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A small exhibit shows the great creativity of disabled artists.

September 11, 1986|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

Vivid canvasses depicting sad-faced clowns and sharp-featured Indians, abstract shapes and pastoral settings, adorn smooth white walls.

There are sculptures too: a white marble centerpiece, a maiden painted brown and three ceramic pieces of humans in unusual positions.

The subjects are not unheard of; the brush strokes are not revolutionary; the setting is not grand.

But this small art exhibit in the Santa Fe Springs Library is unique for another reason: the artists themselves.

The creations belong to the Artability Artists, a small, dedicated group of professional and amateur sculptors and painters who have disabilities ranging from blindness to paralysis.

Their exhibit is the first group display in the Southeast area, but they hope not their last. Any visibility for these artists is welcome.

Just ask Robert Thome, a Montebello resident who suffered a broken spinal cord and has been painting with a mouth brush for eight years.

When he first started painting, he had a hard time selling his art.

"Once in a while people would buy them for $10," said Thome, who began his career by doing shows in shopping malls and functions for the disabled. He soon graduated to mainstream conventions and art festivals.

"Anywhere we can show, we'll show," said Thome, who now fetches up to $600 for his paintings.

Thome--who has received widespread publicity and recently became a member of the prestigious International Foot and Mouth Painters Assn.--said he joined the group for the camaraderie and encouragement and at the same time gave his career a boost.

The Artability Artists began five years ago when a Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital administrator pitched the idea to her boss. The hospital agreed to sponsor the nonprofit group and provide them with support such as clerical help, expenses for printing costs and a meeting room for their monthly meetings, said Susan Keirn, a rehabilitation coordinator at the Inglewood-based hospital. The group also receives physical help from able-bodied people such as Kathy Thome, Robert's wife, who helps coordinate activities such as setting up exhibits.

The group's popularity has grown and members now regularly exhibit at the National Rehabilitation Assn. convention and the Very Special Arts Festival in Los Angeles. More recently, the artists displayed works and held demonstrations at the Orange County Fair.

"Even though we're disabled, we're still able," said Jean Cook, a 53-year-old quadriplegic who lives in Long Beach. The group is important for the artists, she said, for "giving moral support and trading ideas."

She said the exposure the artists receive when doing shows is important because most "work on a shoestring." If one of their paintings or sculptures is sold, 10% of the purchase price goes back to the group to help buy materials and pay transportation costs to exhibits.

"We try encouraging one another," Cook said. "Otherwise we would be an island in the ocean all by ourselves."

One of the most striking pieces is a sculpture titled "Handicapped" by Jose Miguel, who is blind. The gold ceramic figure is a centaur holding a mermaid, with both bodies melded into one. Miguel also is exhibiting two other works that depict the human body. "We Are One" is a body sitting in lotus position that is half man and half woman; "Head Over Heels," a humorous figure, depicts a human head plunked on the top of two feet.

The group was invited to show at the library after Thome did his second one-man show there in June. Thome was a football player at Pioneer High School in 1969 when he suffered an injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. After going through 10 years of depression, he met Kathy and began work on his childhood dream of becoming an artist.

Many of the 14 artists--from as far away as Tulare and Lake Elsinore--have similar experiences. Said Abdelsayed, a Tustin resident who paints in oils, was a premed student when he was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. Beverly Brody, who paints oil portraits from her home in Canoga Park, was stricken by polio when she was a teen-ager. Westminster resident Keith Fires, who creates graphics with the use of math and computers, contracted muscular dystrophy when he was 1 year old.

But all emphatically state that what they do is more important than how they do it.

"We want to concentrate on our abilities rather than our disabilities," Thome said.

Cook added that even though the group has made a name for itself, many of the artists also receive individual attention.

"We try to help one another," she said. "We've become friends. That helps."

The exhibit can be seen in the large meeting room during Santa Fe Springs Library hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. The library is at 11710 Telegraph Road.

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