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Healing Arts

Disabled artists from around the world are featured in Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital's annual showcase

by Erin Pihlaja on October 24, 2013 · 1 comment


Martinez in the Fenimore Gallery at Proctors. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“I was assaulted and had a stroke. Knitting brought back my affected side. I can not dance anymore, but my work can.” This is from the artist statement of Lorna Ritz from Amherst, Mass. Words like hers accompany each of the 55 works that line the walls of a large exhibition space at the Fenimore Gallery at Schenectady’s Proctors.

All of the pieces in the room were created by 32 artists from all over the world with various disabilities, curated from more than 600 entries. Some artists have suffered spinal injuries, and some have lost fine motor skills to arthritis. Some have even lost their ability to see, like Kurt Weston, a legally blind photographer from California whose large black-and-white self-portraits haunt one of the rear walls of the space.

“I’m really proud of it,” says Sarah Martinez, the annual-giving specialist for Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital, which hosts the show as part of one of its annual fundraisers, Art for the View. “The curators are very distinguished, and Charles [Steckler] and J. Ginger [Ertz] did a great job of diversifying the different types of art.”

The coolest part about the selection process? Martinez says that the curators didn’t read the artists’ statements before they chose who got in. “When they placed the awards and read the bios,” she adds, “they were blown away.”

One of the selected artists, and the only local person included in the gallery exhibition, is Albany-based painter David Senecal. He suffered a diving accident in 1967 when he was only 14 years old, which left Senecal a C5 quadriplegic.

This is his first time in this show, and he is exhibiting the acrylic painting Hunting Lodge. He usually paints landscapes and is inspired by the outdoors, where he will wander to gather images captured by a camera mounted on his wheelchair. This piece, like all of his work, was painted by mouth. Senecal holds a paintbrush in his teeth to create each detailed brush stroke.


Painstaking: Senecal's work (front right), which he painted using his mouth, hangs with other art at Proctors. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

He says that he didn’t paint before his accident, but now he works and paints for the Switzerland-based Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. He also says that he will often paint winter scenes in the summer and summer scenes in the winter. Each piece is a mix of memories and images that he has gathered during his explorations. It’s as though Senecal is inviting the viewer to join him on these journeys, into worlds that are part fantasy, part reality. When he describes the outings that he takes with his wife into Vermont, or upstate New York, he says that they “go on a lot of walks through the woods.” Here, in these landscapes, Senecal is not wheelchair bound. He is a roving explorer.

“Art is like anything,” he offers as an explanation of what painting means to him. “It just keeps on going.”

To celebrate the gallery exhibition and to help raise funds for the hospital, there is a gala this Friday (Oct. 25) where another local artist will perform music. David Whalen, of Glenville, will join fellow jazz musician Keith Pray in a live performance where Whalen will use a device he co-invented called Jamboxx.

Whalen has been a quadriplegic since he suffered a ski injury at the age of 19, and with the help of his friend Mike DiCesare, he created a device that works like a harmonica but can also be used hands-free. Jamboxx is supported by software developed by the Troy-based company 1st Playable, and it allows the user to make music from dozens of digitized instruments—using only the device, a computer, and his breath.

Whalen and DiCesare just received the patent for the Jamboxx this past summer, and have released a second production run for which manufacturing changes allowed them to lower the cost of the unit by 50 percent.


Jamming: (l-r) Riley Snyder accompanies Whalen and his Jamboxx. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

People have started to seek out the Jamboxx, and Whalen says that all of their stories are unique, but similar in that the device gives them the freedom to create, to express themselves, and to just let go. Many of them are disabled in some way, but the Jamboxx is so versatile that Whalen says musicians looking to experiment with different sounds are picking it up too.

“It’s quite emotional when you watch guitar players who had a spinal injury and they’re able to go back and start blasting on electric guitar,” says Whalen. “If I thought I could ever play music with a group, or actually perform with an incredible sax player. . . . It’s a strange thing. I’m not a musician, I’m just just having fun.”

Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital is a thriving home for innovation inspired by necessity. “Our team tends to be on the advances end of the technology and techniques,” says Edward “Chip” Eisenman, vice president of the hospital.

Sunnyview, an affiliate of St. Peter’s Health Partners, specializes in the rehabilitation of patients who suffer strokes, injuries, or debilitating illnesses. Art for the View, in its 10th year, is one way that the hospital raises money for tools and programs to assist the patients.

This year, the hospital was able to acquire an In Motion upper-extremity robotic system. “It is able to complete thousands of repetitions in a condensed period of time,” says Eisenman. “It’s something a human therapist could never do. We’ve seen some amazing results.”

The next goal for Sunnyview is to acquire an exoskeleton robotic suit. “It’s exciting to see someone who has been paralyzed from the waist down and who may have been for years, put on one of these suits and actually stand up and walk,” says Eisenman.

This is the third Art for the View that Martinez has worked on. At the hospital she says is mostly “behind the scenes,” and really enjoyed teaching art to patients in a studio arts class. One student sought out Martinez’ advice on how to build a body of work, and how to have her own show—which she eventually did.

“The reason why I love working for Sunnyview and its arts program,” says Martinez, “is that we’re all humans. We all have a voice, we are all a size, and we are all a shape. We have different talents—there’s a place for everyone. People come here because of traumatic experiences, but sometimes that traumatic experience pulls the best out of you.”

Art for the View is at the Fenimore Gallery, Proctors (432 State St., Schenectady) through Oct. 26. On Nov. 1, it will move to Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital (1270 Belmont Ave., Schenectady) until Dec. 8. The Gala opening and reception will be at Proctors tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 25) from 6 to 9 PM. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased through the Sunnyview Foundation at 382-4586. A concert featuring the AXIS Dance Company will take place at Proctors (346-6204) on Saturday (Oct. 26). Tickets are $20, and children ages 14 and under are free.