“Wordshapes” Curator Mariel Capanna with Levin Henry’s piece, “Levin Likes to Use Watercolors.” (Photo courtesy of the Center for Creative Works)

by Samuel Newhouse

The Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill is known for chronicling the story of Philadelphia artists. They expanded that story with a new chapter recently with “wordshapes,” a show of artwork by artists who have developmental or intellectual disabilities.

“Wordshapes” features pieces by various artists who work at the Center for Creative Works, a Wynnewood-based art studio, and was curated by artist and Philly native Mariel Capanna.

“Over the past few years I’ve been able to engage with artists from the Center for Creative Works in a number or ways: first as a fan and admirer, then as a collector, then as a creative collaborator in the 2017 Allies in Art program, which brought four CCW artists to my Frankford studio to develop a series of portable fresco panels,” Capanna said. “When CCW’s Arts and Exhibitions Coordinator Samantha Mitchell reached out to me about curating a show, I was excited about the possibility of interacting with artists and artworks from CCW in yet another way.”

CCW is a program of Resources for Human Development, a national network of human services nonprofits, and represents a new wave in day programming for adults with developmental disabilities, which focus more on community participation through vocational and individual interests.

Formerly known as the Lower Merion Vocational Training Center, where participants were paid for piecework, like applying labels to packaging of mailers and shredding paper, CCW transitioned in 2010 to an arts-based program. Today its studio includes facilities and instruction in woodworking, printmaking, ceramics, textiles and sculpture as well as drawing and painting.

Center for Creative Works artist Beth Barsky with her piece, “These are Beautiful Stars.” (Photos courtesy of the Center for Creative Works)

In the years since the shift in focus, some CCW artists have developed strong followings in the Philly art world, and the studio has twice been included in the international Outsider Art Fair in New York. The work of artist Jenny Cox, who shredded paper for 20 years before turning to art, was previously featured in a Woodmere juried exhibit curated by artist Billy Dufala and is now represented by Fleisher Ollman gallery. Artists from the studio have exhibited at several other galleries in the region in recent years.

Some artists try to verbally communicate within the context of a drawing, like Owen Ahearn-Browning, whose graphic drawings feature a simple figurative form with an often complex (and often hilarious) description of what it represents. Others use words and letters solely for their shape and structure. Letter and list-themed work by Julie Ostertag pairs the artists’ flowery, embellished handwriting, an artwork in itself, with long-lashed birds, while Brandon Spicer-Crawley, who recently completed a wall mural in Harrisburg, uses the design of old National Geographic pages to frame line drawings with cryptic messages throughout.

“One of the things that struck me during the course of my Allies in Art project was the fluidity and ease with which many CCW artists drift from verbal to pictorial expression while developing an artwork,” Capanna noted. “Curating wordshapes was an opportunity for me to highlight this deftness of movement between word and image – and also a lucky chance to spend time with some remarkable works in the seemingly bottomless archives of the CCW studio.”

Like all federally funded programs for adults with developmental disabilities, CCW is increasingly transitioning away from a “sheltered workshop” model where work is done at the studio, to a “supported employment” model where participants work more and more independently. With the success of their artwork and exhibitions like this one at the Woodmere, many CCW artists may be on the path to self-supporting artistic careers.

“Wordshapes” will be on view until Oct. 26 in the Helen Millard gallery at the Woodmere Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave. To learn more, visit WoodmereArtMuseum.org or CenterforCreativeWorks.org