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Explosions of Brilliance

Disabled in mind or body, they're people not valued by society. But at a Los Angeles center that nurtures their talents, amazing things occur.


There was a time when doctors said Ray Mills would never speak his own name, when Tammy Brackens' counselors saw no job future for the child who liked to draw. And a time when Milton Davis could not imagine that his constant doodles would wind up framed, on other people's walls.

That time has passed. Ask any of these developmentally disabled adults what they do, or who they are, and they will answer: "Artist."

Luckier in one way than so-called "normal" people, who never discover what they do best, the 102 adults at the Exceptional Children's Foundation Art Center in Los Angeles have found their passion and their place in a world that used to feel very cruel.

"Imagine being out in society and being stared at, pointed at, made fun of every day of your life," says Rohmi Reid, an art director at the center. "Then imagine finding a place like this, where you realize you're really good at something that is valued. You have a talent that even the people who made fun of you don't have."

"Their story should be told--but they can never tell it," says Richard Webb-Msemaji, a psychologist who heads the art center and is its very heart.

"Some are nonverbal; many who speak have trouble articulating their thoughts. And others have thought disorders" that preclude coherent conversation, he says. Many cannot count money, read books or live independent lives. Yet their work has been exhibited in group and individual shows, has sold to private and corporate collectors, has been commissioned for murals, textiles and greeting card designs.

In his 27 years of work at this place, an aged, two-story building on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Webb-Msemaji has welcomed all degrees and variations of talent, capability and skill. A few new arrivals seem to "explode with brilliance" the minute they take paintbrush or clay in hand. Many bloom slowly, with the aid of seven teachers who instruct in ceramics, weaving, printmaking, drawing, painting and photography. Still others are so disabled that they cannot easily progress. They are artists even so, he says, because they love making art enough to spend 6 1/2 hours a day, five days a week, doing it.

At 6:30 on a rainy morning last week, Webb-Msemaji was, as usual, two hours early for work. "I open the building and get set up. It gives me a chance to be in touch with the place."

As usual, a few of his students are at the door. Eager to work, they ignore the mandated starting hour because they know the director will be there to let them in.

His job title and his doctoral degree say little about the world in which Webb-Msemaji chooses to live--as a kind of father / uncle / brother, vocational guide and mental health advocate for these adults in whom he sees so much value but whom society, he says, has all but thrown away.

Ray Mills, in his 50s, is one of the early birds. He proceeds wordlessly to his work space and assembles his paints, cardboard, needles and twine. Then he begins, with great vigor and precision, to paint, cut and stitch. He has already shaped a group of large, asymmetric pieces that he has slathered with layers of rich, dark, brooding color. This day, he will sew them together, adding a narrow strip colored an improbable heavenly pink.

"He is an artist in the true sense of the word," Webb-Msemaji says. "He will stitch and restitch. He will layer piece over piece over piece. He will keep at it and at it until he gets exactly what he wants."

Mills, who's been coming to the center for 15 years, knows his constructions are sometimes purchased by richer people than he, and that they sometimes are displayed for others to admire. "Five dollars," he says gruffly, when asked what he will charge for the current project. Then he laughs, points to the pieces lying on his table, and says "each."

"That's a man doctors said would never speak," says the director. "They also said he'd never be able to travel on his own. But now he takes buses everywhere around town. He comes here by himself every day. He still has trouble with speech and conceptual stuff, but he is much more independent. He knows who he is and what he does. Can you imagine the impact of all this on his feelings of identity?"

To protect their dignity and privacy, the director will not discuss individual diagnoses of those at the center.

The term "developmental disability" is a catch-all phrase that encompasses mental retardation, Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and spina bifida, among other disorders, he explains. Art center students, who range in age from 18 to 65, often have multiple combinations of those problems. Many have been turned away by other activity programs for being too difficult or too disturbed.

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