Germantown art exhibition aims to break down intellectual-disability stigmas

For its second annual art exhibition, Germantown’s Depaul House will spotlight Philadelphia artists who use their work to break down common stigmas suffered by people with intellectual disabilities.

Depaul House is the Philadelphia location of Depaul USA, an arm of Depaul International which serves as a transitional residence for formerly homeless Germantown men.

This year’s art exhibition, taking over several ground-floor rooms of the building, is the result of a new collaboration with the Wynnewood-based Center for Creative Works and the Oasis Art Center at 12th and Callowhill streets.

Both programs, under the national non-profit Resources for Human Development, provide artistic, vocational and life-skills training for people with mental illness and/or intellectual disabilities.

Launch event

On Thursday night, Depaul USA Executive Director Charles Levesque welcomed art therapists Pat Lyons of Oasis and Lori Bartol of CCW for an “Unlimited Potential: Changing Lives Through Artistic Expression” gallery opening celebration attended by artists, friends and supporters.

The artwork, which will be on display through Aug. 30, includes a range of styles including evocative line-drawings, bold integrations of color and lettering, abstract pieces, landscapes and portraits.

Speaking with NewsWorks before the evening’s program got underway, Levesque admired the gallery as work from people who are largely self-taught through their own “strong urge to create,” which often goes unrecognized without the help of programs like CCW and Oasis.

An artist’s inspiration

Participating artist Stephanie Michelle Washington (a.k.a “Foxy Mama”) contributed a vibrant, toothy portrait of comic Richard Pryor that graces the cover of the show’s pamphlet.

Washington took up the arts about a year ago, but has since participated in several shows that produced eager buyers for her work.

“I used to watch Whoopi [Goldberg] on Sister Act [in which she said] ‘If you want to be a singer, be a singer,'” Washington said of her inspiration to take up a paintbrush after years of encouragement from supporters.

The Depaul show includes Washington’s portrait of Nelson Mandela, which was previously displayed in the gallery of Philadelphia’s Magic Garden.

“He’s a good person in South Africa,” she said of why she decided to paint the human-rights icon.

Levesque moderated the evening’s program which featured a brief discussion with Lyons and Bartol and a chance for attendees to ask questions.

He noted that the exhibit was a perfect example of the modern “placemaking” that Depaul House hopes to achieve: Aesthetic appeal and opportunities for all, in an open and tolerant setting.

Creating art is just the first step

Lyons and Bartol, who are longtime friends and colleagues, said they have worked with some of the artists represented in the show for a decade or more.

“It’s not just to make the artwork, but to put it out there and engage the public,” Bartol said of how a public show is key to “empowering” the artists involved.

Lyons added that the creative pursuits of people who are branded as “disabled” are vital to helping those individuals re-define themselves to a larger world.

“Through art, these artists are able to make a difference in educating others,” Lyons said, pointing to the way a formerly silent Washington bloomed when she began to identify herself as a successful painter. “People with disabilities are stigmatized and this is their chance to squash the stigma.”

Her program participants’ process of making art, inviting the public to see and buy it and interacting with viewers helps to recast social attitudes.

Lyons said that when that happens, “you don’t look at the disability, you look at the ability.”

Unlimited Potential: Changing Lives Through Artistic Expression” runs at the Depaul House, 5725 Sprague Street, through Aug. 10.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.