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Q & A: Instructor of disabled says art is a celebration of humanity

Q & A: Instructor of disabled says art is a celebration of humanity

When painter Chuck Close was 48, he was paralyzed from the neck down after catastrophic spinal arte

When Chuck Close was 48, he felt a strange, sudden pain in his chest. Within minutes, the prominent American artist had a seizure and was diagnosed with catastrophic spinal artery collapse. Paralyzed from the neck down since that day in 1988, Close still paints the giant portraits or “faces” that made him famous. Instead of holding a brush in his hand, he straps it to his wrist with tape.

At Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital, the 12 students in Sarah Martinez’s art classes have been learning about Close and painting their own portraits on old record album covers that have been coated with Gesso, a white base paint.

“I’m just amazed how it’s the same project, but they all look so different,” says Martinez.

She is the new studio art instructor at Sunnyview and has been teaching two art classes a week for physically disabled adults since January, when she left Albany Center Gallery after six years as its executive director.

Art classes at Sunnyview

For more information on art classes at Sunnyview, phone Sarah Martinez at 386-3520.

Since August, Martinez has also been curator of the hospital’s Viewpoint Gallery, which holds changing exhibits by disabled artists, and working as a consultant for its eighth International Acquisitions Exhibition for Artists with Disabilities, which is scheduled Sept. 16 to Oct. 14 at Proctors in Schenectady. On Sept. 17, Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation will host “Art and All That Jazz,” a fundraising gala, at Proctors.

Judging this year’s entries will be Jill Foster, graphic designer for the New York State Museum; Megan Hyde, curatorial assistant at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery; and Emily Zimmerman, assistant curator at EMPAC in Troy.

Sunnyview has not had a Viewpoint curator since Ruth Hall Daly left in 2007, which was also the last year that Sunnyview held its “Exhibition for Artists With Disabilities,” a national juried exhibit that showcases the work of artists of any experience who have physical and mental disabilities.

Like a homecoming

For Martinez, a graduate of Schalmont High School, taking the job at Sunnyview was like a homecoming, as she and her husband, Jason Martinez, and their 9-year-old daughter Isabella recently moved to Rotterdam from Albany.

“This is where my roots are. My first dance recital was on Proctors’ stage,” she says.

The former Sarah Boink grew up in Princetown. Her father worked at Schenectady County Community College for 30 years, and her grandfather worked at General Electric.

Martinez, who is 37, studied at the Massachusetts College of Art and Hudson Valley Community College and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the State University of New York at Purchase.

Before taking the helm at Albany Center Gallery, she worked at Capital Repertory Theatre as a development coordinator and at Albany’s La Salle School Foundation as a development and marketing associate.

In 2004, Historic Albany Foundation honored her with its Nancy Hyatt Liddle Award for her work with Albany Center Gallery.

When she’s not at Sunnyview, Martinez makes art in a home studio that she shares with Jason, an artist and art teacher at the Doane Stuart School in Albany. Last fall, her artwork was part of the “Fine Arts Alumni Exhibition” at HVCC.

Q: How is your new job going? What’s it like to shift from a gallery to a hospital?

A: Working here, I just feel so much more calm and thankful. I went into art because I believe that art celebrates humanity. Now I feel that I’m back to that. I feel like a new person. I’m also enjoying working for a large institution, not working alone like I was at Albany Center. At Sunnyview, I feel like this is a community center.

Q: How does it feel to be teaching?

A: It’s really refreshing. It’s fun to be more engaged with the making of art. And it’s interesting studying Chuck Close.

Q: Have you taught art before?

A: I used to teach art in the summer at La Salle, to troubled youth. Teaching art has always been a passion of mine, so I’m happy to be doing it again. At first, I was little shy. I had never worked with people with disabilities. I learn more from them than they learn from me. For them, it’s painful to get from one place to the next. Their doctors have told them they will always have chronic pain. It really puts life in perspective. I really admire them.

Q: How does making art help people with physical disabilities?

A: Their disability goes away when they are making art. They are somewhere else completely, and they are not thinking about their disability. They are completely engulfed in what they are doing. They encourage and support each other.

Q: Do your students have any art training?

A: Some have foundation skills, others don’t.

Q: How do people get involved in the classes? Are they only for Sunnyview patients?

A: No, they are not. It’s open to anyone in the community as long as you have a physical disability. I don’t think a lot of people know that. Most of the students have been coming for five years or more.

Q: How do you select the artists whose work is shown in the Viewpoint Gallery?

A: Because of Albany Center Gallery, I’ve built relationships in the community. I knew Barbara Klemz (artist in Viewpoint exhibit that ended March 18) because she worked as an intern in the gallery. The next exhibition I’m doing is Lori Lawrence. Her work is in the Albany Institute’s collection. That show opens on April 12.

Q: The last Artists with Disabilities exhibit was a national show. The show that’s coming in September has “international” in the title. Why is that?

A: This is the first time we’re saying it’s international. There were some artists from other countries in other shows.

Q: How many artists have submitted entries so far?

A: Thirty-five. We’ve some from Denmark, a lot from Florida and Texas. We’re hoping to have 80 artists in the exhibition.

Q: Why did you select Foster, Hyde and Zimmerman as jurors?

A: These are all young, emerging curators. I wanted to try something fresh. They are people that break the rules a bit. By reaching out to them, hopefully they’ll get rooted in the community.

Q: How is curating the disabilities exhibit different from a juried exhibit at Albany Center?

A: At Albany Center Gallery, the artists are pulled from the community. This show is more global, so it’s a different thing. I’m not going to be able to visit a studio across the world. It’s fun doing the research. And this show is really special because artists are making work from their hearts.

Q: Tell me about your own artwork. What are you creating in your home studio?

A: I’ve been making puppets, marionettes. I like to tinker, a little of this, a little of that. I whittle the wood for the puppets, and there’s some engineering in it. I knit the sweaters that the marionettes wear. If I want to paint, I make backdrops for the puppets. I’m an artist. And I want to get back to that.

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