Carl Phillips draws inspiration for his art from many places – especially comics and superheroes.
“I like Iron Man, Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Doctor Strange, Thor, Captain America, Aquaman,” he said.
On a recent summer morning at his desk at Gateway Arts, Phillips bent over a trace of Iron Man and Shazam that he had outlined in black and prepared to color in with red and yellow markers.
Phillips is one of the artists working at Gateway Arts, a Brookline-based nonprofit studio that helps adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities pursue careers in the arts. Gateway offers them professional studio space, a gallery to showcase their art and the opportunity to sell their work in a retail outlet. Artists come from all over the Boston area to work in the studio. Gateway is now approaching its 50th birthday and is one of the oldest of its kind in the country.
About 90 artists currently work at Gateway, a number that has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gateway was forced to close for three months at the height of the pandemic, pausing some of its programming, including pottery and jewelry making, and enacting social distancing guidelines at its studios. But it is slowly returning to its pre-pandemic activity. In March of this year, it held its first in-person exhibition.
GBH News recently visited Gateway Arts and found the studios buzzing with activity as people painted, drew, sculpted and crafted. Phillips danced to the Beatles next to his workplace.
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Phillips, a Cambridge resident, has been coming to Gateway for 20 years. In addition to drawing, he learned embroidery, weaving and pottery. He says art makes him happy.
“Art is beautiful. It’s nice. It’s good,” he said.
Inspiration comes from everywhere for Phillips. Some of his favourites embroidery He has a pie chart he saw in a TV commercial, a horseshoe, and a bright orange traffic cone. He proudly displayed an embroidered dice he had embroidered with black and white thread.
“It’s very good. I like coming here and working,” Phillips said of Gateway.
Gateway’s focus is art as a career, not necessarily art as therapy – all Gateway artists can sell their work in the Brookline Village store, where they earn 50% of sales. The other 50% goes back to Gateway to support its programs.
No previous artistic experience is required, but a serious interest in a career in art is expected. Most artists receive financial support from government agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services to get into Gateway, and the agreements typically require an artist to produce a certain number of works per year. There is no limit to how long an artist can stay with Gateway – there are quite a few artists who have been there since its inception.
“She [the artists] are kept at a high level. And as a result, it’s a really productive yet collegial and joyful environment,” said Greg Liakos, Director of Gateway. He says that fostering a career in the arts can often open up a whole new world of opportunities for the people who come to Gateway.
“An artist who is struggling to verbally express their feelings or their experiences can come here and express their life experiences in complex and profound ways with a brush, pencil, pottery or jewelry,” Liakos said. “And the level of artistic output here every day is truly remarkable.”
Gateway began in 1973 when government facilities for people with mental health and developmental disabilities were closed. Gateway was founded in response to this deinstitutionalization to help adults transition into their communities.
“Gateway did, in the beginning, yes, make art, but it also taught people how to function in group homes, how to take care of themselves, how to cook, how to clean. But art has always been a key part of Gateway,” said Bil Thibodeau, Artistic Director of Gateway, of the organization’s nearly 50-year history.
“It’s nice how proud the artists are of their work,” he said.
“Art is beautiful. It’s nice. It’s good.”
-Carl Phillips, Artist at Gateway Arts
One such proud artist is Alison Doucette, who lives nearby in Brookline. Her mother was an art teacher, but Doucette didn’t consider herself an artist until she joined Gateway nine years ago. She quickly began weaving, then making shawls, and then embroidering. “It was calming and you just felt comfortable doing this work,” she said of discovering her love for art.
A team of facilitators who are working artists help artists at Gateway hone their craft in weaving, painting, drawing, embroidery and found art. Doucette says her favorite aspect of Gateway is the people. She says they encouraged her to “get out of my comfort zone a little bit when it comes to color.”
This progress can be seen in one of her works currently hanging in the studio gallery, an embroidery on canvas depicting a sunset-colored wine glass against a luminous blue background. She chose the colors “because of the beach, most beach colors are kind of tropical or slightly tropical,” she said.
Like Phillips, Doucette is inspired by pop culture. She did embroidery George and Amal Clooney, Prince Harry’s Wedding, Judge Judy and one of “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson.
It can take two months or more for Doucette to complete a work. Once it’s finished, she’s allowed to sell it at Gateway’s store in Brookline Village and online.
“It’s nice when people buy it knowing they like other people’s artwork and knowing they have a piece of your art in their home,” she said. Doucette said she looks forward to promoting and selling her work outside of Gateway.
Works in Gateway’s store sell for a range of prices, from greeting cards for $5 and tote bags for around $20, to large canvas prints that sell for up to $800. Most of Doucette’s canvas embroideries cost around $100, while Phillips’ work ranges from $40 to $300.
Liakos says the artists’ success in selling their work to support themselves shows how talented they are. “When they come here, we talk less about their disabilities and more about their abilities,” Liakos said. “There is a lot of joy here”