Mike Gerkovich makes zines and they are like roadside lookout areas: created in collaboration with members of the cultural arts program at the Philadelphia Developmental Disabilities Corporation (PDDC), each page makes you pull over, take a look, and wonder how each frame of vision marries the other to form one magnificent gorge you never knew existed.
And some are even handy, like the PDDC zine that espouses tips for the practical life: it’s entitled “Public Service Announcements, by Ike & Mike.” Made from thick orange paper, the cover features a monochrome flag of no known country. Fastened with thread strung through three punched holes is page after page of public service announcements, each with an accompanying sketched photo: “Remember to check your smoke detector twice a year,” reads the first page; “Don’t leave food out. Ever.” reads another, and on top of the words floats a mouse, nibbling at a large block of cheese.
Reading on, the PSAs begin to shed their impersonal quality and take on a human reproach: “Check out the expiration date before you drink that milk, buddy!” it reads, and “Drink plenty of water…or you will go insane.” The last page is by far, the most emphatic: “Never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever push ‘the button.’ Ever.” The button at the top of the page has the word “Doom” scrawled across it.
Flip the zine over, and the back cover features not a PSA, but a vague, and in lieu of the hilarity of “Never ever ever…push ‘the button,’” sobering wish: “I want to believe.” Above the words hovers a UFO, and so the writer seems to be gesturing playfully to the supernatural, but for some untellable reason the phrase is more earnest – perhaps it’s the handwriting, which eschews a conformity to straight lines, and follows an invisible upward slope. What then do these zine authors want to believe in, and what do they want us to believe in?
After the jump: oh, the possibilities
In 1948 a group of Philadelphia parents with developmentally disabled children, barred from public school, started a Philadelphia chapter of The Arc, a national organization that provides advocacy and services for intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals. Forty-two years later, the Philadelphia Developmental Disabilities Corporation grew out of The Arc as its services-delivery arm. In addition to offering a cultural arts program PDDC also provides employment training, and on-site contract work.
Housed in what was once a cigar factory, the current PDDC building is one among several former warehouses on a North Philadelphia street. As Program Specialist Mary Hutchings gave me a tour, I speculated about the cigar manufacturer’s demise: had it been because of poor production numbers? The building’s interior is an elaborate maze, and no place for a business run on an assembly-line model; good thing that’s not what they do there. On the second floor, where most of the cultural art program takes place, art classrooms overrun offices, a room with a piano and bass drums borders one with a conference table, and art projects in various stages of development occupy corners and even the elevator. Downstairs is less of a web. A large, open room is used for on-site contract work, and I walked through members packing boxes of Hank’s beverages. The art projects though never end, and large blue humanoid forms greeted me in the entranceway.
“We have a booked schedule every day,” Mary told me after my tour. “We have art class that happens twice a week. There’s little projects, group projects, or individual art projects going on simultaneously throughout the day.” Among these I saw the remnants of a day’s work: blocks of salvaged urbanite, beautified by tiles of painted color. It was all preparation for the program’s upcoming sculpture installation for artist collective Little Berlin’s Fairgrounds Project, a plan to turn an empty East Kensington lot into an urban garden and art space.
Along with COO Laura Princiotta, Mary and I sat down to talk. I soon learned though, that Mary never actually sits down. Her enthusiasm is so sincere and so mobile, that when she talks about the PDDC cultural arts program she is catapulted out of her chair; her palms hit the table more than once, landing pads for a soaring love of what she does. More than anything, she loves to talk about specific PDDC members, and his or her progress in the cultural arts program, where members are instructed in cooking, theatre, music, dance and art.
“It’s really restorative for them,” she said. “When he first came to us, one of our guys had a lot of anger issues, and when he drew people he always drew them the same way: he’d give them angry eyebrows,” she said, using her pointer fingers to make a V-shape in the air. “The staff asked him, ‘Are these people really angry? Does everybody need angry eyebrows?’ Again, I watched him draw a person, and draw angry eyebrows, and then he said ‘Oh, I’m not angry anymore.’ And he crossed out the eyebrows and drew straight lines.”
Lining the hallway that leads from the upstairs art room and into one of the art supply rooms are drawings of Tupac and Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The celebrities have been wrestled free from the artist’s mind with crayons and pencils, and their faces are bold and their bodies are loose in shape. Like wallpaper, the drawings overlap and cover the wall.
I was lucky enough to meet the Tupac artist, a man who at first turned away from my introduction. He’s really shy, Mary warned me. But she also spoke about the social ease that had blossomed alongside his prolific drawing. As we returned to the offices to talk more comprehensively about the programs at PDDC, I saw the artist again – this time his demeanor was open, and he shook my hand.
