Because they've suffered and they've struggled, and because they've overcome, it is easy to admire the 52 disabled artists now exhibiting together in the lobby of the general Services Administration building, on F Street between 18th and 19th streets NW. But it would be condescending to speak too warmly of their art.
The majority of pictures in this 100-item show are soft studies of sweet blossoms, birds or butterflies, trees in autumn splendor or (file on Andrew Wyeth!) weathered wooden barns. All the artists have are fighters, but their art is rarely tough. In too many of these pictures, the cheeriness is cloying. One may tremble at the thought of what the artists have endured -- cancer, palsy, madness, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell disease, blindness and paralysis -- but their plan has been intentionally excluded from their art.
The present exhibition, part of Minnesota's contribution to the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons, was organized by the Sister Kenny Institute of Minneapolis, a noted rehabilitation center.
Some of its participants are almost totally disabled. Eros Bonamini, a painter of Verona who broke his neck while diving, whose arms and legs are paralyzed, paints still lifes of great verve though he is forced to hold his paintbrush in his mout. Polio contracted at age 17 similarly disabled Heidemarie Koschinski, who is represented here by a pleasing watercolor of a wise old owl. Sculptor Chloe Dellaport is not only partly blind; in 1975, she lost a leg and hip to cancer. Her well-dressed pottery pussycat is among the cutest objects in this show.
Quinton Nalle of Washington suffers from sickle cell disease, but his art is full of strength. Floyd Johnson of Minneapolis, though legally blind, still sees well enough to paint Vikings in horned helmets who look as adventurous as any one might find in the illustrations of adventure magazines.Gladys Barry of Pennsylvania is also legally blind, but her bronzes have much charm. Richard Horton of Little Compton, R.I., is a quadriplegic whose painting of a stripper is one of the few satirical objects in the show.
Not all the artists represented suffer form physical disabilities. "The frist time I met Richard Saholt of Minneapolis," said Sandi Gordon of the Sister Kenny Institute, "he walked into my office and said, 'Hi. I'm Dick Saholt. I'm a paranoid schizophrenic.'" Saholt's collaged painting is full of scary things -- werewolves, screamers, shooting flames -- and the many words that it includes -- "going crazy," "the mental hell," "agony," "anxiety," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" -- reiterate its point. Because so many artists have -- among them Stanley Orbitski, Jack Sholund, Meta Mason, Irene Shricker, Esta Rosenthal, Neita Kimmel, and Joni Eareckson, who sells "Joyful Joni Christmas Cards" -- fill their work with flowers, Saholt's paranoid picture seems among the most bracing on display.
There is about this thrown-together show a reassuring normalcy. It is not so very different then the usual exhibit -- of pets and barns and still lifes -- frequently encountered in America's small towns.
This is not to say that disabled artists are thereby excluded from the highest realms of art. The bedridden Matisse made works of awesome beauty; Henri de Tououse-Lautrec could not walk without canes; Flannery O'Conner was confined to a wheelchair. The last quartets of Beethoven were not lessened by his deafness; Ray Charles sings, as Milton wrote, in the dark of total blindness.
The works on view were selected from a larger exhibition shown in Minneapolis last fall. Norhtwest Airlines paid for their crating and shipping to Washington. The exhibit closes March 27.