The Community Access Studio nurtures creative abilities of people with disabilities

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Zach Pine/Courtesy

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While rain puddled on the roadside, artists clustered inside, huddled around one long table. They drew flags, painted dots and cooked Shrinky Dinks in the oven. The air teemed with the buzz of collaboration, the twitter of conversation and the din of laughter. Known as The Community Access Studio, the space is located on the Ed Roberts Campus, named for Ed Roberts, the first student with a serious disability to attend UC Berkeley and a founder of the UC’s Disabled Students’ Program. It is easy to say what the space is not, but difficult to say what it is.  Many there have disabilities,  but it is not an assisted living program.  It is not a recreation group or a class. There, artists are not  taught, though they may end up learning. There, artists are not disabled, though they may have a disability. There, art is not a product, though it may have been produced.

In 2000, nature sculptor and environmental artist Zach Pine began The Community Access Studio, which he coordinates on a volunteer basis. Most of the art supplies used by the artists are donated, except for the paper, paints and ink. Pine considers the studio to be socially-engaged art. “When people create something that is art, the only element that has to be present is human creativity,” Pine said.

Some of the artists’ work is up on the walls. One piece is a series of carefully painted miniscule dots filling a white paper. Another is an assortment of polygons colored with colored pencils, like a stained glass window, combined with buttons and puzzle pieces.  One artist has begun drawing a collection of flags from different countries. For Pine, however, what is more interesting than these finished products is the process by which members of the community can come together creatively. As an environmental artist, he often holds events where people can congregate at natural sites to build sculptures from objects such as rocks or sand. It is the process of creativity which is truly artistic for Pine.

One of the artists who regularly attends The Community Access Studio is Charles Blackwell. Hunched over a painting on a Tuesday afternoon, his nose was inches away from the canvas.  He inspected his handiwork. “I’ve been working on this for three weeks. I’m sick of it. I better stop before I mess it up,” he said. “I’ll call it, ‘The Hour of Ghost-like Fortune.’ I’ll come up with some quirky title. I had a title of a piece that must have been a paragraph once.” Blackwell has painted over 500 pieces: many of them are of jazz musicians, some are of African masks, some are more abstract with slashes and drips running across them.

“What color is this?” he asked, pointing to the outline of a nude woman playing a bass. Blackwell is legally blind. After a hiking accident, his eyesight was damaged and he is now only able to see through the peripheries of his eyes.  He says that his blindness is a sort of tool for him, an ability instead of a disability, a maker of an abstract, rhythmic style, so that a loss of sight becomes a gain of insight, of foresight, a rebirth of vision. You can see the blindness in his paintings.

He has painted a series of African masks, in black and white lines, resting on a background of varied colors, but separated from them. The paintings indicate that the human mask is a black and white one, representative of humans who make stark contrasting distinctions, while the world actually exists in a seamless colored continuum. The human mask refuses to integrate; it sits awkwardly upon the color beneath it, out of place, like our black and white characterizations of ourselves.

One of Blackwell’s paintings is of a jazz band. The musicians are composed of thickly painted strokes, fuzzied and frenzied. Blackwell says his painting process is one of “serendipity and improvisation” — like jazz itself. Langston Hughes once said that jazz is “the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world.” It is against this weariness that Blackwell hopes his art can battle, that it can uplift an African American community that has been beaten down.

The Community Access Studio, though it may be part of the Ed Roberts Campus, is a place where those who may not feel integrated into wider society can come and integrate themselves. It is a shelter, a haven, where art is not simply made, but lived.


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