Painter of the Month
Painter of the Month: Danielle Conti
When my book came out Beacon Press had me come up to Boston. While I was there I had lunch with Paul Solman from the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. He's a smart guy. His father was a serious painter, a pal of Rothko and the rest of the great abstract painters back then.
Here was a guy I could explain the hang-up to. The ironic situation that was holding back the A.R.T. artists, that was holding back A.R.T. from getting to them.
"It's like this. This kid who is quadriplegic, nonverbal rolls into the room. We've never met him, he's never met us. He's never done any art. I don't think he really ever went to school. And here he is. We find out his signal for yes and no then tell him, in this flat serious professional tone, how the A.R.T. techniques work. One of the staff leans in to speak, quietly suggesting, ‘I don't believe he understands anything you're saying.’
‘Do you want to try it?’ we ask the young man we just met. He signals yes. He directs the exact size of the canvas. He locks into the directing the blending of his colors. He looks over all the brushes and all the other application tool options and picks one out. The way this young guy was spoken to by staff you'd think he was incapable of making any decisions on his own, and here he is locked into all these exacting choices. He's fixed on each move. And out comes this seriously kick-ass painting. Seriously kick ass. I mean gallery level. I mean you could hang it in a museum and no pro painter would poo-poo it, not at all. They wouldn't be able to because it's that good. His first painting. No art teacher. No one guiding him. No art history. No nothing. Just him and the materials, him in charge of it all. In charge, totally, probably for the first time in his life.
So he didn't mess around. He had all this power inside him and it just came out. You wouldn't see the power if you just measured him by his physical appearance. But of course Art doesn't come from the body... it comes from the spirit. And the immobile body can hide the spirit, but it's there.
The piece was far better than most of the stuff you'd see in a fancy art school. Much better. It was a real painting. Very direct, no fru-fru. It had power. It was clean.
One of the staff coming through the studio asks, ‘What is it?’ I say, ‘A painting.’ And he shakes his head the way you do to dismiss something you think is bogus, like shaking his head 'no'. He couldn't see the painting. There was nothing there, or at least nothing that struck him as art.
So I see the irony that the thing we figured would prove the depth of these young people's inner lives: painting, didn't register as true, awesome, serious, pro level high art.
The kid no one thought capable of sophisticated thought or feeling just fired out this gorgeous painting, it clearly proving the kid is more than whole inside. It proves the kid has some exceptional powers no one's letting him tap. And this staff-person can't see it. It doesn't prove anything to him."
"What it proved to him," Solman says, "is that the abstract expressionists were a bunch of retards."
I blink, pause, then burst out laughing.
If people can't see abstract painting they can't see what their client has just demonstrated.
It is hard for plenty of people to accept a person whose limbs might be a bit twisted, who might make novel vocalizations, who might list or even drool, could blow them away when it came to serious high art.
Let me tell you this. They can. Not a few of them every once in a while, but almost all of them over the last fifteen years of us working with so many of them all over the country.
I don't know if anyone else has worked with so many nonverbal quadriplegics living lives where they have so, so little creative decision-making power. The vast majority, almost all of them turn out paintings better than you see in art schools.
People find this hard to accept. Why? Because they don't know what Art is or where it comes from. They think art comes from these rarified egotistical genius types. They have this cliché idea about what an artist is. They get all wrapped up in the romanticized version of the artist with their beret, the years of drawing from the model, the slow arduous process of struggling, tortured, to the realization of their 'vision'.
Seriously good art doesn't need any of this. All it needs to be is good. And to be good it needs to ring true. And to ring true it has to come straight from the best part of you.
This is what the A.R.T. artists do. It's in them, trapped, and when they see they have the chance to get it out? They throw themselves into it.
Because most of them haven't been taught the conformist methods of making a house, a sun, a stick figure, a this and a that kids are taught to do, the A.R.T. artists start from the highest point of pure abstraction.
Like the A.R.T. artist Eric Corbin told someone who asked him what it was like for him to have finished such a powerful, beautiful new painting, he told her, "Even Tim doesn't know how we live in the paint."
Live in the paint. They aren't painting a picture. They aren't making a decoration. They are living in the paint. Sailing with its movement. Expanding with its color. This is what real artists do.
One moment we have this young guy operating day after day, year after year at the lowest rung of Life's ladder, and the next he's operating up at the very top. He's not handicapped; he has excellent, exceptional powers.
This proves he should not be spoken to in sing-song. This means he has a future ahead of him where he can contribute big-time to our society. He can make money. He can enhance the reputation of the organization that works with him during the day.
From a life none of you could bear for one hour, to a life where from this person comes clarity, lyricism, intensity, intelligence.
Little Danielle Conti was six when we met her. She could not concentrate on the A.R.T. systems for more than fifteen seconds that first day. Why? Because she wasn't used to making any decisions. But each session she locked in longer. Longer and longer until she signaled directions with an all but imperious intensity for as long as they'd let her work with us.
She was directing the tracker to draw circles. They were painted with transparent color. This went on for six months, one circle after the other, no one having suggested a thing to her, no one hinting she might want to start a new painting? No way. A.R.T. Trackers never suggest anything to the artist. Every decision is theirs, from start to finish.
Yes. And then she, with a sort of sighing effort says her very first word for us. ‘Bubbles.’
Not only has this painting been fought over by collectors -we bought it for our permanent collection- but someone called me to say they were reading about the new show of Kandinsky paintings at the Guggenheim and the image they used in the article reminded her of Danielle's painting 'Bubbles.'
And there you have it. From the bottom, where Danielle could not concentrate, where she was making no decisions during her life, where she had no means of letting the wonderful full life she had trapped inside her, find its way to richest expression... to a life where well-heeled collectors get all worked up trying to buy the painting from us. It is not for sale.
And this is not just Eric Corbin, or Danielle Conti. This has got to be at least ninety percent of the people we've worked with over the last fifteen years.
This is why A.R.T. has been held back from bringing its deeply liberating life power to those who could use it... because so many of those who work with these people don't have the approach to really open the door. They don't yet see, or believe, these people have these very concentrated, tempered lives inside. But they are there. We know it, because we've seen it, every time we work at a new place. It always happens: the break out. The intensity. The satisfaction. The relief. The painting.
The most respected art experts in the world agree with us. Now we have to get staff in the 'disabilities' world to agree. And when they do? It's all good.