For years, Kelly Brown sat in the corner of a dimly lit Wynnewood warehouse stuffing envelopes. Doing bulk mailings was typical of the work at Lower Merion Vocational Training Center and other state-supported programs for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Deaf and blind from birth, Brown performed the simplified, repetitive tasks assigned to her and her co-workers. She didn’t complain; she was paid a stipend, and the steady job gave structure to her days.
Brown was considered unremarkable—except for the ropes. Somewhere along the way, she learned to crochet, and during her breaks, she made long, thick, multicolored ropes. Brown did this so often that the ropes crowded her workspace. Not having any use for them, the staff put the ropes in trash bags and stashed them in a spare room. That’s where Stephanie Petro found them years later. From the black plastic bags, she pulled crocheted rainbows of pink, blue and yellow yarn. Petro didn’t see trash. She saw art.
A former social worker with a B.F.A. in painting, Petro was part of a team assembled by Lori Bartol in 2009 to transform the mail house into the Center for Creative Works. Working under the auspices of Pennsylvania’s Resources for Human Development, the center still serves people with intellectual disabilities. But Bartol doesn’t focus on providing traditional therapies. “We make art,” Bartol says. “We’re not here to fix anyone. We’re here to mentor and support them. Your identity isn’t your disability. Your identity is that of an artist.”
It’s tough to say what Brown thought her identity was, or if she thought about it at all. But Petro had a hunch that Brown was filled with creativity. “I gave her a box of fiber materials, each with a different feeling, and off she went,” Petro says. “Everything I put in front of her—rubber bands, tape, coffee filters, feathers—she turned into art.”
It was slow going at first. Deaf-blind people like Brown communicate through touch sign language. A branch of American Sign Language, touch sign is also called tactile sign or hand-over-hand sign. The deaf-blind person places their hands over those of the person making the signs. Movements can be felt; words can be spelled. This is how Helen Keller learned to communicate with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, the woman who brought her out of darkness and silence to become one of history’s most inspiring role models.
But Petro didn’t know sign language. On her own time and dime, she took classes to learn sign language and touch sign. Next, she gave Brown clay, then a loom, then a wide variety of textiles. Petro scoured flea markets, yard sales and dollar stores for lampshades, metal frames, colored beads, leis made of plastic flowers, tinsel, and acres of yarn. Most of these objects are used, discarded or on sale because no one sees uses for them. They may be sitting in dark corners of attics, garages and stores, waiting perhaps for someone to bring them to life.
Brown has done just that, resurrecting the materials into upcycled art. Her vividly colored, multi-textured pieces of fiber art have been displayed and sold at the St. Louis Outsider Art Fair, Grounds For Sculpture in Trenton, and galleries in and around Philadelphia.
Bartol wants that kind of success for all of the 85 artists at the Center for Creative Works—and they are making progress. In the past three years, their pieces have netted more than $50,000 in sales. “My teachers are really good at recognizing things that are technically part of [the artists’] disabilities, but turning them into the informing piece of their art,” Bartol says. “Kelly’s tapestries are so textural. The first thing you want to do is touch them. That comes directly out of the fact that she works as a blind person.”
No one could’ve envisioned this kind of future for Brown—least of all her mother. When Brown was born, her mother didn’t know if she’d have a future at all.
Patricia Rogers was living the typical life of a woman in 1960s Flourtown. She went to college, married young, and had her first child a few years later. Rogers’ second pregnancy was healthy and normal. She and her husband looked forward to welcoming the child.
But when Kelly Brown was born in 1969, the doctors at Chestnut Hill Hospital told her parents that something was terribly wrong. The baby had a detached retina, leaving her blind in one eye. Her other eye was also abnormal. She was legally blind. Six weeks later, the doctors delivered more bad news. Brown was deaf in both ears.
Maybe it was the result of being in contact with someone who had German measles, maybe it was a warped gene, or maybe it was bad luck. The doctors never gave Rogers a solid reason for her daughter’s condition. In time, she accepted that. But when doctors told her that there was no way to improve Brown’s sight or hearing, Rogers refused to give up hope. She took Brown to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and also the Scheie Eye Institute for an appointment with Dr. Harold Scheie himself. “There was nothing to be done,” Rogers says. “Dr. Scheie couldn’t help her vision. CHOP said that hearing aids wouldn’t make a difference. Years later, I asked about the cochlear implant, but the doctors said Kelly wasn’t a candidate.”
Nor was Brown a candidate for the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown. Teachers told Rogers that they weren’t equipped to deal with Brown’s blindness. Resources for the disabled were scarce in the early 1970s, but Rogers searched for professionals who could teach her child to communicate with the world. “You love your children for who they are, but you want a better future for them,” Rogers says. “Moms never give up hope.”
Finally, Rogers found the Overbrook School for the Blind. Administrators were willing to enroll Brown, but there was a catch. Because of her multiple disabilities, OSB thought it best that Brown be immersed in their programs and board at the West Philadelphia school during the week. She would go home only on the weekends. At the time, Brown was just 4 years old.
For Patricia Rogers, deciding whether or not to entrust strangers with the care of her deaf-blind toddler was excruciating. Her husband had abandoned the family, unable to cope with Brown’s disabilities. Rogers’ parents provided emotional support, but they were firmly against sending Brown to OSB. More than 40 years later, Rogers’ voice still quivers when she talks about the predicament she faced. “My mother was very against Kelly going to that school because she’d be away from us all week,” Rogers says. “We couldn’t communicate with Kelly and explain it to her. My mom said, ‘Kelly will think we abandoned her.’”
It didn’t take long for Rogers to see that she made the right decision. Brown blossomed at OSB. She learned sign language and touch sign. She formed connections with her teachers and made friends. In the meantime, Rogers and her other daughter learned to sign so they could communicate with Brown when she was home on weekends.
It was at OSB that Brown’s creativity was first tapped. Clay was her first medium, then she progressed to whatever materials were put in front of her, even paper clips. She created mini sculptures out of them. Now, Rogers is amazed by Brown’s artistry. “My older daughter and I talked about what Kelly could have been without her disabilities,” Rogers says. “We decided she’d be a famous artist living in New York.”
Fame itself doesn’t matter to Brown—or Petro or Bartol. What they need, Bartol explains, are sales of art to keep the Center for Creative Works running. For each piece sold, the artist gets 60 percent and the center retains 40 percent. Bartol uses that money to provide a never-ending supply of materials for artists who are as creatively voracious as Brown.
To boost sales, Bartol wants to open a small retail space that would function as the center’s gallery and a community space where artists could teach classes. Bartol already made headway with that concept. Last fall, six of the center’s artists taught at Moore College of Art & Design. “They have the necessary skills,” Bartol says. “But no one ever considered putting them in front of a class to teach.”
Everything the center does jibes with Bartol’s philosophy that the center’s studio residents are artists first and foremost. “What may be a disability for life is not a disability for artwork,” she says. “It just happens to be who you are, so run with it. Make art with it. If you’re in a room with people who have no disability at all and take a poll to see how many have artistic sensibilities, the answer is probably none at all. Art isn’t tied to an IQ or intellect. It comes from your soul.”
To learn more about Brown’s work, visit www.centerforcreativeworks.org.