Coral-colored canal houses line one side of a bridge that stands over water tinged with lavender and light-blue reflections from the sky. The bridge bisects the scene, separating the water from the houses above. The artist behind this beautiful painting suffers from primary progressive aphasia. Much like the bridge in his painting, PPA separates him from family, friends and the rest of society. The incurable neurodegenerative disease slowly steals language from those it afflicts. Over time, they lose the ability to speak and write.
But Dr. Michael Heitler can think, eat and create something as impressive as “Canal Houses in Amsterdam I,” which is part of Bryn Mawr Rehab’s annual Art Ability exhibit. This year’s show runs through Jan. 26 at the hospital’s Malvern headquarters.
Photo By Ed Williams.
A former creative director for a magazine group in Manhattan, Heit was working as an art consultant when she discovered the Art Ability website. “I read a profile of another artist who had aphasia, and he happened to be a retired pediatric doctor like my father,” recalls Heit. “I got very emotional.”A pediatrician from New York, Heitler has lost his language skills to PPA. His daughter, Gaby Heit, is Art Ability’s curator. “His work got juried into the show with no help from me,” she notes.
When Heit became curator of Art Ability in 2018, the show’s participants had already been chosen. This year marks her first full cycle in the role—and it’s been a massive undertaking. Launched in 1996 as an eight-week juried art exhibit, Art Ability is now the largest show of its kind in the United States. Every year, the call for entries generates more than 2,000 submissions from a global pool of artists with cognitive, physical, visual and hearing disabilities.
A jury of art experts selects about 450 pieces, everything from paintings and photography to sculpture, jewelry and crafts. A panel of judges awards $7,000 in cash prizes for first, second and third place, plus honorable mention, in seven categories. Last year’s show saw more than $50,000 in sales. Artists receive 80 percent, and the rest goes to the Art Ability program. Sales are conducted in person and online during the exhibit’s 12-week run.
This year’s featured artist is Carol Spiker. Paralyzed by a car accident more than 20 years ago, Spiker was treated at Bryn Mawr Rehab and eventually found her way back to painting. From her home studio in Wilmington, she does mostly figurative work, usually of women— most of them able-bodied. Legs are a prominent feature of her “Up, Up and Away,” the painting chosen to represent Art Ability’s 2019 exhibit. “She’s not looking at her legs—she’s looking at the ground beneath her,” says Spiker. “And her skirt is billowing with air, because she’s landing on a surface that she can see, even though we can’t.”
Any reference to Spiker’s wheelchair-bound legs is coincidental. “I don’t purposefully paint people standing or moving,” she says, conceding that there may be autobiographical elements to her work. “They aren’t self-portraits, but something about them is similar to something about me,” she says.
Spiker’s husband, Bill, is a painter and sculptor with work in the Art Ability exhibit. He also became wheelchair bound after complications from a bone marrow transplant resulted in the amputation of his legs. “Oh, and he’s a little color blind,” his wife adds with a laugh. “I have to help him with some colors when he paints.”
As with everyone in the exhibit, the Spikers are proof that the art comes first and the disability comes second. “These are not people with disabilities making art—they’re artists who have disabilities,” says Heit.
Art Ability coordinator Cristine Largoza echoes that sentiment. “We don’t judge them on their disability. In fact, their disabilities and names are hidden during the jury process,” she says. “The art has to stand on its own.”