Arts & Culture

Confronting social isolation through art

By
Contributing Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

In the photograph, Lindsey Ponte stares into the camera lens wide-eyed, her brown orbs radiating surprise. She covers her mouth with a paint-smudged hand. In the next frame, the photo’s duplicate still draws the viewer in, but it is now criss-crossed with color — purple, green, blue, black and white cover the image haphazardly.

The viewer can’t help but smile at this young woman’s take on her portrait. It is simple, refreshing and endearing, as are the rest of works in Nathan Fitch’s new exhibit, “Double Vision,” currently showing in the main gallery at AS220.

Fitch’s subjects — and collaborators — are students at East Providence’s Top Drawer Art Center, a nonprofit visual arts organization providing art programs for adults with developmental disabilities. The center aims to promote the idea that adults with developmental disabilities can confront feelings of social isolation through art.

Fitch first heard about Top Drawer two years ago while looking for a job. He was immediately interested in the program’s work, he said, and took a job “facilitating the students’ work and helping with materials.”

It’s hard for outsiders to understand the students of Top Drawer, Fitch said. The difficulty of communicating with his students reminded him of his challenges working across a language barrier as a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia.

“Everyone has different disabilities,” he said. “You have to gradually learn the language and the culture before you really understand the way they communicate.”

The project started organically, Fitch said. After working at Top Drawer for some time, he became friends with the students and realized he wanted to capture the moments he saw every day. Over the next year, Fitch compiled a portfolio of the students at work in the various studios.

“After leaving, I began sending them the portraits that I had made of them and they colored over them, turning my photos into self-portraits.”

The show at AS220 pairs Fitch’s photos with the students’ self-portraits, which he hopes will make for an interesting interplay, he said.

The moments Fitch has captured draw the viewer in with their sincerity and depth.
The students at Top Drawer used a variety of materials to draw, paint and embellish the portraits Fitch took. The results are wonderfully individualized: not only surprised Ponte’s sporadic scribbling, but also Katrina Cathcart’s carefully painted, realistic self-portrait and Emmet Estrada’s offering, a portrait completely covered with black paint in various shades and textures.

“He’s pretty amazing,” Fitch said of Estrada. “This doesn’t even show the depth of his work.”

It is these surprising, inventive results that keep viewers interested and guessing just what they’ll see in the next frame.

In the photographs that show the students at work on their art, it is great to see what they are accomplishing. Viewers can perceive the joy and focus in their eyes as they work or pose for Fitch’s camera.

“The artists whom I photographed are pretty excited about having photographs of them and their self-portraits up in a public space, and I think it would only enhance their pleasure (and mine too I confess) if people show up,” Fitch wrote in an artist’s statement. “It would also be great to bring this group of interesting people who are well out of the mainstream of society into contact with some of the nice people living in Providence.”

The exhibit will be on display in the main gallery at AS220 at 115 Empire St. through this Saturday.