Art From the Heart
Marin’s developmentally disabled express themselves creatively
Elliot Jung works on his art for up to seven hours a day.
Photos by Tim Porter
“Meet Elliot Jung,” says Lisa Scandurra of the Victory Center for Arts and Communications in San Anselmo. “He’s 72 going on 14.” She’s right. An eager teenager is exactly how Jung comes across. His eyes twinkle, he smiles constantly and no one could be more happy to shake your hand. “Elliot has an incredible attention span,” Scandurra says. “He’ll work intensely seven hours straight with his pastels and colored pencils.”
Jung is in his “circle period,” Scandurra jokes. His paintings feature a series of three-inch circles, much like the way acclaimed pop artist Jim Dine uses repetitive hearts. And like Dine, Jung layers each piece with a variety of colors. He energetically scratches at the layers of paint with a variety of scraping tools to create subtle yet intriguing patterns.
Unlike Dine, however, Jung has been developmentally disabled since birth. His art is rarely seen by the public. “Well, that’s not entirely accurate,” says Scandurra, the center’s program manager. “Elliot’s work is regularly entered in the Marin County Fair. Often, he’s won. Also, he’s been shown in several Bay Area galleries.”
Sitting next to Jung, in one of three light-filled studios that the Victory Center keeps busy all week, is 43-year-old Andy Buchwald, a nonverbal artist born with the condition known as Down syndrome. Buchwald’s creations, called “Talking Sticks,” are much-in-demand, tribal-like wall hangings. “He’s an intuitive artist and has sold hundreds of them,” says Scandurra. “Each one is unique.”
Before coming to the Victory Center more than 10 years ago, Buchwald was considered clinically destructive. “He would violently rip and tear at every piece of paper or fabric he was handed,” Scandurra says. But during an introductory period at the center, that compulsion was directed into creative expression. Buchwald now spends much of his day wrapping small tree branches with cloth remnants, ribbons and yarn, then adding colorful trinkets, beads and feathers. “Andy’s wall hangings now go for up to $800,” says Scandurra. “He’s our in-house celebrity.”
The Victory Center is a program of The Cedars of Marin, a nearly 90-year-old nonprofit devoted to residential and day care for adults with developmental disabilities. Residential clients are housed on a serene tree-lined campus in Ross and in 10 family-style group homes throughout Marin. More than 150 clients are transported each weekday to programs such as the Victory Center or the Michele Ritter Textile Art Center, located on 21 acres in a canyon west of San Rafael.
Inside the textile center, fortysomething Linda Stone works up to six hours a day at a wooden loom. “I love this, I love this,” she says. “I’ve been here eight years and if I didn’t love doing this, I’d quit.” Stone creates colorful and flawlessly constructed table runners and place mats. “This may look simple,” she says, “but it’s very difficult work.”
Stone, like all of the weavers at the center, has a developmental disability. “However, despite the challenges life has presented,” says Connie Pelissero, the center’s director for 26 years, “they have become skilled at handweaving and are considered master weavers.” Pelissero agrees with Stone: weaving is challenging. “The pressure put on the beater bar must be consistent,” Pelissero points out. “Thread counts have to be accurate. Then there are foot pedals, harnesses, throws and blocks to deal with, plus the mathematical skills that are required.” (Products from the center—colorful woven tea towels, place mats, table runners and scarves—are sold at the CedarChest at 630 San Anselmo Avenue.)
The atmosphere in the center is relaxed, creative and friendly. In the background is a constant clack of the wooden looms. Piper Curtis (“43 going on 44”) has been there weaving there since 1985. Her work is intricate and polished. Are you getting better at your craft, she is asked. “I think so. I hope so,” she says cheerily. “I love all the vibrant colors.” The weaver next to Curtis pipes up: “She’s good; she’s really good.” Curtis beams at the praise.
Pelissero says the weavers enter their work in artistic competitions, including the county fair, that are open to all weavers, not just the developmentally disabled. “And frequently, we’ll win!”
Artworks created by clients of The Cedars of Marin will be available for purchase at La Vendemmia, a replica of the traditional Italian harvest celebration being held at the Mill Valley Community Center on Saturday, October 6. The evening will feature cocktails, dinner and entertainment by the renowned a cappella group Clockwork. There will be a silent auction of the paintings, weavings and objets d’art. For further information and tickets ($175 each), phone Stacia Culp at 415.526.1354.