Creative Arts Workshop showcases works by artists with disabilities

David A. Brensilver

Over the past two years, Vito Bonanno’s work has been introduced to audiences around the country, first at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and then at galleries in Idaho, Texas, New York, and North Dakota. This month, Bonanno’s painting Ghost Town on Davenport Avenue returns to the site of its 2007 creation, Creative Arts Workshop.

Bonanno is one of 15 artists who, in 2009, was selected to participate in Accelerate, a national, juried exhibition organized by VSA arts and the Volkswagen Group of America.

A press release issued by VSA arts in 2009 (and viewable on the organization’s website) reads, in part: “For the eighth year, VSA arts and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., partnered to recognize emerging artists with disabilities who demonstrate promise in the visual arts.”

Bonanno received a $2,000 Award of Excellence for Ghost Town on Davenport Avenue, which his mother, Cindy Watson, said “he began working with Liz Pagano at Creative Arts Workshop in 2007 and continued until 2009.”

“We traveled to Washington to see the exhibition and accept the award,” Watson said. “It was very exciting. Sometime later VSA arts contacted all the winners asking if we could recommend a gallery in our state that may be willing to host the exhibition as it traveled around the country, and I of course recommended Creative Arts Workshop.”

Vito Bonanno's "Ghost Town On Davenport". Image courtesy of artist.

Bonanno said having Ghost Town on Davenport Avenue shown at Creative Arts Workshop “is going to be big deal.”

It’s also going to be a big deal for the organization, which, with cooperation from VSA arts affiliate Young Audiences Arts for Learning Connecticut, will host Accelerate from September 12 through October 7 alongside a companion show, Intersections, “a special exhibition of work by self-identified CAW students with disabilities,” according to Creative Arts Workshop’s website.

“About eight percent of our student population self-discloses that they have some type of disability or challenge,” Kate Paranteau, Creative Arts Workshop’s program director, said.

Bonanno, Watson said, is a “highly functioning autistic person.”

Judith Mortensen, who manages programming for Young Audiences Arts for Learning Connecticut, said the annual VSA arts / Volkswagen Group of America exhibition gives artists “an opportunity to know that a jury is actually going to look at their work and (that) their work is going to be selected on its merit.”

Bonanno, who now works and collaborates with Margaret Bodell, a local advocate for artists with disabilities, and several Bridgeport-based artists, credits Pagano with improving his drawing technique.

Bonanno “never had trouble getting out what he wanted to get out,” Pagano said. “He’s full of stories … what he does is, he gets it all out in art form. … I taught him to use the medium and I taught him, maybe, to trust it.”

Paranteau agrees that “Vito’s work is very narrative, with a story to each piece.” She also credits Pagano for the role she’s played in Bonanno’s – and other Creative Arts Workshop students’ – artistic development.

“She has just become this incredible, natural mentor,” Paranteau said.

In addition to asking about potential local hosts for Accelerate, Watson said VSA arts “recommended I contact Margaret Bodell, who came to look at Vito’s work and has represented him ever since, and (has) been instrumental in his artistic progress and many exhibition opportunities.”

While influence and instruction are vital to any artist’s development, it is the artist who does the real work.

This is not art therapy, Paranteau said about Accelerate and Intersections (and the organizations behind each), “these are working artists.”

To learn more about Vito Bonanno, and to view images of his work, visit vitobonanno.com. For more details about Accelerate and Intersections at Creative Arts Workshop, visit creativeartsworkshop.org. To learn about VSA arts, visit vsaarts.org. For information about Young Audiences Arts for Learning Connecticut, visit yaconn.org.

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