For a joyful experience, you couldn’t do better than seeing “Many Happy Returns: A 35 Year Retrospective of Short Center North” at Verge Center for the Arts. This show is full of high spirits, beguiling humor and vibrant color.
One of the premier arts day programs in the state, Short Center North was developed in 1978 as a place where adults with developmental disabilities could nurture their artistic talents under the guidance of professional artists. These disabilities include intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism. The center operates under the aegis of Developmental Disabilities Service Organization Inc., which was founded in 1975 by Mary Short, wife of state Sen. Alan Short, an early champion of people with disabilities.
In all there are three Short Centers, one in Stockton and two in Sacramento – Short Center North and Short Center South. The north center moved from its first location at Cal Expo to its current campus on St. Marks Way in 1982. A former elementary school with airy classrooms and a large garden, it offers classes in visual art, as well as music, drama, yoga and gardening. Such well-known artists as Steve Vanoni, Stephanie Skalisky, Kim Scott, Craig Smith and director John Stuart Berger have mentored students over the years.
The show at Verge came about when volunteer Diane Tempest discovered several storage rooms on the campus full of four decades of art in all media and styles. Through a series of emails and meetings with Berger and Skalisky, the plan for a 35-year retrospective was developed.
A large space was needed for so many works, and Verge Center for the Arts stepped in. Verge, which has become a premier nonprofit art space since its grand opening this year, is an ideal place for the show. Now merged with the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento, Verge’s spacious gallery has seen large crowds in attendance. In October, 1,500 people came through the gallery, and opening receptions have been attracting between 350 and 500 visitors.
Upcoming shows include a conceptual installation by Los Angeles artist Nate Page and a huge show focusing on the Delta, water policy and water politics that will feature concurrent displays at City Hall and Delta art spaces.
Verge also provides reasonably priced studio space to approximately 49 local artists.
“Many Happy Returns” is the first exhibit of its size to be undertaken by Verge and marries the resources of two unique community artistic institutions. The show includes 120 client artists and shows the scope of the Short Center.
“To refer to this place as just an art center would be misleading,” Skalisky writes about the Short Center in a catalog accompanying the exhibit. “Sometimes this place has been a refuge, a sanctuary, a home. … Over the years friendships and surrogate families were formed and nurtured here, both staff and clients … together we have weathered broken hearts and loss, and celebrated the joy of just being alive.”
That joy, as well as intervals of darkness, shines through the artwork on display, which Berger calls “art in its purest form, art for the sake of art.”
You cannot help but smile at works like Liz Markham’s “State Fair,” a complex composition of rides at the Fair’s carnival and crowds of people taking part in the fun. There is a merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and booth selling “Hat Dogs.” This tour-de-force piece of outsider art outdoes Grandma Moses for charm.
Equally prepossessing is John Espegren’s “American Gothic,” based on the Grant Wood painting but an idiosyncratic masterpiece on its own. Here the farm couple are brightly colored eminences in a composition in which figure and ground are flattened into lively patterns.
Next to it, Bob Sulin’s “Teenage Crime Wave” is a hilarious image poised between Pop Art and childlike drawing. Again the colors are vibrant, and the expressions on the faces of the teenagers provoke a hearty laugh.
One long wall of the gallery is hung salon style with myriad works identified overhead by their decade. There is so much to look at here that the eye gets a little overwhelmed by the sheer variety.
Among the standouts for me were Sulin’s droll “Zeus and Athena,” Debbie Heinz’s rakish “Elvis” and Camelia Pierson’s “ Dogs Playing Poker,” which is endearingly funny and much better than the paintings it is based on. I also liked Kathy Reed’s drawing of women with high pompadours.
I was impressed, too, by Ruth Shelton’s evocative, early modernist “Landscape with Cloudy Sky.” Shelton is an artist client with cerebral palsy, who, with the aid of a head-mounted device, paints stunning abstractions.
Other artists who straddle the line between outsider art and mainstream art are Ray Franklin and William Haddad, two of the most prolific artist clients at Short Center North. Franklin, who recently had a retrospective at Gallery 2110, here offers a witty drawing of repetitive heads titled “Guys Wearing Glasses.” Haddad shows several pieces that involve abstracted forms and text to brilliant effect.
In addition to two-dimensional art works, the show includes a hanging installation of found objects, videos of animated cartoons, and ceramics, including Annie Knuckolls’ charming Frida Kahlo plate.
Several of the works on the salon-style wall are available for sale, and Tempest has installed a pop-up store in the adjacent classroom at Verge, featuring art works, T-shirts, greeting cards, prints, jewelry and other collectibles made by the students at Short Center North. Prices range from $3 for cards to $20 for the shirts, $20-$60 for prints and $20-$200 for works on the wall.
You won’t want to miss this vibrant show of artworks by intriguing artists, some of whom have shown at venues all over the United States, including the Outsider Art Fair in New York City and the National Folk Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS: A 35 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE OF SHORT CENTER NORTH
What: Exhibit of 120 client artists of the Short Center North, an arts-based program of the Developmental Disabilities Service Organization Inc.
Where: Verge Center for the Arts, 625 S St., Sacramento
When: Through Dec. 21. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
Information: (916) 448-2985; vergeart.com