As Ilene Kruger Mojsilov brings a cart around the Walker Art Center’s Art Lab, the four artists gathered at the table are encouraged to pick out something that catches their interest. “Start by drawing the objects you chose and then we’ll begin to build on them,” explains Mojsilov, the Walker’s Art Lab Coordinator. The artists need little prompting. Kathy, who says she likes patterns and colors, selects a small, colorful embroidery for herself. Justin picks out a light-switch plate with five slots. Lyn chooses a black and gold bracelet, and Richard, a black funnel. Within moments, each is engrossed in studying and drawing.
The four are part of an innovative collaboration between Partnership Resources, Inc. and the Walker Art Center called “Challenging Perceptions: PRI Artists Focus on the Walker Art Center.” The 25-week program involves a total of 20 developmentally disabled adult artists who share a passion for art and making art. The work today in the Art Lab is just a small part of Challenging Perceptions, whose primary objective has been to allow participants time and assistance to explore several of the Walker’s permanent exhibitions. Ultimately, each artist chose one or two works from those exhibitions to be the focus on research – both about the work itself and its creators -- and as a source inspiration for new works of art created by the participants. Challenging Perceptions culminates in a private exhibition of their work that opens January 12 at Campbell Mithun and will continue until March 1. Opening night will include a talk by the PRI artists about the work they created during the program.
“Challenging Perceptions” is the brainchild of Lara Hanson, PRI art instructor and project leader. The 20 artists who participated in the program were chosen by her on the basis of simple but rigorous criteria. “I have a core group of artists in the studio program at PRI,” she says. Most of the “Challenging Perceptions” participants were selected from that core, though there were other considerations involved as well. “The group was drawn from people who consider themselves working artists, people who have the drive and the focus and are excited about making art,” she says.
Participants also had to be able to conduct the research and to participate in the program as part of an artistic community. Once the artists were chosen, Hanson wrote up a worksheet that each participant used to research the work or works of art they chose to focus on from one of three Walker exhibitions: Midnight Party, Absentee Landlord, and 50/50. “I told them to find a piece of artwork that interested them,” says Hanson. “It didn’t necessarily have to be something they liked, but something they wanted to know more about, something that fascinated them.”
Over the following months, the PRI artists did research on the Internet, in books, and through interviews with Walker staff. In the end, about half of the 20 participants chose to focus on works from the now-closed 50/50 exhibition, with the rest about evenly split between the Walker’s Absentee Landlord and Midnight Party exhibitions. Besides working with Hanson and Walker staff and curators, each of the artists also attended art labs like the one described above. All of these experiences were in pursuit of becoming self-aware as artists and making conscious choices about their own work and their responses to the work of other artists.
During the program participants discovered many things, but perhaps the one lesson everyone took away, Hanson says, is that art doesn’t just mean painting. It encompasses a whole range of mediums and forms of expression, from the concrete and representational, to the abstract and conceptual. “They learned that there are so many more materials than they ever thought possible that they can use,” Hanson says. “Even more important, they learned that you can get ideas for your work from just observing the world or reflecting on their own lives…It was a great way to teach student artists about all the different types of art.”