From Compulsion to Passionate Living

By Janette Chien

Collective Perspectives at SpArc Philadelphia Developmental Disabilities Corporation

Through October 24


June 27 marked the opening for an exhibition of works entitled Collective Perspectives, at the Cultural Arts Center of SpArc Philadelphia Developmental Disabilities Corporation. SpArc PDDC is an adult day program that fosters creativity, independence, and community for individuals with disabilities through arts programming. The exhibition features a series of acrylic paintings, and larger-than-life sculptural installations by various program participants, as well as a mosaic designed by artist, Bailey Cypress, that was assembled by the SpArc Philadelphia community.

One may describe this show as Outsider Art, considering the artists here are diagnosed with a range of developmental disabilities and mental disorders. The term Outsider Art was originally coined to refer to artists that exist and create work outside of the social order, and therefore are immune to the influences of mainstream culture. Certainly, the artists here are outsiders in the sense that they perceive the world differently and are burdened with a certain social stigma due to their disabilities. But the artwork produced is not “outside” of or immune to the mainstream world. Mainstream culture permeates it.


We have come a long way from the days of mental institutions. Since the closing of the infamous Pennhurst State School and Hospital in 1987, psychiatric hospitals have given way to community mental health centers, day programs and community living arrangements for individuals with disabilities. The emphasis has become community-integration. Even the term Outsider art has evolved to include “art made by people who have not gone to art school… art made by individuals who are driven to create by their own particular inner compulsions,” according to the recent Outsider Art exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Compulsion” seems to be the only word remaining from Jean Dubuffet’s original “art brut” definition, as it suggests a psychological disorder leading to compulsive behavior.


A prime example is SpArc PDDC artist David Neiser. Each day, David spends hours with his face inches from the canvas, brush in his hand, painting tiny strokes with watered down paint.  He refuses to get up, he refuses to eat, and he even refuses to go home at the end of the day until he has finished with each painstakingly rendered stroke, lost in his own artistic world. David produced a number of works exhibited in Collective Perspectives. The most striking of his works is Dark Cloud, which depicts a black ominous creature dripping from the canvas. The many layers of paint produce an image that is transient and haunting.


I shared my thoughts on compulsion in outsider artists with Emilia Brintall, the art teacher at SpArc PDDC Cultural Arts Center. “I don’t see it as a compulsion,” she said, “I see it as passionate living. The artists here love the way the materials move; they are engaged with their work; they are precise about the things that they do.” Emilia has been working with these artists for the past four years. She makes it a point to expose her students not only to various techniques, but also to an array of imagery and source material, from old master painters to contemporary comic books. “It’s important for your work to be informed”, she says. “We need to give them a chance to be exposed to these sources, just like any other student in art school.” You soon notice that the work produced in Collective Perspectives is permeated with cultural and historical references.


SpArc PDDC artist Richard Johnston’s favorite comic book is Doom Patrol, a story about a group of misfit superheroes whose gifts cause them alienation and trauma. I met with Richard to discuss his artistic vision: Blob-men. “The Blob-men came out in 1610,” Richard said. “They move around in walls and grab lands. They eat lemon meringue pie and barbeque spare ribs.” Richard is fascinated with the duplicitous nature of many superheroes. He firmly states that Blob-men are good people, yet he describes them as ominous shape shifters emerging from the television. Richard’s After Matisse is inspired by Henri Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), and features his Blob-men to striking effect. The contoured figures on the left gesture desperately with their large hands, made all the more unnerving due to their facelessness and hump-like heads. The emptiness within the figures alludes to the interchangeability of their identities. After all, according to Richard, everyone is a secret Blob-man.


Ultimately, the term “Outsider Art” has evolved. People labeled as Outsider artists no longer exist exclusively outside of the mainstream art world. The work produced by the artists at SpArc PDDC Cultural Arts Center is technically and conceptually fulfilling. It is exhibited in galleries and sold to patrons. The artists are exposed to art education, cultural references, and fine art resources. Their disabilities are acknowledged and compulsions embraced. Collective Perspectives displays their successes.


“Not everyone wants to follow the steps of a traditional painting,” Emilia reminded me. “There are people that want to do flat washes of color, and there are those that want to draw Blob-men.”



Janette Chien is a visual artist and writer from Hong Kong who lives in Philadelphia, PA. She holds a BA in English and a BFA in Studio Art from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has written for NAPOLEON and exhibited work in Boston, MA. She currently works at SpArc PDDC as a Program Specialist for their Cultural Arts Center.