In the last decade of the last century, about a mile down two dirt roads from my house, lived Don Sunseri. His house was wonderful with an artistically stacked woodpile in the winter that stopped traffic, a partner and two Bernese Mountain dogs. On a day when the snow may not have been as deep as in the picture, I headed over to Don’s to buy some GRACE art and meet the artist.
GRACE art had begun years earlier in the 1970s when Don left the New York art scene for the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Since he was trying to make a living at the same time as he made art, he took a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a nursing home in St. Johnsbury. Nursing homes are nearly always eager for programs that will occupy their residents, and when Don got to know some of them, it was almost inevitable that he would become a volunteer art teacher.
This is how Don explained what happened to him next in an interview with Chris Braithwaite, editor of the local paper, the Chronicle:
From the very beginning, I was astounded by what these people were producing, if I kept my hands off it. Teaching for many people means controlling. That’s all it means. I saw something incredible going on. I eventually figured out what I was not doing, and I tried to stay with that approach.
And that’s how GRACE (Grass Roots Art and Community Effort) began. (The art work in this post comes from GRACE postcards of many years ago).
Don went from place to place enabling people to do art. I was a desktop publisher then and was hired by the Greensboro Nursing Home to make a calendar of some of the art produced by their residents. I remember I’d run into Don now and again when he came to the Home with his dog, Maggie. Don passed out crayons, paints, markers – whichever tools were wanted. With Maggie lying patiently at his feet, he’d watch and wait and encourage. He never told the assembled artists how or what. They were quiet and concentrated; you could hear the scratch of the markers, the rub of a colored chalk, the slap of water-color – but that was all.
GRACE artists are “visionary,” “outsider,” or “folk” artists. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore curated a show a few years ago entitled, “Golden Blessings of Old Age and Out of the Mouths of Babes.” I can do no better than quote again, this time from the Museum itself:
In no other arena is the good news of aging more gleefully pronounced than in the many global manifestations of late-onset creativity generated by visionary artists aged 60, 70, 80 and beyond.
They’re not always elderly; they’re also young and middle-aged. They’re occasionally people who aren’t mentally stable by society’s standards. Today, their work can be found everywhere; whole museums are devoted to them. What they all have in common is their lack of formal training, their obsessions with their visions, and the bliss of not caring any longer what anyone else thinks. Their work is always unique, always intriguing.
Headquartered today in a renovated Hardwick, Vermont firehouse, GRACE has grown to include a staff and programs in dozens of nursing homes, community centers and schools. You can find artists and arts at graceart.org.
I’ll tell you about the art I bought and the artist I met in my next post.