By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — The Schenectady Jewish Community Center was bustling with local artists and their supporters.
Crafters and local business owners sat at tables and experts gave demonstrations on topics like ceramics and cooking. Dori Marlin from CBS6 in Albany and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara emceed the event. It was, for the most part, like any other local art festival. And that was exactly the point.
Sunday, Oct. 19, was the second annual Capital Capabilities event hosted by the Schenectady JCC. The event’s mission is to enlighten the community about people with disabilities. You might not know it from simply walking past the art on display throughout the day, from paintings and sculptures to jewelry, but all the featured creators faced disabilities of one kind or another.
The concept of Capital Capabilities was born last year when JCC leaders decided they wanted to create an event that would strengthen their social mission. Local rabbis and JCC members joined to form a steering committee and devised the idea of an art-focused event that would bring abled and disabled community members together. They extended invitations to local support organizations including Schenectady ARC, Living Resources, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, and the Center for Disability Services.
JCC Director Mark Weintraub said the inaugural event in 2013 was intended to create a dialogue about art, rather than disability, and to provide a place where the various support organizations could meet in one place. It was well-received, and Weintraub said the second year was even more impressive than the first.
“Even though someone has a disability, they can still excel in other areas,” he said. “These people are amazing artists who do things I could never do.”
During the event, presenters gave demonstrations in various rooms lining the JCC hallways, and art was on display in almost every space. A meeting room featured a group of vibrant Muppet sculptures on one table, created by an autistic artist. On another table, one panel of a large mural-in-progress rested alongside pictures of the art students who created it.
Sergio Camacho, an art instructor at Living Resources in Ballston Lake, is helping his students complete the 12-by-24-foot mural, which colorfully interprets the map of the world. When it’s finished, they’ll donate it to the JCC to be hung on the wall in the pool room for visitors to enjoy. It’s the kind of project that Camacho said gives his students great satisfaction.
“They’re able to be recognized for their strengths,” he said. “They want to rid themselves of the perception of people who take from the community and be people who give back.”
Camacho instructs developmentally disabled students who range in age from children to seniors in various art projects. Often, he simply helps them follow their own inspirations.
“It’s not unusual for them to come and have an idea for a project,” he said. “It’s all their initiative.”
The mural, which he designed and helped the students execute, represents world unity and a celebration of diversity, he said. The artists he supports have been diligently adjusting the details for weeks.
“They’ve been working on it side-by-side,” he said.
Camacho said one of Living Resources’ main goals is, as he puts it, “quiet integration” or “quiet inclusion.” The Capital Capabilities event is an example of that, he said, where abled and disabled people simply coexist. They acknowledge each other’s differences implicitly, but treat each other as equals.
“It’s this idea of a level playing field,” he said.
It’s also, typically, more true to the way his students see themselves.
“A lot of their identities are more anchored in being an artist” than in their disabilities, Camacho said.
Victoria Purcell, who suffered a stroke when she was 12 years old, is one such artist. Now in her 20s, she helped warm up the crowd at Capital Capabilities by performing as a vocalist in a rock band called the Brain Waves. She makes jewelry, too, and paints, among other artistic pursuits, although singing is her favorite form of expression.
“I’m a person with many talents,” she said.
Living Resources Artistic Director Anne Murphy said the art created during different programs at the facility consistently holds its own against that of abled creators, even in juried shows. The program’s participants have even sold pieces of art to TV show sets such as “The Ellen Degeneres Show” and ABC drama “The Red Band Society.”
It’s not unusual for the artists to turn a profit from their work. Jewelry maker Samantha McGusty, a Living Resources student, sold earrings and necklaces from a table in the JCC lobby during the event. Her work is also for sale at the Albany Visitors’ Center in Quackenbush Square. McGusty said creating the jewelry is a peaceful activity, too.
“It calms down my mind,” she said. Like Purcell, she’s multitalented, also adept at painting and drawing.
One piece of art, in particular, captured a lot of attention Sunday. Hanging at the back of the JCC auditorium was a community quilt that demonstrated how members of different community organizations visualized this year’s theme: “Dream, Create, Achieve.”
Many of the squares were created by disabled artists, but some were not; one was contributed by Niskayuna elementary students.
“I’d like to move this through the community,” Weintraub said, referring to the quilt. Its first stop, after the JCC, will be the district office of Santabarbara, the parent of an autistic child.
His son, Michael, sat in the front row during his cooking demonstration, alongside his wife and daughter. It was Michael’s 13th birthday, and attendees sang to him in celebration. Santabarbara said it meant a lot to him that his son was at the event.
“As a parent and a legislator, you see it from both sides,” he said. “You know what these programs mean.
“The only thing we can do now is keep moving forward, keep giving opportunities for people to be part of our community,” he added.