Art Gallery at Katz JCC features works by special needs adults

Last week, hundreds of paintings, illustrations, tiles, murals and other works of art lined a long hallway at the Katz Jewish Community Center. Hundreds of interested patrons and prospective buyers visited the gallery, stopping to take a glance at a particular portrait or when a certain work caught their eye.

These works of art could have been done by anyone, but they were created by special needs adults who participate in classes run by Jewish Family and Children Services.

For the second consecutive year, Katz JCC hosted the ACHaD art gallery reception for special needs adults to display their artwork.

Many of the works were created in a program called TOPS. In TOPS, special needs adults can participate in a variety of activities to improve life and social skills.

TOPS director Jane Abesh said each participant in last week’s gallery created about six to seven works of art over the course of the year.

“We picked out the best one or two pieces from each person out of this year’s artwork,” she said.

For the first time this year, visitors were allowed to purchase any piece of artwork. Eileen Elias, the director for special needs at Katz JCC, said the event was extremely popular when it was first held in 2013.

“People were coming up to us and saying ‘I want to buy this,’” Elias said.

There were so many inquires from prospective purchasers last year, the decision was made to allow the artwork to be sold this year. Some of the proceeds raised from the gallery reception will go to support the JFCS.

For the artists, there was a sense of pride and joy just in seeing members of the public come to look at their work.

Michelle Dobry is one of the participants in art classes through TOPS. She was on hand to greet people and show off one of her paintings.

Her mother, Tina, said the art program and the gallery are huge highlights for her daughter.

“It’s amazing,” Tina said. “This program means so much to her.”

Michelle said she loved art because of how beautiful it was. She beamed with joy as people milled around one of her portraits.

Steven Pantaliano was another artist who stood proudly by his painting. He did a portrait of his sister’s dog and was eager to show people how close his portrait looked to the real thing.

The art classes have become a means of expression for many of the artists. Many of the works were based off famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso. The participants take concepts from these artists and put their own unique twists on them.

Abesh said having the ability to express emotions and feelings through art has allowed many of these artists to grow in multiple ways.

“We really try to support our clients and encourage them,” she said. “There’s an artist in each one of us.”

Abesh said art has also led to bigger things for some clients. A good example would be Ronaldo Byrd, the night’s featured artist. Byrd has done dozens of illustrations and began painting as a child when he was 3.

After enrolling in a supported employment program through JFCS, the organization has helped Byrd make a living off his illustrations. His works were some of the most viewed at the gallery.

Abesh said not every artist on display would be a professional, but she believes art touches each of her clients in a special way.