Robert Otterbine and Maria Fontanez, both in their 40s, have not followed traditional routes to becoming artists. Neither has had any formal training, and both took up their creative ventures as clients at the WAE Center, an alternative learning environment for adults with developmental disabilities that offers, among its menu of art programs, opportunities to take up painting, drawing, and photography.
Yet both have pieces accepted into juried shows. Otterbine’s Sharpie pen and ink drawing Songs of the Spectrum is featured in JCC MetroWest’s Twelfth Annual Gaelen Juried Art Show & Sale, on display at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany through June 26.
Fontanez’s photo Phebe is in the Arts Council of the Morris Area show “disconnected,” on exhibit at Gallery at 14 Maple in Morristown.
This year marks the third year that artists of the West Orange-based WAE Center have been featured in juried shows. The WAE (Wellness, Arts, Enrichment) Center is a program of the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled.
According to Monica Schneider Brewer, coordinator of special events and exhibits for the WAE Center, the center is submitting “more and more” client pieces to local shows as well as regional shows. This year works were submitted to shows as far away as Washington, DC. Last year four pieces were exhibited in juried shows.
“We have to wait for the right shows for our clients’ talents,” she said.
Spending time with the artists on a recent Thursday morning offered a window into the joy their art brings them.
Fontanez is non-verbal, but is eager to share her artwork with a visitor. An interpreter uses formal sign language to communicate with Maria and translates her sounds, facial expressions, and hand movements.
“I’ve been working with her for a while, so I have a good sense of what she is trying to say,” said the interpreter, Abby Berman.
Fontanez didn’t wait for a question before unrolling her work and describing the colors, lines, and patterns she used. She beamed as she showed off a necklace and bracelet she had made just the day before. She pointed to the beads on the necklace, and then stretched the elastic in the bracelet to reveal the intricate criss-cross design she had used.
Fontanez was able to communicate that her style is one of spontaneity — although that is not her word. Thinking about the creative process and trying to figure out how to communicate it brought a wide smile to her face, glowing with enthusiasm.
Phebe, the photo in the Morristown exhibit, depicts the shadow of two figures amid fallen leaves on an autumn day. The photographer explained that she was outside at the WAE Center with someone named Phebe when she noticed the shadows on the ground. “There were clouds around. It was sunny,” she said through the interpreter. “We were walking around when I happened to notice it was a good spot and there was a nice picture. It was cold that day.”
The “disconnected” exhibit opened May 20 and will continue through Sept. 5. Because of difficulties with transportation, Fontanez has not seen the show yet, but said she hopes to go during a trip being organized by the WAE Center.
Otterbine, meanwhile, is extremely verbal, and can hold forth on music, film, art, and the activities he likes and dislikes at the WAE Center. Sometimes he leads a listener down routes that are hard to follow.
“I live in chaos,” he said at one point.
“What do you mean?” the visitor asked.
“It’s the same chaos you live in every day,” he said.
(A WAE client sitting nearby offered, “He’s a philosopher. Time is on his side. One day people will realize he really has something to say. People underground think this way already; it’s just a matter of time before it bubbles up.”)
Otterbine has developed a style of marker-and-ink drawing that is cartoon-like but includes great detail and often political satire. He has submitted his work to the Verona-Cedar Grove Times for consideration as a regular feature.
Asked when he developed his style, Otterbine recites the exact date (Nov. 27, 1991) and a program he heard on NPR featuring satirist Stan Freberg. “In wrapping up the show, Freberg said that Britain and America are famous for the gift of satire,” said Otterbine. Uncertain what “satire” meant, he said, “I looked it up.” Shortly afterward, he began creating his own.
The piece on view in the Gaelen show was originally conceived of as an album cover, but it was ultimately not selected for that project. It features clarinets, flutes, banjos, guitars, tubas, French horns, mandolins, trumpets, violas, and piccolos. Asked about his musical taste, Otterbine called the WAE Center’s musical hours an “allergen for me,” saying he preferred garage bands. Asked for an example, he said, “A good starting point is Teenage Wasteland on WFMU.”
Otterbine said he started drawing early. “When I was two-and-a-half, mom put two sheets of drawing paper in front of me with magic markers. In minutes, Robert Otterbine the artist was born.”
Asked if he was surprised to have had his piece selected for exhibition, he said only, “I expect nothing.” But asked what it was like to see it hanging at the opening, he said, “It was an honor.”
And was he excited? “And how.”