An artist’s sketchbook is like a diary — each page reveals something new about its author. Malik Small is taken by subway signage — the N train and R train, the Q in its express and local forms. He watches PBS. He likes doughnuts. The only thing that cannot be seen when looking at Small’s drawings is his disability.
Small is one of several artists from AHRC, an organization that strives to meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental challenges. His sketchbook, along with the work of 14 others, is on display at Topaz Arts in Woodside as part of the exhibit “Sketchie: Sketchbooks & Artworks by Artists with Developmental Disabilities.”
Over the course of several months, in between his paid work inflating soccer balls or performing other odd jobs provided by AHRC, Small took art classes with Jason Cina, an instructor who visits AHRC facilities all over the city, including one near Topaz.
At first, Cina, also of Woodside, said he had no idea what he was going to do with his students. “So I just started bringing in things and see what they do with it. It’s very spontaneous. There’s no syllabus.”
Cina noticed that many of his students tended to work fast, using large markers to fill page after page. He wanted to teach them to slow down and develop their fine motor skills, so the sketchbook project was born.
First, Cina only permitted his students to draw in black and white with the most finely tipped pens he could find. If they wanted to shade something in, they had to spend time doing it. Then, he brought color into the mix and their work blossomed.
Paz Tanjuaquio and Todd Richmond, the co-founders of Topaz Arts, were impressed with the work of the AHRC students whom they learned of when Cina stopped by their gallery.
“We started this project not because it was a psychological revelation, but because we really liked these drawings,” Richmond said.
“Artists will spend time going to art school trying to learn how to draw naturally, but when you look at this,” Richmond said, gesturing to a sketchbook, “you see that they don’t need any help at all.”
Each artists has a distinctive style, something that often takes many professionals years to cultivate.
In fact, Tanjuaquio and Richmond saw a piece that was eerily similar to work they had seen in one of the sketchbooks on display at a gallery in Manhattan. The work was created by an artist who had studied composition for years, Richmond exclaimed.
Cina, an artist in his own right, said he plans on collaborating with some of his students in the future. “A lot of them are better than me. I wish I had some of their talents, and they lack a kind of inhibition, so they don’t second guess anything. They are fearless with color,” he explained.
Kevin Harrison’s sketchbook is filled with drawings headlined with the names of celebrities. “Whitney Houston” reads one, “Selena Gomez” reads another. Harrison loves someone named Rosanna Gakis; she appears frequently in his colorful work.
Elvin Flores is into shapes. Cina said he can work for hours without interruption. Mary Demery is great with color, but her black and white drawings are striking as well.
Cina said the only similarity he has found among artists with developmental disabilities is a tendency to draw in two dimensions, but if he gives the artists a piece of clay to mold, he said they can work wonders.
“I think it’s almost counter-productive to present the work as work done by the disabled,” Cina said, adding that certain people may think that artists with challenges may not be able to create work that is as complex or interesting as that of artists without disabilities.
“My neighbor, she knows I work with those guys. She’s petrified. She doesn’t understand it. I guess some people are like that,” Cina said.
When: Through May 30, Fridays from noon to 2 p.m.and by appointment
Where: Topaz Arts, 55-03 39 Ave.