ORANGE, NJ — Arts Unbound, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the artistic development and achievement of seniors and people with disabilities, is currently exhibiting select works by local senior artists Karen Bokert and Siegmund “Siggy” Joseph at the Dora Stern Gallery at 544 Freeman St. in Orange. The show, which opened Aug. 27, will run through Saturday, Sept. 3.
Bokert, a 48-year resident of Maplewood, is a lifelong painter who has studied at some of the finest institutions and under some of the greatest masters in the world. Her travels to India and the American Southwest have influenced the paintings currently on display. Rich in color, texture and spiritual symbols, they reflect her passion for the regions and cultures that inspired them.
Joseph, who died in 2010, lived in South Orange for 52 years after his escape from a Hungarian military work camp during World War II. A self-taught artist who learned his craft as a senior, Joseph’s drawings of South Orange Village demonstrate his love for his local community.
In an interview with the News-Record, Arts Unbound Executive Director Margaret Mikkelsen discussed how the artists found her, rather than the other way around.
“This particular exhibit is a little unusual for us in that the two artists involved aren’t artists that we usually represent, but they came to us because they believe in the mission of Arts Unbound,” Mikkelsen said. “Karen Bokert — a longtime artist who has a large body of work — approached us because she needed to downsize and wanted to benefit Arts Unbound as she did. She asked if we would like to do a benefit exhibit of her work and we jumped on it, because her work is very interesting and has great appeal, because she is a longtime community member and supporter, and because we thought it was a nice fit.
“And then it happened that Siggy Joseph’s daughter reached out to us; Siggy passed away, but she had this body of work,” Mikkelsen continued. “We thought it was a nice collection and a complement to Karen’s work. Siggy wasn’t able to be a working artist as a younger man but really took the time to develop his craft as a senior. That spoke to us because of our senior program. The opportunity to exhibit the work of people who are creative as seniors, who are still learning and mastering their mediums, was really appealing to us.”
Joseph’s daughter, Susan Joseph Singer, discussed her father’s work and the exhibit in general, telling the News-Record, “It’s very exciting to see an exhibit that fulfills my father’s intentions. Back in 2008, he made a selection among hundreds of drawings he had done in South Orange Village, and he decided that these could be further developed with the addition of watercolors and eventually shown in a focused exhibition.
“Unfortunately, his age was advancing and his health was failing, and he never was able to organize the appropriate arrangements to do the exhibit. These works have been in storage since 2010 and now, thanks to Arts Unbound, we have been able to show them as he intended, as a group,” she added.
Thanks to Arts Unbound, founded in 2000 by Catherine Lazen, many works have been shown and many artists have been given their start. The organization has two branches: One pairs professional, working artists with seniors; the other gives instruction to people with disabilities who want to learn artistic skills. Classes in the visual arts are held at the Orange location, which also houses office space and the gallery’s themed exhibits.
Speaking about the senior educational program, Mikkelsen explained, “We give them the same caliber of instruction that we give any of our students. We challenge them and we push them. This is not ‘put together a kit’ or ‘copy your teacher’s work’ — this is high-level arts instruction. They rise to it and they love it and it is so good for them as still-growing, learning human beings.
“We also know that research has shown over and over again that learning new things — especially artistic skills — is really good for cognition and for the emotional well-being of seniors. And we see that anecdotally in our groups,” Mikkelsen continued. “We see them enjoying the company of other seniors, we see their confidence when they master a new skill and we see their pleasure when they exhibit their work. It’s a wonderful thing. A lot of people don’t know that we have this program, but in terms of enrollment, with 130 to 150 senior students, it is almost as large as our program for people with disabilities.”
Recognizing that some students are unable to travel, Arts Unbound offers at-home instruction, as well.
“We pride ourselves on creating an inclusive environment in which anyone can feel comfortable,” Mikkelsen said. “Another thing a lot of people don’t know is that we offer classes at home. So people who can’t travel to our studio, or who just prefer not to, especially seniors and people with mobility challenges, we send a teacher to them. We bring all the materials, we set it all up, we use your kitchen table or whatever you’ve got and we bring it all to you. That’s how we can serve such a broad area.”
In addition to its educational branch, Arts Unbound has a career-development branch run by Celene Ryan, the organization’s director of artist development and marketing.
