Jess Nelson didn’t used to be into art.
“I never got past stick figures,” says the 35-year-old Burlington native, who has cerebral palsy.
Then she tried art therapy at New Horizons Village, the Farmington apartment complex where she lives.
“I never knew I could create such cool stuff.”
Nelson is one of dozens of artists — all who live with physical disabilities — slated to be part of a one-night-only exhibit on Dec. 2 in the lobby of Infinity Music Hall in Hartford. That same night, a famed group of blind singers — the blues-gospel quintet Blind Boys of Alabama — will perform a 5 p.m. concert at the music venue in conjunction with the exhibit.
New Horizons Village — a 68-unit complex with 96 residents, ages 20 to 81, all with various physical disabilities — organized the Art Celebration exhibit with the help of Infinity Music Hall owner Dan Hincks. About three dozen New Horizon residents take advantage of the weekly art-therapy sessions led by Kim Starr of Farmington.
Hincks is a member of the complex’s board of directors. His late mother Polly Hincks was one of the founders of New Horizons, which was conceived as a place for people with disabilities who don’t need round-the-clock medical care to live independently.
Nelson has lived at New Horizons for five years. She has spastic cerebral palsy and anxiety. She joined the art-therapy program primarily to hang out with her friends, but she quickly discovered the therapeutic advantages.
“It helps with my anxiety. It helps me calm down a lot. I don’t concentrate on my anxiety when I have to concentrate on getting the artwork done,” she says.
She works in watercolors mixed with salt, sometimes on paper, sometimes on silk.
“When I start I don’t plan on anything. I just kind of go at it and see whatever it ends up to be.”
Marissa McDougal, 39, also has cerebral palsy and is blind in one eye. She was no more adept at art than Nelson was.
“I couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler,” she says. She joined art therapy primarily as something to look forward to on the weekend that would get her out of her apartment. Now she enjoys the weekly sessions.
“I like to make something with my hands.”
The exhibit and concert at Infinity is not a fundraiser, says Chris Murray, CFO of New Horizons, and the works will not be for sale. Several corporate sponsors have helped finance the event, and proceeds from ticket sales will just cover the remainder of the cost of hiring the Blind Boys of Alabama and paying for the facility rental, which has been steeply discounted by Hincks. The tickets are priced to be affordable, ranging from $20 to $35.
“Without the corporate sponsors, we could never do a show at that price,” Hincks says, because the Blind Boys usually pull in significantly more per ticket.
Hartford Artisans Weaving Center is also participating in the exhibit. The Center offers weaving lessons and access to looms for people with low vision or no vision or over the age of 55.
Clients get multiple advantages from art therapy, says Katie Glass, executive director of the Woodland Street center.
“People who are over 55 and people who are blind are often an overlooked population. Here, they find purpose in life. They learn skills. They socialize. One of our artisans doesn’t leave her room except to do what we do here.”
Derrick Lewis, 34, lost vision in both of his eyes by the age of 9 due to retinal detatchment. He lives at New Horizons with his seeing-eye dog, a black lab named Johnny. Lewis also weaves at the Weaving Center. He was amazed when he began going to the center and realized what he could do there. But like McDougal and Nelson, art therapy is more than just art-making.
“It’s nice and relaxing and it gets all my stress out. And the people are friendly,” Lewis says.
Other participants in the exhibit include clients from Art Connection Studio in Hartford; members of ArtForms, which is based at Farmington Valley Arts Center in Avon; and participants from Oak Hill in Hartford. Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, which offers a master’s degree in art therapy and counseling, will have an information-and-swag table.
The primary purpose of the evening is to to draw attention to New Horizons, the other arts organizations, and to shed light on artists with disabilities, Murray says.
“Anybody can do art, no matter their abilities. Art therapy is incredible. Folks have found that they have talent, that they have an outlet.
“We are all able in our own way. It’s an important message.”
BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA will perform on Dec. 2 at 5 p.m. at Infinity Hall, 32 Front St. in Hartford. Art Celebration will be in the lobby before, during and after the show. Admission ranges from $20 to $35. infinityhall.com.