Mosaic, paint, clay, pencil and endless other mediums are used to create beautiful pieces of work every day by artists wanting to share their aesthetics and perspectives with the world. At Art Enables — an art studio and gallery in D.C. — dedication “to creating opportunities for artists with disabilities to make, market, and earn income from their original and compelling artwork,” is a part of the studio’s mission, according to the organization’s website. The “Outside Forces” exhibition will be on display at the studio from Sept. 3 to Oct. 22., and is composed entirely of self-taught artists from Art Enables and sister studios.
Established in 2001, many of the artists who have decided to be represented by the gallery have fascinating backgrounds, not only careerwise, but also personally. Vannessa Monroe is an artist and ambassador for Art Enables. She has been with the studio for 17 years, is incredibly passionate and is an advocate for people with disabilities.
“I am a self-taught artist. I taught myself when I was a baby. My mom used to put me on the coffee table and she gave me a pencil and paper and I started drawing cats,” Monroe said. “I used to doodle. I used to draw my own shoes and my own stuffed animals.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Monroe had wanted to put her advocacy into greater action and hoped to do so eventually.
“I was supposed to open my gift shop and it would only be for people with disabilities,” she said. “I don't know when I'm going to do that. Me and my friend were going to start a business but the economy went down.”
Inspiration for art can come from anywhere, and “Outside Forces” seemingly does not have any theme regarding the messages behind the pieces shown. Instead, it seems to emphasize individual styles and personal experiences to be the heart of the exhibit. For Art Enables veteran, Michael Knox, a visual artist who has been with the gallery for 12 years, inspiration “can be anything that catches my eye, especially nature and landscapes.”
The title of the exhibit “Outside Forces” is interpretive and may be a metaphor for empowerment, or may be indicative of the history of the treatment of people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities, people like us used to be caged away and put away in an institution and throw away the key and let us stay in there… I feel like people with mental and physical disabilities sometimes get a bad reputation and we are not taken seriously sometimes,” Knox said. “‘Outside Forces’ to me is that we are telling people out there in the world who we are and why we do what we do and acceptance by people.”
Art Enables has included artists in “Outside Forces” from “traditionally underrepresented communities, and those with disabilities,” according to the description on the website. Art can be about trying new things, perfecting imperfections, and putting work and livelihoods out there in the public eye. When asked about his opinion regarding society tokenizing and placing emphasis on his disability and less on his art, Knox had a very eloquent and informed response.
In an interview with The Eagle, Knox said once on his way home from work, a man on the train asked him what he did for a living, and was subsequently impressed after being shown his art. The man showed his art to other passengers and promised to check out Knox’s Facebook page.
”When I saw the man again, he said, ‘hey, do you remember me?’ … ‘I owe you a big apology,” Knox said. “I asked what you did for a living and I saw you in a wheelchair and I didn't believe you.’ He said, ‘I saw the chair and I just didn't believe you.’”
“People in a wheelchair should not be discriminated against just because they say they can do what they can. I'm just like everybody else. I may be in a wheelchair but that doesn't mean I'm dumb,” Knox said. “I got a brain and I know how to use it — I have a challenge but I just want people to trust me at my word. That’s all there is to it.”