Studio Route 29 presents new opportunities for artists with disabilities

“It’s really nice for people with disabilities to have a place where they’re celebrated for who they are instead of trying to fix them or make them fit into society in a way that they’re not."

Creation, everywhere, inside Studio Route 29 in Frenchtown.

There’s Christian Turner building a TV—very likely the only one of its kind. 

“We’re adding, like, a little spy glass,” Turner says. “And I wanna add this as a trap door. Put your stuff in there and there’s a little door that opens. And you put things inside, like your phone in there. Then I want to add, like, a little square and it opens up like this and you put stuff on top of it, like a little shelftop.”

There’s Kate House working with green fishnet fabric, making a thistle.

Mick McDonough thought he’d try to make something new on this Wednesday afternoon.

“I was gonna really think about painting something different,” he says. “Like I saw a Rorschach picture that looks so unusual. … Just gonna make it a little different, that looks like a kind of shape that [no one] knows. It doesn’t matter what kind of pattern it looks like.” 

McDonough’s a Renaissance man, House a Renaissance woman, says the studio’s Executive Director Kathleen Henderson.

“He does weaving, painting, filmmaking. He does some audio work. He does all kinds of stuff, just like Kate.”

Theo Baransky takes me on a tour of the space, a collection of wide open rooms that house art pieces, work spaces, a woodshop, a performance floor and a theater. Baransky’s in his right place next to a screen. 

“So the movie screenings we do in Studio 29, it’s called Films for Friends. We named it after a company from Utah called Feature Films for Families. In fact, I sometimes for humor purposes call it Films for Families.”

Baransky’s work at the studio revolves around his interest and deep familiarity with B movies and B movie production companies. 

“Theo has this real encyclopedic knowledge of B films and B production company logos, so he made a short animation, based on the logo of Films for Friends,” Henderson says.

His familiarity with the subject matter is, of course, impressive, but also enviable, says Studio co-director Hop Peternell.

“It’s amazing to see someone’s production who is so involved in their own interest,” says Peternell, also an artist. “I have specific interests that I might not let myself really follow to their end, and I would like to feel like I have that permission. And so being around artists who are giving themselves that permission is super inspiring.” 

Peternell and Baransky are close; they text often and worked together on Baransky’s films. That’s not necessarily atypical—for a studio co-director to be close with a studio artist—but this relationship, and all the burgeoning relationships at Studio Route 29, feel a little deeper.

“We become another kind of family,” says Henderson.

Studio Route 29 is a progressive art studio, which hosts with artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They provide art supplies and equipment to paint, draw,

weave, sculpt and, generally, create, and—critically‚ they don’t instruct artists, they provide support and facilitation. The studio also has a gallery space for artists to show (and sell) work. 

The distinction that Studio Route 29 works with artists with disabilities matters, but it also doesn’t. It doesn’t matter, but it does. Whichever way you slice it, art is art, and the focus is on creating a community and providing the opportunity for folks to create art that may not have had it in the past.

“For a long time people with disabilities have been kind of siloed in disability spaces. And their work has been shown in outsider art fairs, like in New York or Paris. And so the kind of way things are going is for more inclusivity, both in society and in the way their work and art are seen,” Henderson says. “In times past, you would see some signage on the wall that says this person is autistic or whatever, but now it’s really not necessary to; this person’s an artist and they’re here.”

“There’s an interesting line that we’re trying to walk,” Peternell adds. “We are here to extend resources to a population that has often not had those resources, but we’re also interested in art, primarily. So the kind of structural direction that we’re moving towards is to extend the resources, but the interest that we have is in the art that happens. I think there’s this need to make a definition about a population because of the structural inequality and disenfranchisement, but then we don’t want to have that be the main frame in which we talk about the work.”

The studio’s first show (which opened Feb. 18 and runs through April 23), Spring is Coming with a Strawberry in the Mouth, is a case in point. Peternell, who curated the show, sourced work from outside studios and collections, and there is no distinction of the differing levels of ability of the artists in the show.

“This is an integrated show,” Peternell says. “So there’s artists who are disabled and artists who aren’t disabled in the show. We chose work that we were interested in showing.” 

The exhibition also serves as a way to show Studio artists what they can make; though it’s clear from the creative output a couple months in, deciding what to make doesn’t quite seem like a challenge. And already, Studio Route 29 artists are expanding out of the studio’s walls. Michael Mangino, who lives in Pittstown and comes to Studio Route 29 with Del Val High School’s FIERCE program, an employment/independent living program for students with special needs (as some of the artists mentioned above also do), currently has an exhibition in nearby ArtYard, which Henderson calls a “sibling organization.”

Mangino’s paintings are stunning, affecting portraits of blocked, textured color. He’s prolific and works with great focus and vision. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t painted his entire life, let alone more than a year.

“He came here a few months ago, and we gave him markers and we gave him water colors and then we started giving him paints,” Henderson says. “His mom said he always loved to make art, but he never had the opportunity. I feel like, alright, I came here for a good reason. 

Henderson opened Studio Route 29 last August after living out in the Bay Area, working as both an artist (which she still does) and for Creative Growth in Oakland, a pioneering progressive arts center that started in 1974. The artistic output of Creative Growth got Henderson’s attention before she started working there, but the climate of support within was captivating.

“When I first went to Creative Growth and I went in and I saw all the artwork, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this artwork’s mind-blowing.’  I was like, I just wanna be near this artwork. And then quickly I realized, oh, I just wanna be near these artists,” Henderson says. “Because they’re so open and generous. They’re such a family, they’re so supportive of each other. At Creative Growth, there’s this thing when someone finishes a piece, you hold it up and the whole room cheers. It’s like… if the whole world could be like that?”

Taking the concept to rural Hunterdon County would’ve been a heavier lift if it weren’t for the backgrounds of the Studio Route 29 crew, but also the support of the greater progressive arts community, and the local community here in Jersey.

“It’s been super exciting to be in a new concept. The Bay Area was such a great learning ground because those types of things were really established, but there’s amazing resources here like FIERCE, who have been great partners,” says co-director Lydia Glenn-Murray. “It feels good to plug in with preexisting things but also to hopefully be providing something that’s a little new.”

It does feel novel in this neck of the Jersey woods; or, if not novel, then necessary. While there are other programs that serve people with disabilities, which include art, many are geared—right or wrong—toward integration into everyday society. That’s not quite what Studio Route 29 is about; it’s more about the art, and the community and opportunities that come with creating art. 

“It’s really nice for people with disabilities to have a place where they’re celebrated for who they are instead of trying to fix them or make them fit into society in a way that they’re not,” Henderson says. “And they can feel it instantly.”

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