“One of my missions is to prove that there is a connection between making art and growing as a person,” said Laura. Her stare was direct, and in her blue eyes was a sense of purpose amassed from years of dedication. “With this population art is perceived as busy work, just something to do, a waste of time.”
Central to the strength of their cultural arts program, Laura told me, has been the decision to hire artists like Mike, and fellow teacher Sarah Smothers, to head the art classes. Neither teacher had prior experience working with persons with disabilities, but it wasn’t a prerequisite.
“I always say, I look for people who are nice,” Laura said. “Everybody laughs. ‘What’s the criteria to work here? Well, are you nice?’ If you are, then great. The rest you can learn. And it’s the same with the artists we hire for this program. They come with an innate creativity. They come with an acceptance of the world.”
Couple this “acceptance of the world” with “total inhibition,” the way in which Mary described PDDC members’ artmaking process, and it would be hard to stall an exchange of ideas between peer and teacher. “I’ve translated the processes I see here into my own artmaking,” said Sarah, a resident art teacher. “This means not getting so stressed about the end product, but just having fun with the process. It expands your concept of what you can do with certain things.”
Mary noticed it too: “Sometimes what they’ll do is layered drawings. One member will draw these really cool long stick figures of people, and then he’ll pass it off to the next artist who will do cool, intricate line work, and instead of creating his tree-like nature shapes he will follow the structure that the first artist made.”
“These are solitary folks – they lead solitary lives,” said Laura. “We take it for granted; we do things in a group, we do things with our friends, we’re doing collaborative work all the time. Doing a collaborative project, or playing together with other people, it is the greatest thing they have ever did. They’ve never done that before.”
PDDC also initiates outside collaborations with partners such as the art department at La Salle University. Members of PDDC’s cultural arts program attend lectures by university art professors on various themes embodied by the school’s art collection. Once they understand the concepts, students produce their own variations on the theme, and the project culminates in an exhibition of their work at the La Salle University Art Museum.
The collaboration also upholds part of PDDC’s and The Arc’s mission: not only to extend a hand outward and to involve developmentally disabled persons in the larger community, but to create awareness that makes space for members of the larger community to reach out and join members of PDDC.
“It’s true that we’re working really hard to educate the community, and that’s part of why our mission is to make these partnerships. Not just to give the people who we support to go out there and make those connections, but to educate the world,” said Laura. “But there’s a long way to go.”
Roadblocks, such as cuts to state government funding, stand in PDDC’s way. In June of this year, Governor Corbett approved the 2012-2013 Pennsylvania state budget, a budget that includes the Human Services Block Grant. An overhaul of the previous way of allocating funds for human services, the approved block grant combines all human services funds – including welfare, mental health services, homeless services, etc. – into one pot from which each state county will budget for services, assigning monies based off of applications from non-profit and government human services agencies. The concern is the competition; advocates for abused children, the mentally ill, and the developmentally disabled, will be pitted against one another, vying for funds – and reduced funds at that. This year state funding for human services was cut by 10%, a reduction that, as outlined on the Mental Health Association of Pennsylvania’s website, means a loss of millions of dollars for vulnerable populations. The budget cuts, and the contest that must take place before any organization receives money, make it hard for places like PDDC to do what they do best.
And what they do is so easy to see: it’s the Tupac drawings; it’s the Tibetan prayer flags that hang from the ceiling of the downstairs art room; it’s the original theatre piece that they performed as part of last year’s Fringe. It was called Shaky Shaky Planet, and Mary said she cried through the performance.
“It’s ownership,” she said. “Our members learn that there are things that they do really well.”
Laura cut in: “We define ourselves by what we do. People with disabilities don’t have that opportunity. ‘I’m an artist,’ they can say now. ‘I’m a sculptor. I’m a painter. I get a paycheck every two weeks in that training center. I’ve got a job.’ That’s a big thing to feel and a gift that we give people.”
Laura is a social worker; she has a business card that attests to this, and the title on the small, laminated paper is an endorsement of her talent. Flip the card over and it reads, “BELIEVE IN the possibilities.” Instantly, I think of Ike & Mike’s zine, the booklet of public service announcements, and the back cover that reads, “I want to believe.” It’s clear now what the authors want to believe in, and what they want us to believe in.
In Laura’s office Mary jumped up from her chair, her body trying to outrun her excitement: “When people at PDDC create art, it’s the coolest thing ever to watch. They don’t worry about whether it’s going to be accepted by the community or whether they’re going to make a thousand dollars off of it. They do it because they enjoy it. When it comes to learning how to create art just by interacting with these people, the possibilities are pretty limitless.”
To support intellectually and developmentally disabled performers see FOOD COURT which runs September 20, 21 and 22 at 8:00 pm at The Perelman Theater at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 South Broad Street. Prices vary.