The excellence of Williamstown’s art community has, once again, shown itself through another event – this time, portraying the unique artistic insight of disabled children and adults in the local area.
The first annual Berkshire County Sprout Disability Film Festival and Art Show took place last Sunday at Images Cinema. A collaboration between the Berkshire County Arc (BCARC), Images Cinema and the Sprout Touring Film Festival, the event showcased seven short films about people living with disabilities, followed by an art exhibit featuring work by regional artists with special needs.
A veritable buzz of excitement filled the air as the cozy theater slowly filled to the brim with people of all ages – the artists and their families, as well as students, professors and other members of the Williamstown community. President Steven Neary and Director Ken Singer of BCARC, a local non-profit organization assisting individuals with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries, kicked off the event with introductions and welcoming statements.
Next to speak were Massachusetts Senator Benjamin Downing, a renowned advocate for people with special needs, and Anthony Di Salvo, executive director of the Sprout program. Professor Sam Crane of the political science department also spoke about challenging perceptions of individuals with special needs. Crane, who wrote the book Aidan’s Way about his son, brought a tender perspective as a parent of a developmentally disabled child. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of not seeing,"he said. “When we stop, look, see and listen, we learn that people with disabilities can extend and improve us all."
Based in New York City, Sprout was established in 1979 as a vacation program for adults with developmental disabilities. The program provides vacations for approximately 2000 people each year, traveling to locations throughout the Northeast as well as traditional tourist spots like Orlando, Las Vegas and Berlin. In 1994, Sprout began a series of film and video-making vacations to encourage program participants to explore their artistic side. Nine years later, this blossomed into the Sprout Film Festival which takes place in New York annually, featuring narratives, documentaries, shorts and animations.
The festival seeks to bring films related to the field of developmental disabilities to the big screen, in accordance with the program’s slogan of “making the invisible visible." “Too often have disabled people been marginalized by their absence in film," said Di Salvo. The actors in the films are all participants of Sprout’s Make-A-Movie Program, and often co-write the stories.
Videos produced by the program have been featured in national and international festivals such as the Brooklyn Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, the International Disability Film Festival in England and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. In 2006, the festival began touring nationally, bringing a selection from over 80 films to conferences, universities and other venues around the country.
The selections for this year’s Berkshire festival were poignant and well-made. Dreams, a film featuring individuals with Down syndrome speaking about their ambitions and achievements, was both inspirational and informative. Outside/Inside chronicled a glimpse into the mind of Nick Pentzell, a young man who has both autism and muteness and uses a communication board to interact with his world. The story of Judy Scott, a formerly institutionalized individual who broke into the art world with her unique style of sculpture, was given sensitive and thought-provoking treatment by Outsider.
WYSIWYG, otherwise known as "What You See Is What You Get," showed three performance pieces from the U.K. Anjali dance troupe. The troupe is comprised of adults with developmental disabilities, and explores themes of relationships and identity through compelling multimedia presentations.
Emma’s Gifts, a documentary about an adorable little girl with Down syndrome and the tenacity of her parents in furthering her education, really hit home with audience members, myself included.
The last two films, Jimmy and A Gift From God featured two disabled children – one from Brazil and one from the United Arab Emirates. Although short, the films provided much food for thought and for the most part comprised a well-rounded selection.
Immediately following the film festival was a reception and exhibit in the storefront space of Images. Whimsical, imaginative works graced the walls of the room, enhanced by the music provided by Andrew Dominitz ’11, Eric Beam ’10 and Jonathan Foster ’11. The exhibit’s title, "Eye Candy," aptly appealed to both the colorful and youthful aspect of the works on display.
The idea for the art show was born when Sandra Thomas, executive director of Images, asked Ronald Gallagher, assistant director of the Office of Career Counseling, to display the work of his son, Kelly, in the theater after the festival. With the help of Rachel Ko ’09, Lori Griffin ’09 and Lily Li ’08, Gallagher turned the fledgling project into a full exhibit featuring the work of four children with disabilities, 15 local adult artists and the creative contribution of the non-profit organization Community Access to the Arts, which works to foster connections to the arts for individuals with disabilities throughout Berkshire County.
Among the works featured were those of Gallagher’s son Kelly, 17, an emerging artist in Williamstown who works with acrylic and canvas mediums. Despite hardships from having cerebral palsy and being legally blind, Kelly’s passion for bright, loud color lead him to create impressive works such as "Razzledazzle" and "Swordfight."
Also featured were the colorful, spunky drawings of Sam Guy, an 8-year-old with autism, Keegan Ewens, 3, whose art is an integral part of his rehabilitation process from an accident that left him unable to walk and Louis Vitale, Jr., an incredible toddler whose arthrogryposis and anterior horn cell disease do not stop him from creating paintings on a canvas with all parts of his body.
Innovative techniques such as "Artist Realization Technology" (ART) have helped many individuals with limited abilities of movement control. A.J. Schlesinger, an 18-year-old Williamstown native living with cerebral palsy, uses ART to harness his creative energy into works such as "Freedom."
In a time when perception is often distorted by preconceived notions, the originality, exuberance and courage of these individuals and their art can serve as a reminder of the innate potential present in all, regardless of age, ability or disability. The 2008 Sprout Film Festival will take place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art May 9-11.