Finding Claraty

ae1Local art studio offers space for developmentally disabled to shine

Five years ago, Santa Cruz residents Robin Blake and Andy Pereira were searching for a better way to meet the needs of the developmentally disabled. 

Blake, who is developmentally disabled herself, had always admired her mother’s Capitola craft gallery while growing up, but never had the opportunity to create her own art. While Pereira, who ran an agency that provided services for developmentally disabled clients, including Blake, was looking for a way for them to learn more about their own history.

And so, Pereira decided to open an art studio in a former print shop on Seabright Avenue, along with Blake and eight other clients. Claraty Arts is now a working art studio and collective for 21 developmentally disabled artists.

“It’s a fun place,” says Blake, whose preferred medium is paint. The artists can sell their work in the gallery and keep 50 percent of the profits.

The studio’s namesake is Nell Claraty, a woman who was born with cerebral palsy in 1918, and was institutionalized from age 9 to 78 at the state-owned facility now known as the Sonoma Developmental Center.

“Sadly, there is nothing exceptional about Nell’s story, except that she got out,” says Pereira, who serves as executive director of Claraty Arts.

After leaving the institution—a rare occurrence at the time—Claraty spent her remaining years in Santa Cruz, living in her own home for the first time in her life. She was known for wearing bright and bold colors and often seen making her way down Pacific Avenue in an electric wheelchair. In 2004, she passed away in Santa Cruz at the age of 85.

Nine Claraty Arts artists recently celebrated her life during a reception at the studio, where they unveiled “Nellie’s Last Act.”  The exhibit, which will remain on display through Oct. 2, allows the public and the participating artists to learn more about the history of the disabled and institutionalization in general, as well as Claraty Arts, a place where artists can hone their craft while learning from instructors and each other.

ae2“We challenge people here,” says Pereira, adding that if an artist creates a lackluster piece of art, it will be critiqued so the artist can try again and feel good about the final result. “We’re not going to [falsely] praise you and give you a high five. That’s the most dramatic thing [happening] here: to work, to fail, and then bounce back—to take a critique and then, like anyone else, to enjoy succeeding.”

Pereira tells the story of a time when a few of the studio’s artists entered an art contest without disclosing their disabled status and two of them received awards. In the next year’s contest, the judges discovered who they were and awarded ribbons to each artist from Claraty Arts who entered—an action Pereira describes as a failure of good intentions, since it left the artists wondering if their art was judged honestly.

How to recognize the developmentally disabled without patronizing them has become a hot topic as they become more integrated into society through a process known as mainstreaming. That assimilation came as a result of the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act, which passed in 1969, and dramatically decreased the number of developmentally disabled people living in state-owned institutions, as nonprofit regional centers and community facilities made it possible for them to live outside of institutions.

Pereira, who has worked with the developmentally disabled for more than 30 years, has been a longtime advocate of mainstreaming. But, around the time he opened Claraty Arts, he came to the realization that mainstreaming also has a flaw.

“There was an unintended byproduct of mainstreaming, which was that as a disabled person you were encouraged to be seen as ‘normal’ and downplay or hide your disability,” explains Adam LaVoy, Claraty Arts studio manager. “That can be mutually exclusive with the idea of celebrating your disability—learning about it, talking about it, and bonding over your shared experiences with other people with disabilities.”

That epiphany motivated Pereira to change his approach, and operate his art studio in a way that would allow the artists to learn about themselves as well as the history of those who came before them.

“Claraty Arts takes its name from Nell,” says Pereira, “to remind us of the example she set, that it is never too late to defy a past that imprisons, and to reject and reconstruct old imposed identities that define any person as unwanted, unneeded, or unknown.” 

The artwork from “Nellie’s Last Act” is currently on display through Oct. 2 at Claraty Arts, 1725 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz. Visit claratyarts.com for more information.

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