Art, and Those Thought by Some to Have a Disability

Burris and the Bulletin Board at the Lonely Mountain Arts CenterIn describing the Corvallis artist Bruce Burris’ work of the last 35 years, it might be best to start with a story about a woman named Beverley Baker.

Baker was sitting at a folding table, entirely alone. Her job was a typical one for people who are perceived to have limited skills: she was loading a paper shredder. But instead of shredding, she was working with a ballpoint pen on a blank sheet of office paper. As Burris tells it: “You can bet that she filched the pen from someone, and on the other side of the paper that she was working on was confidential material. And to me that really tells the whole story.”

Because in that menial position, with that filched pen and confidential paper, Baker, who has Down syndrome, was creating one of the drawings for which she is now very well known, drawings which have now been exhibited in New York City and Paris, drawings which Burris describes as “kind of Rothko-like in the way that she uses and allows certain space to remain. She is very bold, very exciting. A force.”

But at that time she was just sitting there, scribbling. Burris estimates that she would have had to have been passed well over two thousand times by people within her system, people who could have recognized her by glancing at the table and supported what she was doing.

Because of Burris, who for the last 35 years has served as an executive director, program developer, facilitator, publicist, and employment specialist with programs devoted to supporting artists with disabilities, Baker eventually was recognized and celebrated and given support.

“But the really scary thing,” Burris says, “is how many we are overlooking.”

“Beverley Baker did not need me,” Burris is quick to proclaim. “She was already making tremendous work. She was completely capable of doing it on her own.” But she did need support and facilitation. And that’s where Latitude Artist Community, a program Burris co-founded and ran for 13 years in Lexington, Kentucky, came into play. Latitude Artist Community “serves all people—with an emphasis on those thought by some to have a disability—by creating meaningful, inclusive community interactions.”
The roots of Latitude stretch back to the mid-1980s, when Burris attended the San Francisco Art Institute. During that time he worked briefly with Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, generally recognized as the earliest studio arts resource designed specifically to support artists with disabilities. “I was struck by how consistent, decent support allowed a person who is considered by some to have a disability to develop and to achieve on a very high level,” Burris says. Though Burris would eventually become a well-recognized artist himself, that summer left him with “a very powerful motivation to continue supporting and facilitating arts within disability culture.”

The arts offer many opportunities to improve the quality of life of a person who is dependent on a variety of institutional supports. By providing studio space and various means of career support, programs like Latitude or Creative Growth allow artists to develop creatively and to benefit from their own work. For example, Beverley Baker now works on her art five days a week at Latitude. (Even today she draws on 8×11 sheets of paper with ballpoint pens.) These programs thus work as a way of “empowering people with disabilities, and those of us who support them, with the potential to act as contributing citizens instead of isolates.”

As Burris puts it, the important thing is “not that these [type of program] supports are extraordinary—it’s just that they exist at all.”

In 2013, Burris sold Latitude and moved to Corvallis with his wife and teenage son. He immediately got to work on his latest project: Height1000, “an organization devoted to highlighting and supporting innovative creative efforts/supports within the realm of art and disability culture.” Burris has long been interested in the diversity of approaches that different organizations take in their support of the careers and aspirations of artists, and had the idea of organizing a “kind of statewide shout-out to these programs.”

The shout-out is taking the form of a “survey/exhibit” titled a sun in make-up is just another outer space beauty, to open at the Majestic Theatre and the Arc Benton in Corvallis on Saturday, April 5. Five different arts and disabilities programs in Oregon, ranging from larger, full-time programs such as Project Grow in Portland to smaller, part-time programs such as Artfocus in Corvallis, will attend the event. The event is intended in part for these organizations to “recognize each other, come together, and share resources and ideas as a community,” but also to exhibit their work to the Corvallis community. For example, Quickest Flip, a Eugene-based artist-collective representing artists both with and without disabilities, will open a pop-up store in the Majestic Theatre.

On the whole, Burris believes that as a nation “we have faltered in the goal of establishing a reasonable place for people thought by some to have a disability within their own communities.” As Burris and these Oregon programs show, good people are working towards this goal. But the bulk of the work remains to be done by us, as a culture.

By Nathaniel Brodie