By Aimee Serafin
Most Augustans might not be aware of the impact the Georgia Rehabilitation Institute (GRI) has had on our city’s art community. Their most recent contribution to downtown Augusta is a gallery located near Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School at 523 13th Street. I recently toured the site with Dr. Dennis Skelley, President and CEO of GRI and former CEO of Walton Rehabilitation Hospital and longtime supporter of the arts. Inside the 523 Gallery, Skelley and I view a cluster of his personal metal works in the shapes of playful deer heads on arched stands, entitled Ghosts. “Instead of paying a taxidermist to mount all of these antlers, I attached them on the tops of these [angular metal faceplates on thin bases] to make the collection.” The herd seems representative of a group with intentional differences yet pulled together by the desire to be in community.
Looking around the gallery space there is another community with works on display. Paintings of terra cotta pots holding geraniums, translucent goldfish, worshipers on the steps of a steepled church and a neon moon backlighting a midnight Cypress are some of the images of a curated tableau. The collection has a common identifier: every piece is created by artists with disabilities. The art is exceptionally crafted. The skill is solid. There is nothing recognizable as atypical in the images hanging on the walls.
Yet, the stories behind the works evince the special profile of the people represented. Valton Murray was diagnosed with polio as a child. A Mesena native, Murray is a self-taught folk artist. His painting Lost Child was the first piece purchased by the Georgia Rehabilitation Institute for the gallery space. Murray has long-term effects of a disease that left him with a clubfoot, seizures and uncontrollable shaking. The artist’s affinity for painting developed after an aunt gave him a watercolor set in his youth. Later in life, Murray was recognized by the Georgia Artists with Disabilities, a statewide program that gives artists with disabilities opportunities to display original artwork and compete for awards. Through the program Murray’s art has been on tours around the nation since 1989. I find his art playfully contemplative due to his vibrant scenes of everyday life. His most poignant subject matter is the depiction of African American sharecroppers hunched over cotton fields with shoulder bags. On my recent phone call with the artist, he explained he is no longer able to paint his well-known dotted fields due to the shaking.
Artist Neal Pickett is extensively impaired from a severe brain injury. I look closely at his drawing. Comprised of thinly scribed lines on widely white paper, Pronghorn Antelope presents itself as more minimalist than the other works in the gallery. But the limited linework on the page brings into focus the reason behind the gallery and its purpose. The drawing made a personal connection for Skelley. When asked by the artist if he recognized the western deer-like creature, Skelley immediately affirmed the name of the antelope from his memories of living in Colorado prior to moving to Augusta. This affirmation produced a mile-wide smile from Pickett, who took great pleasure in knowing his representation had been validated.
As I continue to walk the gallery, Skelley explains some of the challenges of running the gallery like finding an intern or part-time gallery assistant to locate more artists from the region. There’s a need for someone to travel to Atlanta for purchases, schedule openings and eventually house artwork for sale on site. Skelley believes there is deep value in moving the needle in all these areas over the next few years, along with increasing accessible housing, transportation, recreation and leisure, and employment for persons with disabilities in Augusta. His vision is ambitious.
Outside I notice the bright Love Where You Live mural, a colorful landmark on an otherwise colorless street. The site has become a favorite selfie spot for visitors and locals. The mural, by Brian Stewart, faces what Skelley likes to call a “pocket park”, or a small grass area filled with three of Skelley’s and Thomas Lyles metalworking kinetic sculptures and one in progress. “I’ve sat on these picnic benches and helped middle school students from those apartments with their math homework,” he said. Surveying the surrounding neighborhood, I remember his earlier statement to make Augusta “the best place for people with disabilities to live, work and play.” I can see from our morning spent together his desire to create a thriving community for all.