“New Americana” showcases artists with disabilities

A diverse exhibition of paintings and drawings is adding a splash of color to the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery on the second floor of 70 Audobon St.

The Arts Council of Greater New Haven’s newest exhibition, “New Americana,” attempts to capture the essences of current world events and the feelings of the modern community. Curators Margaret Bodell and Debbie Hesse, who are both active organizers of art exhibitions in New Haven, worked alongside artists with disabilities to develop a show highlighting their talents and artwork. The new exhibition officially opened Monday, but gallery workers said the installation of the show will not be complete until its public reception on Friday.

The newest exhibition by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, “New Americana,” showcases works by artists with disabilities.
The newest exhibition by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, “New Americana,” showcases works by artists with disabilities.

The exhibit features a group of Connecticut artists, including New Haven cartoonist Bill McDonnell, who has Asperger’s Syndrome.

The artists have dramatically diverging creative styles, ranging from pencil drawings to acrylic pop art paintings, allowing for a gallery free of repetition. McDonnell, for example, draws cartoons about foods on paper lunch bags. They include sketches of tofu and fighting meats. Often, the artists’ works are based on common themes. One artist even created a group of paintings of cars, drawn in different styles.

The gallery is broken into many sections, leading to a haphazard arrangement of art that extends over hallways, rooms and niches. But the display preserves the thematic groupings of specific artists, highlighting the similarities in content between certain works.

Bodell, one of the show’s curators, explained that the artists in the show were paired with art mentors in the community who helped them develop their ideas.

“The mentors are really professional and experienced artists,” Bodell said. “They get something out of the relationship too. It’s a partnership for progress.”

Rob Sanchez, mentor to Vito Bonanno, one of the show’s featured artists, explained that he helped by discussing Bonanno’s creative vision, showing him new techniques and media, and helping him set an agenda and stay focused.

Sanchez and Liz Squillace, another of Bonanno’s mentors, agreed that they think of their work with Bonanno as a “collaborative partnership.”

“Vito and I will often split work, with me facilitating his art by creating the backgrounds he will work on, while he focuses on the foregrounds,” Sanchez said.

Squillace had similar experiences with Bonanno, explaining how they would paint side-by-side, creating a cooperative learning experience and allowing their creative styles to complement each other’s.

Elaine Peters, a community artist not involved with the exhibition but who works near the gallery, said the show has brought a cheerfulness to Audobon Street.

“I think it’s funny and exuberant,” Peters said. “I like the Bohemian style of many of the artists and the spectrum of colors that offers a nice diversion from the gray outdoors.”

Shola Cole, another spectator, said she agreed with Peters. The show is whimsical and playful even though some works show slightly darker subject matter, Cole added.

The exhibition will be on display during business hours until March 4.

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