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Get ‘close up’ with the artists featured in CATA’s new exhibit at the Berkshire Botanical Garden

“Close Up and Far Away,” an exhibition of nature-inspired paintings and drawings by artists with disabilities, will open with a reception at the Center House Leonhardt Galleries on Thursday, March 3, from 3-5 p.m.

STOCKBRIDGE — This past fall, Eric Schumann visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden (BBG) for a series of painting workshops with artist Pat Hogan. While there, a transformation occurred. “It’s just a blank piece of paper, but [I add] my own interpretation and my own imagination,” the artist told The Edge on Tuesday, pointing to details on his 20” x 16” mixed media work on paper. “We had flowers [and gourds] to look at, but that’s just for inspiration,” he explained. Schumann, who used watercolors and graphite sticks to create something that “looks a little bit like coral,” has been painting at Community Access to the Arts (CATA) for more than two decades. He is one of more than two dozen artists whose work will be featured in “Close Up and Far Away,” an exhibition of nature-inspired paintings and drawings by artists with disabilities, at the BBG’s Center House Leonhardt Galleries. An opening reception will be held Thursday, March 3, from 3-5 p.m.; proof of vaccination and masks are required to attend.

CATA Eric Schumann 2022
Eric Schumann holds his artwork, “Untitled, 2021,” mixed media on paper, 20″ x 16″. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“The way in which the pandemic has hit people with disabilities, and particularly people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, is still an untold story,” said Margaret Keller, executive director at CATA, who has seen first hand “how the impact of isolation and quarantine has really taken its toll” on CATA artists. She and her staff see the organization’s work being “even more important [than ever], right now.”

On Tuesday morning, the healing power of the arts was palpable in the nonprofit’s new space on Stockbridge Road — which opened just days before the March 2020 lockdown — as evidenced by the many artists hard at work and connecting with one another during the CATA Direct crafts cooperative workshop. “They’re engaging in meaningful activity … [and] incredible acts of self expression … connect[ing] through something that’s positive, creative, and artistic,” said Keller, noting that the hand-stamped tea towels being created are for sale at One Mercantile. While CATA’s robust programming — to the tune of 1,000+ arts workshops over the course of a year — never stopped, each in-person workshop was reinvented for the virtual world.

“We really, really never stopped,” said Keller. “We never furloughed any staff, we never furloughed any faculty, [and] we never put programs on hold.” In fact, all hands were needed on deck to work with CATA’s 50 program partners — including day programs, residences, schools, and nursing homes — where CATA brings arts programs and supplies to people with disabilities across Berkshire and Columbia counties.

CATA Jon Mello
Artist Jon Mello next to his “Untitled, 2020,” mixed media on paper, 16″ x 20″. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

Cultural partners played another key role during this time of thinking outside the box. “BBG was a strong partner this past summer, offering really fabulous en plein air workshops at their facility,” said Chris Watford, communications director at CATA. Each work in the exhibit was created through CATA’s year-round workshops serving teens, adults, and elders. Many of the works were created on​-​site, evidence of what Keller called “a wonderful, year-long partnership” between CATA and the BBG.

Betsy Carlotto, who credits her mother’s cake-baking business with inspiring her creativity, is another CATA artist who will be featured in “Close Up and Far Away.” Carlotto sees painting as cathartic. “I like painting because it makes me happy and relaxed, and it brings out everything inside of me,” she said. “When I put paint on the canvas, I think of my mom and my brothers and how I feel.” The exhibit, including Carlotto’s chalk pastel on paper, ranges widely in stylistic expression and scale, and features botanical studies, landscapes, wildlife portraits, and abstract paintings. All works in the exhibit are professionally matted, framed, and available for sale, with proceeds supporting commissions for the artists. This exhibit is part of CATA’s Art on Tour program, where original works of art created by CATA artists travel throughout the year to museums, galleries, community centers, and other venues in Berkshire ​and Columbia counties. Sponsors include Frames on Wheels, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and individual community members who step forward to support creative inclusion.

CATA TJ Guachione
TJ Guachione holds up his work “Autumn Leaves, Blue Skies, 2022,” acrylic on canvas, 28″ x 22″. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“There’s nothing like a field trip,” said Kara Smith, program director at CATA, who oversees on-site workshops and those organized elsewhere, like at the BBG. Despite the “amazing, accessible space [at CATA],” Smith cites the importance of artists going out into the world and interacting with others. “No matter what, when you’re painting outside, people always come over and start to ask the artist questions, [and this experience] gives our artists an opportunity to talk about their work in a different way, to talk about CATA, and having the show at the end kind of brings it full circle.”

The work being done on Stockbridge Road — where the doors were only officially flung open in September 2021 — is both timely and evergreen. “I have seen, in very grassroots ways, how CATA makes these artists feel,” said Debbie Caiola, of BCArc (one of CATA’s 50 program partners) who, in her role as director of the organization’s Center for Development, has seen CATA adapt to meet the needs of artists with disabilities throughout the region.

“I like everybody [at CATA]” said Carlotto, who, in addition to painting, also participates in jewelry and basket making ,as well as dance. Schumann, whose creative pursuits include jazz and Shakespeare, summed it up: “CATA is a great place for creativity.”

An online gallery of paintings, available for sale, can be viewed here. “Up Close and Far Away” will be on view at the Berkshire Botanical Garden from March 3–27.

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