BENNINGTON, Vt. -- Seventeen years ago, mixed-media artist Robert Gold suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident that left him unable to read or write. A Harvard-educated dentist who practiced in Manchester, N.H., he was bed-ridden for two years following back surgery in 1998.

Gold, who had always had difficulty focusing as a result of Attention Deficit Disorder, was now unable to work at all. Deciding that he needed a change, Gold moved to a Vermont assisted living rehabilitation program in 2007, and in the process he rediscovered his love of art.

Gold is a lifelong artist. As a child, he used art as a method of self-expression when traditional learning proved difficult. Then as a dentist he often worked on art projects as a hobby, creating work that he said was "dark, extreme and macabre." Today that love of art hasn't waned -- it has grown stronger. Now a professional artist whose now-bright and colorful work has been sold at galleries, Gold has had the opportunity to connect with other artists like himself who, due to physical or mental disabilities, have often found themselves and their work marginalized.

Over the past year, Gold's work has been shown in "Engage," a traveling juried exhibition that highlights the work of Vermont artists with disabilities.

"Engage," organized by VSA Vermont, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to making the arts accessible to people with disabilities, is running at Bennington Museum through May 7. Alongside it, "More Like You Than Not," a complementary exhibit by the museum's curator, Jamie Franklin, takes a look at the history of artists with disabilities in Vermont and the surrounding area over the past 150 years. While both shows highlight a very specific community of artists, the real focus is on the work itself, not any individual's disability.

This emphasis on artwork over disability was key to "Engage," said Judith Chalmer, the executive director of VSA Vermont. Chalmer, who herself has a disability, spent two years with artist Paul Gruhler, the exhibit's curator, learning how to make "Engage" as accessible as possible. They made sure each exhibit site was physically accessible, and they trained volunteers to write text and audio descriptions of artwork for people with visual or auditory impairments.

"It was well worth it, in that from the very first moment that we issued the call for art submissions, we made sure that our call was accessible in multiple formats," Chalmer said.

 

Bennington Museum paired shows honor artists' verve

By Brian Mastroianni, Berkshire Eagle Staff

BENNINGTON, Vt. -- "The title of the exhibit is actually a quote from Vermont artist and acitivist Larry Bissonette, one of the artists in the exhibition," said Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin, explaining the exhibit "More Like You Than Not," which is running in tandem with the larger "Engage" exhibit through May 7.

The exhibit takes a historical look at the past 150 years of artists with disabilities in Vermont and the surrounding region, showing both the struggles and changing perceptions of people with disabilities. Franklin said he had already been immersing himself in the material for the exhibit before artist and "Engage" curator Paul Gruhler contacted him about participating in the VSA Vermont-sponsored exhibition.

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The jury evaluated each piece with no knowledge of the artists' backgrounds or disabilities, Gruhler said.

Through "Engage," artists have the chance to present their work in a professional way. Part of this presentation involved framing each piece and offering free technology days for artists who, like Gold, need to use programs like Photoshop. Gruhler said that it all was about building a supportive community for the artists.

The chance to have her work shown as part of this community is very meaningful for Willow Bascom.

About 20 years ago, Bascom was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks healthy tissue. Bascom spent a decade struggling to perform normal functions like getting out of bed.

Originally unconfident in her work, Bascom said she did not consider herself a true artist until she was sidelined by her condition and began working as an illustrator.

"Nobody knows that they could be disabled tomorrow," Bascom said. "They could have a car accident or a stroke, and many of the people in 'Engage' have been able to explore their creativity because of their problems."

Exploring this engagement between artists, their disabilities, and the eras in which they created their work has been particularly fascinating for Franklin as he curated "More Like You Than Not."

Ranging from 19th-century artists to more contemporary work, the side exhibition has added historical contextualization to "Engage" while standing on its own, Franklin said.

"It is a Catch-22 in that, yes, we are creating exhibitions about artists with disabilities, but that's not the focus -- hopefully people come away from this looking at people who have talent just like any artist," he said.

Gold said this exhibit will hopefully change perceptions about what it means to have a disability.

"As I listen to people speak at the different openings for 'Engage,' I've learned that a lot of them are about helping others," Gold said. "I see this with them, much more than I do with those who aren't disabled. By looking at this, you realize the world is changing, one person at a time."

If you go ...

What: 'Engage' and 'More Like You Than Not,' two exhibits of work by artists with disabilities.

When: Both run through May 7. Special reception on April 6 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Where: Bennington Museum, 75 Main Street, Bennington, Vt.

Information: (803) 447-1571, vsavt.org and benningtonmuseum.org