Pick of the Week

Outside of the Mainstream

Lauren Gregersen-Brown is lucky enough to have a job that is actually gratifying.

She has a master's degree in fine arts and an undergraduate degree in teaching, and she's molded those two disciplines into one by becoming an art teacher for developmentally disabled adults at Artworks.

"It's very rewarding to help them," says Gregersen-Brown. "You're really trying to bring out the best of what they can do."

Since 1989, Artworks has been a day program and art studio, providing materials and space for adults with special needs.

The program recently took a large step forward with its first public art show, called Arrivals and Departures, in which seven Artworks' artists have displayed their pieces at dada contemporary.

"It's the first show in a gallery, where everything has been professionally matted and framed," says Gregersen-Brown. "The artwork is amazing. ... Some of it is very sophisticated."

The Artworks program is part of the University of Arizona's Sonoran University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. "Our main goal is to assist people with disabilities to express themselves," says Artworks founder Jeanne Carrigan, an art therapist. "It's a very stimulating job. ... It's a wonderful experience."

Gregersen-Brown, a former gallery owner, had to persuade Carrigan to show the work outside of the university.

"I was hesitant, but Lauren said you have to be out there," says Carrigan. "We feel like the work is getting better and better, and it's time to show the community."

The show of brut art (meaning art produced outside of the mainstream) showcases works from the artists' varied styles and mediums. Consider artist Jessicah Leavenworth: She has cerebral palsy, but nevertheless stitches burlap baskets. "She is limited in terms of motion," says Gregersen-Brown, "but she can do stuff like stitching."

When Carrigan began the program, her aim was--and still is--to provide an area of motivation, validity and structure for adults with disabilities by using art.

"I'm going to say something very dramatic: People with disabilities need food for their spirits," says Carrigan. "Even if they make a mark or two on a piece of paper, it's valuable to them."

In all, 20 artists currently participate in the Artworks program, and vary in age from 20 to 70. Some, according to Carrigan, have been at Artworks for 10 years.

"Several of them have autism, where they need a super-strict schedule," says Gregersen-Brown. "(We're) trying to challenge them. ... It gives them a community and a reason to be."

Three art teachers, including Gregersen-Brown, work with the artists in groups of four and act as guides, mentoring the artists in the techniques and mediums of their choice. "You're really trying to bring out the best of what they can do," says Gregersen. "It's their work."

Three times a year, Artworks will change the medium by which the artists create. For example, the artists spent some time practicing movement with a former circus entertainer. Recently, the artists wrote and acted in a 30-minute movie called Gold Spurs and Rusty Boots; it is available for purchase online.

Both Carrigan and the instructors want to downplay the fact the art on display at dada contemporary was made by disabled adults.

"We try to de-emphasize that they have disabilities," says Gregersen-Brown. "Most people don't know the work was done by people with disabilities. That's the part that's kind of exciting. Their work can be enjoyed on its own merit."

The outlet that Artworks and the show has provided for these adults has given them an opportunity for personal expression and meaning, allowing the students to be on an equal playing field with others in society, according to Gregersen-Brown. "It opens the world to them. It kind of gives them a purpose," she says.

Adds Carrigan: "When you see these pieces, it's going to blow you away."

Artworks' closing showcase of Arrivals and Departures will take place at dada contemporary, 439 N. Sixth Ave., from 3 to 5 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24. Admission is free. For more information about the exhibit, call 275-9952, or visit the dada Web site.