A newspaper article published in the Press Democrat
on Friday, July 7, 2006, reformatted for this web page

Art Outside the Box
Nonprofit Group Helped Disabled Adults Create Ceramic Murals Downtown

by Janet Parmer

Photo by John Burgess/Press Democrat

CREATIVE WITH CLAY: Clockwise from top: Laura Foster, Nuala Creed, Aiheli Caries and Jenny Schaefer are shown with one of two ceramic murals installed in Putnam Plaza. Creed, a local ceramic artist, collaborated with the developmentally disabled adults.

When Laura Foster picks up a paintbrush, she usually starts creating boxes with her brushstrokes. Foster is known for her unique geometric style, and has exhibited her trademark designs at a one-woman art show at a Santa Rosa coffee shop and as part of group displays.

Now, Foster's interlocking tiny box shapes are part of two new clay murals installed rece ntly at Putnam Plaza in downtown Petaluma. As part of the Alchemia group of performing and visual artists, Foster contributed a drawing that was transformed into a section of a mural panel on one of the concrete entrance pillars at the park. Alchemia is a local nonprofit group that gives developmentally disabled adults creative arts training. Its members began working with Petaluma ceramicist Nuala Creed on the project in January.

Creed, who has taught art to Alchemia members for a few years, applied for a Jumpstart grant for public art from the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County to fund the murals. She asked participants, many of whom only had experience with two-dimensional art, to sketch something for the mural, and then the Alchemia artists transferred their images into a slab of rolled out clay to form two 44-inch by 22-inch panels. "This was new to me," said Foster, 24, who lives in Santa Rosa. "It feels great to have it done. I'm really excited and I'd love for everyone to see it."

The murals are titled "Wabi Sabi," a Japanese aesthetic principle translating as "Perfectly Imperfect." Th e slogan has been the cornerstone of the Alchemia program, which uses facilities at a D Street church. In addition to the people, birds, trees, angels, flowers, houses and children in wheelchairs featured in the murals, participants contributed poignant poems of how the Wabi Sabi concept af fects them.

Earlier this year, group participants staged a theatrical production related to the theme, and the play, which involved elaborate sets, costumes and an original musical score, was performed at schools and community centers. Lorin Kaufman, who is co-director of Alchemia with Julia Macdougall , sees the Wabi Sabi murals as an opportunity to share what the group does with Petaluma residents and visitors. She's pleased that the city granted permission to install them permanently in a high-visibility location. "This is Nuala's vision. We started talking a couple of years ago about doing something to bring Alchemia into the community," Kaufman said.

Creed has coordinated numerous public art projects with students, and understands that the process of creating the communal piece is more time-consuming than if she did the clay projects on her own. She has exhibited her work in shows throughout the United States and has had her ceramics pieces featured in art magazines.

Creed worked with professionals to install the bas relief panels in the Putnam Park pillars, and covered them until the unveiling ceremony. The artists, their families and city and arts group representatives were present for the unveiling, which included performances of songs and poetry by Alchemia participants. The work of Alheli Carles, 24, is located in the center of one of the panels.

She drew a picture of a bride and groom and sees the pair as possibly representing her and her boyfriend. The woman is dressed in a long teal gown with red hearts embellishing the garment and she's wearing a veil. The groom is in a dark suit with a jaunty brown beret, and the smiling couple is holding hands. "This was my first time working with clay. I loved it because I was working with my hands. It was a little bit hard and a little bit easy," said Carles, whose mother and brother attended the unveiling festivities. "I love the mural. I'm totally happy," she said.

Jenny Schaefer, 28, of San Anselmo drew a series of birds that were transferred to the clay mural. She said it was her first time working with clay. "I'm thrilled where the mural is because a lot of people will see it," she said. Interspersed around the images are excerpts of poems by Alchemia members.

One contributor wrote: "Just because I get a word wrong/ Because words get mixed up in my head/Please don't point your finger and laugh at me." The words of another writer are emblazoned on the mural: "I hate being handicapped I get laughed at a lot/It really hurts me /I say it doesn't matter/What matters is that there is Love inside of you."

The Alchemia group has produced postcards of the mural panels and Kaufman hopes to create a puzzle of the images. She would like to do additional public art installations with Alchemia participants. "For us, it gives us a very tangible product to take out into public and brings us into the community," she said. "It's nice because we've worked with the Wabi Sabi concept for five years, and it's got its own energy."