Colored pencils in hand, Tim Conaway sits hunched over a drawing of an exotic-looking landscape. He turns the sketch sideways as he colors the green leaves of a Siberian Cyprus tree. Next to his drawing is an address scrawled on a small piece of scratch paper of a remote location about 100 miles northwest of Nukus, Uzbekistan. As Conaway draws, he repeatedly glances at the paper propped up in front of him. The address, he explains, is his artistic inspiration.
"I just imagine what these places look like," he says. "I pick out a place from the World Book atlas."
Conaway scoops up the atlas next to him and turns to Page 148. He picks up a magnifying glass and holds it over the upper-right corner of the page, focusing in on a body of water near the Sea of Aral.
"See the little tiny lake on the southwest corridor?" he asks. "That is the lake I've been drawing."
Conaway is developmentally disabled, which qualifies him for the art-making services offered at Sophie's Gallery & Gift Shop in El Cajon, an off-campus program of St. Madeleine Sophie's Center (SMSC) that houses large artist studios and a small gallery space. SMSC is a nonprofit organization that provides services for adults with disabilities through various programs that promote independence and community integration.
For Conaway, who's been with SMSC for the last four-and-a-half years, making his art has become a way to earn extra money—he gets 40 percent of proceeds when a piece sells at either the storefront gallery in El Cajon or the satellite gallery, Sophie's Gallery & Gift Shop NTC, in Point Loma's Liberty Station. Making the artwork, he says, has also given him something meaningful to do with his time—plus, it makes him feel as if he can visit faraway places without leaving home.
"It's kind of interesting to surmise what those places look like throughout the whole world and so forth," says Conaway, whose work has been shown in the Museum of Modern Art of Ukraine. "It's kind of like travelling through the imagination."
SMSC will close the Sophie's Gallery satellite shop in Liberty Station at the end of the month but will reopen in a new location, possibly as soon as February. SMSC's been leasing space from the NTC Foundation that was formerly part of the New Americans Museum, a nonprofit arts organization with a focus on immigrants. The New Americans Museum, on hiatus since 2009, is working to finalize an agreement to possibly return and reopen in its former space.
No contracts have yet been signed, but Debra Emerson, SMSC's chief executive officer, says her organization will partner with the Autism Research Institute and help revamp and activate the Kensington Gallery (formerly Edgeware Gallery) at 4186 Adams Ave. She says the two organizations will collaborate on shows in the beginning; further down the road, they'll possibly expand and the new space could eventually include artist studios, as well.
Emerson says the new partnership is a natural fit. Mark Rimland, son of Autism Research Institute founder Bernard Rimland (who died in 2006), has autism. Rimland makes and sells his artwork through Sophie's Gallery and even designed the gallery logo. He's also the resident artist at Kensington Gallery.
"We're still in talks," Emerson says. "But I think we will be collaborating and hanging our shingle over there soon."
Kelly Boland works as an assistant and cashier at both Sophie's Gallery locations. She smiles as she rings up a big order from a customer taking advantage of the 25-percent-off sale that's helping clear the NTC location of inventory in preparation for the move. Boland battles a seizure disorder related to autism and says she thought holding down a job was impossible until SMSC placed her in the gallery.
"It's less chaotic here," Boland says, motioning toward the quiet gallery space. "I'm not really good with high-stress environments, because it's a trigger of the seizures... I don't really feel comfortable going out in a working environment with the so-called 'normal people,' as I like to call them—you know, the biased people—because I feel like a lot of them discriminate against the disabled... So, I feel like I'm finally in the right spot."
Back at Sophie's Gallery studios in El Cajon, artist Tina Frantz shows off a highchair she painted for the Sitting Pretty exhibition that was held in October. The show featured hand-decorated chairs based on famous works of art.
"This is my chair right here," says Frantz, who later insists on being called T-Bone. "It's Norman Rockwell—he's my favorite painter."
Frantz, who has Down syndrome, is a productive artist who's completed entire series on some of her favorite forms of entertainment, such as The Flintstones, NASCAR and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (the president of WWE even sent her a care package after he caught wind of her in-depth series based on his famed wrestlers). Drawing is Frantz's first love, but Sophie's recently introduced her to the loom and weaving, and she says she's starting to really enjoy it.
Wendy Morris, a Sophie's Gallery administrator who's been with the organization for 20 years, digs out several of Frantz's drawings to show off. She's proud of the work and is passionate about getting it out in front of the public.
"I love the artwork, and I love how the artwork helps our students to find a voice for themselves," says Morris, who was an avid collector of folk and outsider art when she first stumbled onto work made by Sophie's Gallery students in a small shop in Ocean Beach. Morris started out as a volunteer at SMSC and has since watched as the art program has grown from one day a week with students packed into a small back room on the main campus to five days a week with a large studio space and two galleries. She says her favorite part of the job is helping artists talk about their work and interact with the community.
"The work gives them something to talk about that's not about disability—it's about ability," Morris says.Correction: The original version of this story had Tina Frantz's name misspelled as "Frantas."