TAMPA — Glen Nash paints black lines that begin to resolve themselves into horses. Chris McDarby draws a cat sitting in the sun. They are two of many stars of the MacDonald Training Center art program. And they shine brightly. • Several times a week, they and other adults, most with varying levels of mental retardation and autism, gather in a small studio in the cavernous facility off of West Shore Boulevard that serves people with developmental disabilities.
Art isn't the center's primary function. The private, not-for-profit organization offers an array of training, life skills and employment opportunities to more than 600 clients in its Tampa facility and another one in Plant City. One of its great successes is its contract with the state of Florida as the sole packager of SUNPASS transponders. Since 2007, MacDonald clients have assembled 3 million of them with a less than 1 percent error rate.
MacDonald is funded by corporate contributions, individual donors, business partnerships and the clients themselves, who receive state assistance. (It has no affiliation with the McDonald's fast-food chain or its charity, by the way.)
MacDonald opened in the early 1950s, but the art program is much newer, begun in 2005 both in Tampa and Plant City and now serving about 200 men and women. Artist and teacher Jan Radovan runs it, shuttling between the two studios. The classes are, like many art or craft programs of their kind, a recreational outlet, but MacDonald aims much higher for its artists. A Leadership Westshore class took on as its project the renovation of an area off MacDonald's lobby, and about a year ago, a handsome, on-site art gallery opened to exhibit and sell the clients' paintings. The prices are low, most between $50 and $125, which includes a mat and frame. The artists keep 55 percent and the rest funds the studio.
"Art is a loss leader for us," says Rita Hattab, community relations coordinator, "but it's consistent with our message. People with disabilities have skills that can go beyond ours. Maybe they're just a different set of skills."
Many of the paintings created here are serious exercises in the broad genre known as outsider or marginalized art. It's a term that generates debate over its definition, but one of the general tenets is that it's created by people who aren't part of the cultural mainstream. It has a connection to folk art, and in much of the work at MacDonald, there is a similarity in execution: bold lines and colors, for example.
The gallery is open to the public on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and it's filled with creative revelations. Since opening, it has gained a following among people who have heard about it through word of mouth. Sellouts at opening receptions aren't uncommon.
If some of the paintings look familiar, it's because they are. Radovan has lined the studio walls with reproductions of famous works and has shelves of art books the painters use for inspiration. Not surprisingly, van Gogh is a favorite, as is any artist — Matisse, for example — with a dramatic use of line and color and a less-exacting realist style. The artists will often create several versions of an image.
"I always ask what they want to paint," says Radovan. "Sometimes they don't know, so I suggest or show them pictures. One of the many obstacles for them is conceptualizing. And we try to guide them to more mainstream art, things that sell."
On a recent day in the studio, Nash had a book open to a painting by Franz Marc, a German expressionist, of blue horses rendered almost abstractly against a glowing background. Nash doesn't copy it so much as interpret its general style. He is a quiet man who rarely looks up from his work. He has been in the art program for almost five years, coming to MacDonald from Wimauma, where he lives with his brother, just for that. When he isn't drawing or painting, he fixes bicycles and is an usher at his church.
McDarby, 26, came to MacDonald about two years ago. Because he already had a job at Publix and lives in his own condominium, he didn't need the life skills program and decided he would try art.
"There was a time he wanted to give up," says Radovan. "He stopped coming. I think he might have been frustrated or maybe uncomfortable with all the new people around him. But then he started coming back. I think he saw that it was fun."
Like Nash, McDarby has a fine, original eye for composition. His portrait of a cat in a densely patterned background beneath a big sun "was a picture my head," he says.
The artists take great pride in their sales, often checking the gallery to see if someone has purchased their work, though they don't seem competitive among themselves. They find and follow their own muses. And they are among the best examples of the creative spirit, which is innate and issues from a deep well.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.