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New artworks exhibit the power of artists with intellectual disabilities

David Tribe is a man of few words but, when he does speak, he does so with a paintbrush

By Francesca Bianco , in Culture Life , on November 23, 2016

David Tribe is a man of few words but, when he does speak, he does so with a paintbrush.

Tribe and nine other artists with intellectual disabilities are featured in Fire Ball, an art show at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster. The exhibit features the work of artists chosen for their unique ability to create powerful art.

The show is a big step forward.

Stella Johnson of BridgeArt studio in Langley, where Tribe creates his art, stressed that this has not always been the case.

“It’s not long ago that institutions wouldn’t consider hosting a show like this. But now they are opening their doors and there are more opportunities for artists to showcase their work. That’s big.”

Artists disrupt deep-rooted stereotypes

Tribe’s art often involves a preoccupation with the natural world. One of his paintings, Fire Ball, inspired the entire event. The work, in his words, portrays “a real volcano” with “lots of fire.”

That’s a far cry from the pastel visions that many might imagine an artist like him would produce.

“There is a misconception within this culture surrounding aesthetics,” said Amy Nugent, executive director of the Inclusion BC Foundation. “We were looking at the gritty stuff. We wanted some demons. It’s not happy-go-lucky all the time. There is a next level sophistication here.”

Fire Ball was spearheaded by Inclusion BC, the provincial non-profit organization that advocates for people with disabilities. The show follows the city of New Westminster’s declaration of October as community inclusion month. The municipality’s goal is to include people who are often marginalized.

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Artist David Tribe stands proudly beside his new painting, Blue Skies Tonight.

The city has played its part by displaying the work of a California artist, Paulo Pilarta, whose work, Disability People PSA C:30S TV Ad With Chris, is also up at New Westminster’s city hall.

Amy Nugent went on a tour of community-art studios across Metro Vancouver to choose the pieces for Fire Ball.

“We took pictures of all the stuff we liked, showed the photos to curators around Vancouver and made the selections.” Nugent then had the artworks professionally framed to further elevate the professional look of the show.

The extra work paid off. The Anvil Centre’s community art space is an impressive room with walls planked in warm Douglas fir. Each painting pops under its own spotlight.

“Curators came in on opening night and were talking about the artwork in ways the artists hadn’t ever heard. I don’t think they get to hear people very invested in art really enter their work and speak to it aesthetically,” said Nugent.

Art shows like this one not only empower artists creatively but also reward them financially. All sales of the paintings go directly back to the artists and on opening night more than half of the pieces sold.

Nugent says Fire Ball is the first of what she hopes will be an annual visual-arts event for the organization. She wants to see a shift where professional artists work alongside the artists with intellectual disabilities to help their work grow.

‘Trying to gain access to say this is important’

Bilania Velkova, the arts co-ordinator of the Anvil Centre, said she was happy the space could be home to a unique group of artists.

“We are showing what art can do for different causes,” she said.

Nugent says the show is only a jumping-off point to give way to more interaction between people with and without disabilities.

“We don’t want this to be like a day program where people gather around to do crafts. Right now people with intellectual disabilities are not entering the commercial world of art. It’s about having gallerists and curators recognize them,” said Nugent.

Her ultimate goal is to grow an artwork collection that can be shown in galleries across the Lower Mainland. Talent scouting could be a part of that endeavour, said Nugent. As of last week, Inclusion BC purchased three of the artworks to launch the initiative.

Amy Nugent, executive director of Inclusion BC Foundation stands beside a painting by artist Deidre Snow, who is also a member of the BridgeArt studio in Langley.
Amy Nugent, executive director of Inclusion BC Foundation, stands beside a painting by artist Deidre Snow, who is also a member of the BridgeArt studio in Langley.

‘Art puts us all on an equal footing’

While the paintings offer an intimate look into the far-reaching talents of people with disabilities, it also leaves the viewer with unanswered questions.

Mystery, Nugent notes, is something very appealing when showcasing people with diverse abilities. People may never quite know what the pieces mean to the artists themselves.

David Tribe came back last Friday morning for a second visit of the exhibit. With all the excitement surrounding the show, Tribe was content to stay put beside his new painting. As friends took his picture, he nodded and tipped his cowboy hat towards the camera.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

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Fire Ball runs from October 11 to December 9 at the Anvil Centre’s Community Art Space in New Westminster. The show culminates on UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities Day on December 3 with a film festival in the evening. Attendance is free. www.anvilcentre.com/events/fire-ball/