Play, Fall, Rest, Dance, an art installation currently running at Vancouver’s grunt gallery until July 5th, is poised to defy the notion that good art is necessarily the product of structured creative efforts of adults. Instead, the project involves artist Valerie Salez working with four children with disabilities in order to create art in a spontaneous fashion where kids take the creative lead.
Play follows on the heels of Salez’s residency at the Open Space gallery in Victoria last summer where she worked with 20 children during one-time three-hour sessions over the course of two months. Much like here at grunt, she was given an empty gallery space and then encouraged the children to use a multitude of materials (textiles, beads, paper, plastic piping, metal, to name a few) to create anything they desired.
Salez says that both projects fall into the realm of social relational art which involves interaction with spaces and materials, and that they provided a much needed break from her private art practice which often deals with dark subject matter.
“I needed to have fun, to loosen up, to not care about structure and outcome, and I needed it to be a tactile experience,” she says.
Salez connected with Glenn Alteen, program director at grunt gallery, in order to revive some of the concepts of her Open Space residency at grunt, but this time focusing on children with disabilities.
“Disability arts is an important field at the moment with some very important voices speaking out and producing work that is really challenging the status quo,” says Alteen.
Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture partnered with grunt in order to inform the various organizations that work with children with disabilities about Play.
“Our goal at Kickstart is to support artists with disabilities, and to promote the creation of authentic, non-sentimental expressions of disability,” says artistic director Emma Kivisild.
In the end, four children were selected to participate in Play: two boys with autism ages eight and nine, a 12-year old girl with intellectual challenges, and a nine-year old girl with a medically complex condition.
Letting the kids take the lead
Unlike in her Victoria residency, Salez will be working with each of the children over the course of four sessions which will allow her to form a closer rapport with them, as well as to better observe their artistic development.
Though she is the children’s assistant and facilitator, Salez encourages the kids to take the artistic lead. This means that each session begins with her showing the child the supply room, and encouraging them to choose their own materials, as well as to come up with creative and spontaneous ways of using them.
“Most kids are overwhelmed when they realize that they get to make all the choices. Like adults, they are [initially] full of restraint, fears, and hesitation, and worry that they are going to do something wrong,” says Salez.
She explains that it is important to her to give the kids the license to go wild if they want to within grunt space because art making in schools often involves a physical restraint of sitting at a desk.
“An art gallery is usually a place where kids aren’t allowed to touch anything, and adults made everything. Once the children realize that they are the artists now, they feel a sense of importance, and they take it very seriously,” says Salez.
Though she is just starting to work with the children on Play, Salez is already noticing the unique challenges of engaging with children with disabilities, particularly in a setting where neither parents nor other children are present.
One of the boys with autism that is participating in the project was very excited by the creative possibilities, yet also overwhelmed by them: he spent his first session alternating between being engaged with his artwork, and expressing the desire to finish and go home.
Salez doesn’t have any structured goals for the project in mind other than facilitating the free flow of children’s creativity, and she hopes that gallery visitors will approach their work with the same respect usually reserved for art made by adults.
Kivisild echoes this sentiment: “My hope is that the project will be judged as the good art that I know it will be…the art will be informed by disability, but it will [ultimately] be about the human experience.”
Visitors are invited to view the evolving Play, Fall, Rest, Dance installation throughout the month of June, as well as to attend its opening reception on June 26th. For more information on the project, as well as to view a blog tracking its progress, visit www.grunt.ca. For more on Valerie Salez, go to www.wooloo.org/valeriesalez