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Exhibit pays tribute to artists with disabilities

Date: 11/12/2012

By Debbie Gardner

SPRINGFIELD — Can you 'see' disability in an artist's choice of color, or medium, or style? Are the limitations of the body — or of the mind — a roadblock to creativity?

If the works on display this month at the Artist Square Group Gallery at Tower Square are any indication, these questions are moot. From paintings to paper mosaics, charcoal studies to geometric monoprints, the walls are emblazoned with remarkable examples of design and beauty, all the works of local artists with physical or other limitations.

The exhibition, "Challenges: A Tribute to Artists with Disabilities" is the brainchild of gallery Director Rosemary Tracy Woods. A longtime advocate for the disabled, she designed the exhibition to send what she feels is an important message.

"Just because a person has a disability, you can't assume that they don't have something to contribute to society," Woods told Reminder Publications.

On Nov. 8 she welcomed three of the four local artists who contributed work to the show — Mischa Epstein of Springfield, Kyle O'Neil of East Hampton, Conn., and Edward Kwiatowski of Holyoke — during a reception to kick off the show.

Epstein, O'Neil, Kwiatowski and Bob L. Daniels, also of Springfield, who was unable to attend the reception, all create despite their disabilities and have shown their works in other venues, some international.

Epstein, who was diagnosed with epilepsy at six month of age, not only fashions exquisitely detailed paper mosaics by hand "with those big, orange-handled pair of shears in your kitchen," she shares her creativity with children as a teacher for the arts program at the Springfield Boys & Girls Club. Her class, The Business of Art, which teaches students both the practical and the creative side of an artistic career, has been recognized nationally.

Epstein said participating in the show was important to her because her epilepsy and its seizures, though not immediately evident to the casual observer, have profoundly affected her life, especially during her years in school.

"I have a disability, but I feel if you walk up to me, you wouldn't see it," Epstein said. "I feel that people should be aware that there are people with disabilities that aren't visible; just because you don't see them doesn't mean they don't exist."

The 72-year-old Kwiatowski who is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy and paints with his right foot, shared work that spans his years as an artist in the Tower Square exhibit.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," he said happily as friends and relatives helped him first view his own installation, then tour the other works on display. He added that his art career started when he was 15, and "kept making airplanes with my foot." A scholarship allowed him to study art at a specialized institute, and he's been painting ever since.

Woods said it was Kwiatowski's work, — a series of still-life and scenic studies in acrylics and charcoal — which she learned about through gallery member and sculptor James Kitchen, that inspired her to host "Challenges." Kitchen said he met Kwiatowski through Stavros — a local nonprofit organization that specializes in improving the lives of individuals with disabilities by providing ramps and other necessary access tools — when the organization commissioned a sculpture to help raise awareness about the challenges of wheelchair-bound individuals.

"I looked at Ed and thought, 'my goodness, how does he get his paints open, or use his pencil?'" Woods said. "If you really think about it, we are so fortunate ... I have my hands and feet."

Lois Brown, a director at Stavros and artist herself, said when she first saw Kwiatowski's work during an intake visit to install a ramp at his home, she thought "Oh my, these are good." The sale of prints of his work, handled by Freedom Trail Gallery in Amherst, help support the ramp program at Stavros.

After learning about Kwiatowski's work, Woods said she put out a call looking for other disabled artists to join the show, and received submissions from the other three.

Printmaker Kyle O'Neil, who was born with Down's syndrome, is the daughter of gallery member and potter Gary O'Neil. Already an accomplished artist who has exhibited in Argentina at the opening of a Down's Syndrome Association office as well as at galleries in the U.S., she was pleased to see her work in an exhibition highlighting the creativity of individuals with different disabilities.

"I feel it's good to do stuff [that people see]," the 27-year-old O'Neil, who began her printmaking at age 14, said. Her father added that she was very happy to be recognized in the Pioneer Valley for the quality of her work.

Her display at the gallery includes a collection of monoprints in greens and yellows, and purples. Her newest work, which combines printmaking with a weaving technique, gives the finished pieces a captivating three-dimensional effect.

Woods said Bob L. Daniels, a double amputee and Vietnam Veteran, who was unable to attend the opening, is well know in the city for his paintings and airbrush compositions, some of which are also on display in the Pan African Historical Museum USA, also located in Towner Square. Daniels also has work in a current exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

The Artist Square Group Gallery is located on the second floor of Tower Square, 1500 Main St., adjacent to the Food Court. Hours are Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information in the exhibit, or upcoming shows, call 301-6314 during gallery hours.