“My side of it is the career-development side,” Ryan told the News-Record. “Working with people who are just launching their careers as artists but don’t know the business end, people who want to learn about the marketing side of it and how to put a website together and how to photograph their work and all of those little things that are specific to that kind of business. They can just give me a call. I work with everyone for free; it’s a free service for artists with disabilities and seniors.
“It’s great, because we get this whole spectrum of people coming in, either people who have made art their whole lives who are just feeling that this is the time to put it out into the world — a huge step — or people who just in the last couple of years have found a creative vision and want to feel out the art world and see what it means for them. So it’s really fun,” Ryan continued.
Currently, Arts Unbound is pairing with Arts Access at Matheny Hospital to execute an art project called “Art Garden CSA.” A jury of three independent arts professionals was chosen to review the applications and artistic submissions of artists with disabilities from both organizations. Five artists were chosen from each to participate in the project, and those 10 artists each create original works of art for 25 paying shareholders.
“Anyone can apply, as long as they identify themselves as having a disability,” Ryan said. “Artists get a stipend up front, and the beauty of that is that they get to control their profit margin.”
Funding for the first two years of the program has been provided by The Kessler Foundation, which is “really great,” according to Ryan, “because we needed that infrastructure to really get things going.”
After the selected artists create the art and the shareholders purchase the shares, Arts Unbound holds “pickup events” during which artists meet shareholders, creating a unique situation in the art world, because the “middle man” — the gallery — is eliminated from the process.
“Every shareholder is getting a piece of art from every artist. Everybody is getting 10 pieces of art. Everybody gets together, and the shareholders get to develop a relationship with the artists. If they want to buy more art, the shareholders can go directly to the artist,” Ryan explained.
Saturday, Sept. 10, marks the beginning of yet another Arts Unbound initiative: the Student-Teacher Exhibit.
“The Student-Teacher Exhibit is a great opportunity to see what our students are capable of and also to get an idea of what caliber teachers we hire, because we exhibit their work together. It’s the only show of the year like that. The rest of the year, our shows are curated around themes, and most of the work isn’t student work — it’s usually the work of artists with disabilities who are working on their own in their studios at home,” Mikkelsen said.
“The Student-Teacher Exhibit is different,” she continued. “It’s still curated, but every student taking a class with us has an opportunity to exhibit. It’s a huge show — it’s usually over 100 pieces — and then each teacher is invited to put a piece in the show. We try to exhibit them side-by-side, so that you can see the connections there.”
For many students, the Student-Teacher Exhibit is their first opportunity to formally show their work, a milestone for the artists and their families alike.
“It’s very exciting to see your work in context, next to other works, hanging in a beautiful gallery,” Mikkelsen said. “It’s a step above your mom’s fridge, you know?”
During the last few years Armisey Smith, Arts Unbound’s director of arts education, has worked to hire new teachers who hold the students to ever-higher standards, resulting in more Arts Unbound students submitting their works to the organization’s regular exhibits and more student works being chosen by the curators.
“The student side and the gallery artists are starting to overlap more and more, because of Armisey hiring such great teachers,” Mikkelsen said. “Eighty-three artists exhibited last year, and 20 were students. In previous years, maybe one or two were students.”
That’s not the only good news for Arts Unbound. The organization is putting money into the hands of emerging artists via increased sales, too. In fact, retail sales have doubled in the fiscal year that just concluded, according to Mikkelsen. Gallery sales at the Orange location have remained stable, with sales from the store located at 100 Baker St. in Maplewood now adding to the total.
But undoubtedly, the best news for Arts Unbound is the difference it is making in the lives of people with disabilities and seniors. Take, for example, gallery associate and photographer Alex Higgs, who has worked at Arts Unbound for more than two years.
“Arts Unbound really empowers me. I have a psychiatric illness and several learning disabilities. I was never trained in the traditional sense and I didn’t finish my education after high school. When I became involved with Arts Unbound, it was really a gift,” Higgs said. “One of the things that people don’t realize is that just because one might look or seem different, or just because someone might seem to have a disability, it doesn’t mean that they are any less capable or intelligent.”
To become involved with Arts Unbound or to learn more about it, visit www.artsunbound.org, send an email to email@example.com or call 973-675-2787.
Photos by Cynthia Burks