L’Arche art takes us beyond the disability

  • February 14, 2016

TORONTO - Conversations with Andrea Frizon can take a while. Words don’t come easily. The best way is to sit across from her and hold out both hands. She will lightly lay her hands on yours then withdraw them. Ask her questions that call for a choice and indicate the choice with your hands. “Does painting make you happy (indicate your right hand) or unhappy (indicate your left).” Andrea chooses the right hand with a light touch.

But it would be wrong to think of Frizon as inarticulate. There are no long speeches or explanations or justifications from her, but with paper and brushes she pours out her soul.

Frizon has been living in a L’Arche community just east of downtown Toronto for the last 16 or 17 years.

While she loves being part of everything that happens in her house — cooking, singing, making puzzles, reading — each week builds up to her time in the Sol Express studio where she gets to paint.

This year one of Frizon’s paintings is part of a travelling gallery show called Songs of the Heart, featuring L’Arche-based artists from 10 countries. Her 2013 watercolour on paper called Woman hangs with 18 other paintings and drawings at Toronto’s Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

The L’Arche show is combined with the Disability/Visability photography exhibition by 12 disabled photographers who worked with artist Maayan Ziv and art therapist Shawna Dale for nine weeks at the JCC.

Frizon has seen her work hang in galleries before, including an art and disability showcase at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The packed opening night at the downtown community centre gallery was not her first art opening. While the crowds are exciting, Frizon is just as happy in the quiet studio L’Arche Toronto maintains, transforming her powers of observation into a story or a feeling on paper.

L’Arche assistants who watch Frizon at work in the Sol Express studio are uniformly impressed with her concentration.

Also featured in the international show, Tom Krysiak from L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ont., has a drawing of his house at 47 Centre St.

Krysiak loves parties — loves to joke and laugh. Asked whether he would prefer to be at a party or back in the L’Arche Daybreak craft studio drawing, his emphatic answer is “both.”

Krysiak has been part of the craft studio at Daybreak since it was founded in 1998. He’s a potter, candlemaker and painter, but best known for his detailed drawings of his surroundings, especially his house and the people he lives with.

Krysiak likes to talk and is always tempted to joke and tease. With a pen in hand, Krysiak has more to say. He’s especially anxious to share the world he lives in.

Canadian Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, points out how talking can be overrated.

“Many people are good at talking about what they are doing, but in fact do little. Others do a lot but don’t talk about it; they are the ones who make a community live,” Vanier wrote in his 1989 book Community and Growth.

Alison Baxter was barely through the door on the opening night when she had already put down her money to buy a reproduction of one of the L’Arche paintings in the show.

“I love L’Arche,” said Baxter. But it’s more than solidarity that has moved her to buy the print.

The art will liven up her office wall at Oolagin, a downtown children’s mental health agency.

L’Arche art shows are never really a fundraising opportunity, said Marianne McQuillan, L’Arche Canada Foundation’s director of major gifts. Rather they are an opportunity for everybody to see beyond the disability and into the humanity of L’Arche members.

“We have to identify with them for the gifts they bring to the community,” McQuillan said.

Almost from the moment the first L’Arche community was established in Trolly-Breuil, France, in 1964, art has been a part of life at L’Arche. Today active in 35 countries, there is no such thing as a L’Arche community without art.

The Songs of the Heart gallery exhibits are an outgrowth of an online gallery L’Arche International launched in 2014 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It can be seen at art.larche.org.

Giving the disabled a new means of expression can be a revealing process, said art therapist Shauna Balshin, who helped out on the Disability/Visibility photography project.

“What I was surprised by was how different their point of view was,” she said.

Members of the group explained their images in terms that lack the pretension and the platitudes of the art world. “One of them said, ‘I’m watching my mother as she goes down the path to find her life,’ ” recalled Balshin.

Photographer Shauna Weinroth chose a photo for the show that “makes me feel like I am exploring a cave, even though it’s really the wall of a subway station.”

For Weinroth, photography is all about the shapes, colours, weights and densities of abstract patterns she sees. She can’t imagine herself directing her camera at people.

For Jacob Yashinsky-Zavits, the idea that photography could be a serious way of expressing himself without being entirely caught up in the technical details of camera operation was a revelation.

“It was freedom, really,” he said. “We weren’t trapped in the idea of learning everything about a camera.”

His image for the show was taken from inside a church, using the door to frame people passing by on Bloor Street. It was the combination of peace and protection inside the church and bustle and energy on the outside that attracted Yashinsky- Zavits.

Songs of the Heart and Disability/ Visibility run until Feb. 24.

The gallery is at 750 Spadina Ave., Toronto.

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