also open up communication with the outside world and with one another, she says.

Gateway's clinical mission is central. The program is managed by the Vinfen Corporation, a large nonprofit provider of human services in Massachusetts that draws most of its funding from the DMR and other state agencies. But Gateway is also a bona fide art studio; many of its artists have commercial outlets for their work.

That's the big difference between this program and others that use art just as therapy or recreation. The people working at the pottery wheel, easels, or looms here have a vocation. ``We see it as someone's life work,'' Edelson says.

Jeff Keilson, regional DMR director for the Boston metropolitan area, calls Gateway ``a very good option for people who have that skill and desire. And it's run as a business obviously. People get rewarded in terms of what they produce.''

When Edelson arrived at the program in 1978, art sales totaled about $800 a year. Last year the program sold $51,000 worth of art, through its own shop, other retail sites, and commissioned work. The artists get 60 percent of the income from sales.

One of the craft center's ``star'' producers is Bohill Wong. His fanciful paintings - often of glamorous women, snakes, animals, and various combinations thereof - have had public exhibitions in Boston and New York, including the first one-man show for any Gateway artist. His work is sold in shops in the Boston area and in Santa Fe, N.M.

Mr. Wong has been a regular at Gateway Crafts for 15 years, since he was discovered by Edelson and her staff in a nursing home, drawing pictures on any scraps of paper he could find and passing them out to people on the street.

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Wong is an example of someone whose inclinations fit perfectly with the Gateway program. People who are really artists tend to stay at Gateway for the long term because of the support they receive and the unlimited opportunity to create, Edelson says.

Works like Wong's are part of a currently hot market for ``outsider'' or ``self-taught'' art, says Stephen De Fronzo, artistic coordinator for Gateway. He says Gateway has a connection to that market, but it is cautious about plunging its artists too quickly into a commercial arena where exploitation and collecting fads are always possible.

A number of galleries around the country specialize in ``self-taught'' art. One of them is the Ricco-Maresca Gallery in New York. Co-owner Roger Ricco has written widely on the subject and explains that an appreciation for such art - which can include various kinds of primitive and folk art as well as work by the retarded or mentally ill - was cultivated in Europe in the 1940s and '50s, led by the French artist Jean Dubuffet. The appeal of such work, Mr. Ricco says, is its freedom from constraint and convention, its ``slap-in-the-face freshness.''

As Edelson gives a tour of Gateway Crafts, she moves past clusters of people engaged in drawing designs for fabrics, discussing ideas for writing poetry, and crafting jewelry. In the pottery shop, a work table is ringed by people putting designs on bowls, cups, and other objects.

Edelson points out an older gentleman, Joe Salonis, at a loom. ``Joe's a fabulous weaver,'' she says, as the subtly colored cloth he's creating attests. She also introduces another artist whose work has won admirers and buyers, Carmella Salvucci. Her paintings are riots of primary colors, portraying everyday scenes with a mix of childlike simplicity and complex composition.

Gateway typically has about 40 client-artists and a staff of eight, all of whom are trained both in art and in clinical techniques.

It's a moderately expensive program, Mr. Keilson says. The $10,200 a year the state pays for each participant is about the same, he says, as it pays for people in large ``sheltered workshops'' that produce simple manufactured items.

Behavior problems occasionally flare up. When dealing with those situations, Edelson says she has a basic rule: ``The more excited someone gets, the calmer I get.'' Keilson notes that Gateway's approach of getting people professionally involved in art can have a harmonizing effect. ``If they're doing things they like and enjoy,'' he says, ``their behavior gets under control.''

While Gateway is unusual for its emphasis on art as a vocation, it's not unique. A small number of similar programs exist in other parts of the country.

The San Francisco area, for example, has the National Institute of Art and Disabilities (NIAD), which runs the Creative Growth Center.

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