Art — Equal Arts Opportunities

Equal Arts Opportunites


By Michelle Saturley


Concord artist Susan Chambers has changed her painting style over the years, gradually becoming more of an abstract painter.

The reason for her artistic metamorphosis is a little surprising: Chambers has a degenerative disease that is slowly taking her vision and hearing.

“You can really chronicle the progression of Susan’s illness by taking a collective look at her work,” said Karen Bessette, executive director at VSA Arts, the New Hampshire chapter of VSA Arts. “Her work has changed out of necessity but as it changes, it grows more powerful. Art is one of the few things that’s sustainable in her life.”

Chambers is one of several local artists with physical, emotional or developmental disabilities whose work is on display at Bagel Works in Concord. The exhibit reflects the work of VSA Arts, the local chapter of an international nonprofit organization founded by Jean Kennedy Smith in 1974. Based in Concord, VSA Arts (formerly known as Very Special Arts) keeps a roster of about 45 New Hampshire artists who, through local, federal and private funding, design outreach programs for schools and other facilities to expose disabled children and adults to visual and performing arts.

“Our goal is to give people of all ability levels the same access and opportunities to the arts,” said Bobbie Herron, business manager at VSA Arts. “Art is one of the few ways that people with a disability can feel like they aren’t on the outside, because there are so many different ways to make art, there is certainly one medium that anyone can do. It’s a positive, empowering way for someone with a disability to express themselves, to shine.”

The impressive list of participating artists includes almost every discipline, including painters, sculptors, storytellers, percussion musicians, science-fiction writers and even puppet-makers. Local photographer Althea Haropulos and blues musician T.J Wheeler are just two of the many artists who regularly participate in VSA programs. The artists, through subsidies provided by VSA Arts, provide hands-on programming for people of all ages with various disabilities.

“Artists conduct residencies and workshops in educational, medical and community settings across the state,” Bessette said. “They can work with kids in alternative schools with emotional disabilities, or with physically disabled veterans in a VA Medical Center. There are many different venues and groups that artists can choose from.”

VSA staff and participating artists agree that the programs are successful in a number of ways.

“I’ve seen people respond to art or music in ways that I didn’t think were possible,” Herron said. “Maybe it’s an autistic boy who, for a half hour or so, comes out of his shell to draw or paint, and maybe doesn’t retreat quite so far back into his shell when art time is over. Or a veteran at a VA Center who never wants to leave his room until he hears that it’s ‘music time.’ For that brief time in the day, it’s not about what they can’t do — it’s about what they can do.”

While the organization receives federal funding, Bessette says that like most other nonprofits, VSA Arts has an ongoing wish list.

“Of course, we’re always recruiting new artists for programs,” she said. “But we also welcome volunteers to help around the office, or at specific events, such as mounting artwork for a show.”

Bessette says she also welcomes donations of art supplies, since quality paints, brushes and papers are expensive. But the easiest way to help the organization, she said, is to spread the word about VSA Arts.

“We’ve been in New Hampshire for a long time, but not many people know about us,” she said. “We’ve helped a lot of people, but I know we could help a lot more. Disabilities touch almost everyone in one way or another.”

The VSA Arts exhibit runs through the end of December at the Concord Bagel Works, located at 42 North Main St. For more information about VSA Arts, call 228-4330 or visit

—Michelle Saturley

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