For more than two decades, Pearl has been an artist at Gateway Arts – a Brookline Studio arts center for adults with disabilities that has been in existence since 1973. The untitled painting of the four women will feature in Return, Gateway’s first full in-person exhibition since the pandemic began. The exhibition runs from March 15th to May 7th in Gateway’s newly constructed gallery space.
Pearl’s painting may capture a heaviness of spirit, but in Gateway she feels lighter. “I walk in here feeling like I can breathe easy and the world can stay outside. This place gives us that,” she said. “It’s a real world for us.”
This world has gotten smaller in recent years due to the pandemic. The center has declined from 115 artists to just over 90, Director Rae Edelson said – some artists opted not to return and others could not be accommodated due to social distancing measures now in place. The staff has shrunk. And visits to local institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library, once a staple of Gateway’s program, are now rare.
Limited availability of some mediums, such as pottery, to avoid sharing materials. The gallery was formerly located next to the artists’ studios, but the dedicated jewelery studio (behind the shop) was repurposed to create the new gallery to limit the public’s in-person encounters Interaction with the artists.
Gateway was completely closed from March to August 2020. During this time, the organization stayed in touch with its artists, sending them art supplies from Blick Art Materials, and hosting zoom sessions and online exhibitions. Even now that they’re back in person (with each artist in their own individual workspace), things are still not entirely normal.
“It used to be so noisy – it really was a place of art and noise. And now it’s quiet,” said Edelson, who has led Gateway since 1978. For the artists “[Gateway] builds their identity and their sense of well-being and community – or at least what’s left of community at this point that exists, but it’s certainly diminished.
And yet some constants have remained as the organization nears its 50th anniversary next year. Most media – painting, weaving, digital art, textiles – are still available, and many of the artists are hard at work on their pieces for the “Return” exhibition (artists receive a 50 percent commission on all sales of their work in the gallery or in the Business). Artistic director Stephen DeFronzo estimates there will be around 80 pieces on the show, representing “almost” every Gateway artist.
“We wanted to show all the work that people have done since coming back,” DeFronzo said, adding that the show will also be available online later in March. “Especially in the new environment, the new workplaces… the redesigned studios. A lot of people are working with new media that they haven’t really worked with before.”
On “Return,” artist Darryl Richards features his untitled painting, which depicts a woman with a candy-colored hairdo filled with a hodgepodge of objects — a pineapple, a phone, a smiley face — meant to express “how she feels.” feels inside and out,” he said. For Richards, the Gateway community has provided a valuable support system. “They help me. Anything that looks weird or wrong, they give me ideas or advice to help me [with] my pictures,” said Richards, 28.
Artworks, Richards said, are a way to create “an entrance” into his mind. “I’m trying my best to get the picture out [of] my head,” Richards said. “I like doing more fantasy and real life at the same time.”
Artist Colleen McFarland dabbles in a variety of mediums including ceramics, illustration and textiles. Her untitled acrylic painting, which will be on display in the exhibition, is abstract and depicts a green dancer surrounded by blue and yellow stripes. Most of her works are dancers, especially ballerinas. “I just loved how they were able to tell a story that I could relate to,” said McFarland, 30.
McFarland also works as an employee at a Marshalls department store. She called her role at Gateway “a beautiful recovery.”
“You will never say that any of my ideas are bad,” she said. “There should be no rules in art.”
Despite her foray into black and white, Pearl often works in a pop art style, using vibrant colors and playful lines. Her gateway sales, she said, are her main source of income, but that’s not the main reason she keeps coming back.
“You have these people who are like you, they have similar feelings. It allows us to hold on together, knowing it won’t be the same when we leave Gateway,” she said. “That’s what Gateway does – they allow me to heal day in and day out.”
She added, “If I didn’t have Gateway, I wouldn’t be who I am.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at [email protected]