The Bottom Line is Self-Expression

The JCDS Emerging Artists program, headquartered at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, is made up of adult artists with IDD. Daniel Mclean (left to right) Brad Friedman and Danny Bowen are three of the 15 artists in the program. (photo by Jim Barcus)

It’s about more than the art for those who take part in the Johnson County Developmental Supports Emerging Artists Program.

Inside the Emerging Artists studio at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, up to 15 adult artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities have access to a supportive environment that also cultivates equality, communication and personal development.

And what of the painting, drawing, sculpting and so forth? As with any collective of artistic souls, the bottom line is still self-expression.

“It is our job as artists to tell a story of the times that we live in through our own perspective,” said Daniel Mclean, 31, an emerging artist whose disabilities include bipolar disorder. “That’s what’s really important and very much why I’m an artist.

“Everybody sells. The artwork stands on its own. There’s a wide range of styles.”

Cary Odell, Emerging Artists Program Coordinator
JCDS Emerging Artist Danny Bowen works on a weaving in the JCDS studio. (photo by Jim Barcus)

“I don’t want to make this specifically just a disabled thing, because it’s not — it’s an artist thing. We support each other as artists, and we help each other grow. And that is what is interesting. We help each other see different things as artists and, through that, we create better work.”

That work is sold at local galleries and art shows — including the recent “2021 Kansas City Flatfile & Digitalfile” exhibit at Block Artspace — as well as through commissions that include KC Studio’s request of the Emerging Artists to pictorialize
the 12 Days of Christmas for the magazine’s 2021 holiday issue. The artists receive all money from their individual sales, which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year.

“Everybody sells,” said Cary Odell, emerging artists program coordinator and co-founder of the program eight years ago. “The artwork stands on its own. There’s a wide range of styles.”

Yet a common work ethic is administered in the studio by Odell and arts program specialist Kristen Devlin.

“People who are a good fit for our program are people who are already artists and create artwork, whether they’re in an art program or not,” Odell said. “The expectation is that you come in here and work. We may jack around and we have fun, but you better get some artwork done.”

As does Emerging Artist Katie Zemel, 38, who loves to paint “mostly animals,” such as her two turtledoves for the 12 Days of Christmas project. Recently, she was also completing an imposing elephant of a decidedly different hue.

“I definitely change the colors,” she said of her work. “There are no animals with, like, blue and yellow and spots all over them. That’s my elephant.”

Or take Lee Giesler, 36, an emerging artist frequently inspired by action-heroes and monsters, who shares his “happy thoughts” from “feeling something inside” by creating his own particular visual — like his 12 Days of Christmas version of 10 lords a leaping.

“No, not lords,” Giesler specifies. “Kings. They’re not the same. Similar.”

Emerging Artist Danny Bowen, 21, doesn’t say much, but he tackled his 12 Days of Christmas interpretation of eight maids a milking by showing eight friendly looking cows. Where are the maids? Presumably nearby.

“Danny is the fastest hand-weaver we’ve ever seen,” Devlin offered.

“And the most accurate,” Odell added. “Just no mistakes.”

An artist since age 2, when he began drawing pictures from television, Emerging Artist Brad Friedman, 57, is more into rendering landscapes and campsites these days. He’s also created his own comic-book character, Superbrad.

Friedman’s 12 Days of Christmas take on 12 drummers drumming is packed with celebrity percussionists past and present, from real-life Karen Carpenter and Ringo Starr to the fantasy Energizer Bunny and Melody Valentine of Josie and the Pussycats.

Friedman, who is on the autism spectrum, is the studio’s best-selling art maker. His advice for creating art: “See what you can find and see what inspires you. Choose what you love most.”

Emerging Artist Mclean’s 12 Days of Christmas painting is of the well-known partridge in a pear tree. But the intent of his perched bird reaches well beyond the traditional Christian holiday.

“I took different holiday season colors and got a little bit of each color on a fan brush, and I just made kind of an abstract version of the tree,” Mclean said. “With the partridge, I tried my best to do more of an exact image. But I didn’t want it to be just one holiday or the other. I wanted it to be open to everyone’s holidays that everyone celebrates.”

Inclusiveness is a recurring theme in Mclean’s work, such as his Black Lives Matter-inspired painting that he calls “Method.”

“It’s of a Black person’s hand going up, like in an opera,” Mclean said. “Behind it is all these different colors and all these other colors on top of those colors. The story that I was trying to tell was that it takes people of all colors to fight racism.”

The care and insight expressed through the Emerging Artists’ output continue to move Odell on practically a daily basis.

“There are times every week that I’m just astounded,” she said. “There are times I just stare at a piece and see different things in it and the beauty of it. And I witness people seeing the beauty of it. My favorite is when people walk in and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I love that. I want it. How much is it?’ That’s the best.”

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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