Disability & the Arts: A Conversation with Andrea Parsek and Kelly Rondou

ART is NOT and OPTION! workshop, 2011.

ART is NOT an OPTION! is an innovative art program designed to provide artists with disabilities studio workshops and the opportunity to showcase artwork in the community. Our program promotes creativity, dignity, and community for artists with disabilities. Artists are invited to a series of workshops where they will be encouraged and supported to explore different media, develop artistic skills, and enhance their methods of self-expression. We believe that, for an artist and for our communities, art is not an option!

Following is a conversation with ART is NOT an OPTION! co-founders Andrea Parsek and Kelly Rondou.

ANDREA: For those who create art, there seems to be an inherent fear of our work not being understood, appreciated, or even received. When I imagine a developmental disability stacked upon this fear, I am overwhelmed with the lack of opportunity that artists with disabilities are confronted with. At any moment I can get up, gather supplies, and begin to paint, draw, and construct. For those who have limited mobility, dexterity, and communication capabilities, art becomes truly inaccessible.

KELLY: I think that many of us struggle to find our voices and direction in life. I know I did. The importance of feeling valued and having your voice heard is paramount to a happy experience on this planet, but it is not always easy to achieve. One of my favorite quotes has always been "Give us a place to stand and we will move the earth."  It is often in the finding of that place to stand that the difficulties arise.

In high school, I was lost until I became very involved in theatre and journalism. When I graduated, my confidence was high and I opted for a major in journalism and what I thought would be a great platform and outlet for my creativity. My first year in college, I was lost in a sea of students and many, if not most, of my peers were interested in being journalists so they could "be on television." I was disillusioned, alone, and in a very dark place. This was not working. I was lost again.

I decided that maybe the theatre was where I should be, switched schools, changed majors. For a variety of reasons, though, I was again lost and even more confused because I believed that opportunity, talent and passion were all that was needed to gain a foothold and the department I transferred into did not hold the same views. Luckily, I also believed that, in order to be a technical and set designer, I had to have an art background. It was by stepping outside of my comfort zone in the theatre and into an unknown world of visual arts that I found the people—most importantly my mentor—who would challenge me in a positive way that allowed me to finally find my voice again.

Sharon Jodock-King participates in an
ART is NOT an OPTION! workshop.

ANDREA: Art, as a noun, is defined as a skill. As a verb, it can be interchanged with to exist, to sustain, and to prevail. Sharon Jodock-King, a participating artist in the ART is NOT an OPTION! program describes her feelings and what art means to her:

For me, it's a way for me to express my inner feelings to the world that doesn't have a clue who I am or what I'm capable of doing. Art gives me a feeling of freedom, like when I see a clean piece of art paper my inner self wants to create things with a paint brush or a drawing pencil on that paper. This too holds true with the poetry that I write. I’m releasing thoughts that can reach to the ends of the earth in which I may never see over my life span.

To be conscious of Sharon and other participating artists' creative process is truly inspiring. Each class, I watch a collaborative, enthused effort develop before me—and hear a voice often forgotten.

KELLY: After graduation, I looked for a city where art was nourished and appreciated and integral. I refused to go to New York— too crowded; Chicago—too cold in winter; and LA—too much concrete and smog. Seattle it is, then.

Knowing that art may never pay the bills, I decided a career would be okay for a while and ended up falling into a great position at PROVAIL, a nonprofit that provides services for some of the most severely disabled individuals in Washington. I've never regretted it for a moment. What I've learned at PROVAIL has influenced my life profoundly and has allowed me to slow down, to learn to listen, to know people, truly know them and hear their voices.
I started keeping a list of ideas, things I would love to do if there were all the time in the world. Many of these ideas will never see the light of day but one kept coming back to me as important and doable—art classes for artists with disabilities. I had worked in the disability community for awhile and had not heard much about programs where artists were treated as though their art had relevance and importance, that the artists were artists and taken seriously as such. Most times, when you see people with disabilities doing art, the art is not considered "professional."  Essentially, the voices of the artists are diminished and not really listened to. The more I thought about it, the more I felt this resource was needed in our community—to give credence to those artists and to provide a leg up into the greater artistic community and thereby strengthen the community as a whole. I mentioned these thoughts to Andrea, a fantastic co-worker who just so happens to share that passion and background in art, and it stuck. We decided to push for approval and see what we could do.

Acrylic painting by ART is NOT an OPTION! participant Forrest Neander.

This dream became a reality when we were given the green light to start collecting donated materials for classes. We had then, and still have, no budget to purchase things for the classes, but that doesn’t matter. Donations of used and new art supplies are still coming in from all over the city. The response has been overwhelming and heartening.

So that was it. Now we have a series of classes specifically for artists with disabilities and our focus has always been on what people can do, what they want to do, what they want to say, and that their voices are vital. Each class is different. Each group of artists brings a different experience and story to the table and we have been blessed with volunteers who are able to slow down and hear those voices and to be the supports those artists need. Even thinking about it now I am almost knocked speechless.

ANDREA: As an artist, and as a guide for this program, I have learned new techniques to appropriate in my own methods, and, most importantly, I have learned patience in the creative process. To communicate and assist the artists, traditional tactics must be cast aside. As described by a volunteer, "Talking evaporates from the partnership and you react to … how your partner is moving. The more time you spend working together, the more your vocabulary of gestures grows until the work begins to feel like a familiar dance."

As we partner a volunteer with an artist, a true rhythm is created and what becomes the end result is a portrayal of the artist's world as they see it.

KELLY: What I've realized is that my experiences are not so different than those of the artists I am honored to work with today. For each of us, getting our voice heard has been a struggle and we have felt the pain of shouting to be heard in a world that won't slow down to hear us. Our confidence has been rocked by the cruelties of situations and we have had to pick ourselves up on many occasions only to be buffeted from the other direction. Picking up a paintbrush or a pencil, though, manipulating color and line, gives us control and an outlet, a common language with which to say to the world that we are here and what we have to say is worth hearing—even if you have to slow down a little.

For more information about ART is NOT an OPTION!, visit our website, e-mail art@provail.org, or call 206-363-7303. We welcome new volunteers. For more information about PROVAIL, visit www.provail.org.

—Lea Lonnberg-Hickling, ART is NOT an OPTION!

Mixed media work by ART is NOT an OPTION! participant Gabby Facundo.