Ask Byron Aubrey who his biggest artistic influences are and you won’t hear him rattle off a list of perennial art school favorites. No Magritte, no Dali; no Munch or Degas or Picasso.
Aubrey’s inspirations, rather, are people he knows personally, people he admires. People, it turns out, who have what a lot of other people would consider disadvantages for an artist.
Rio Felix Smith’s inspirations are people he knows, too. He just likes to make fantasy characters out of them. And he’s one of those kinds of people Aubrey admires because Smith sees what happened to him as its own type of advantage, in a way not many people would be inclined to agree with if they couldn’t move below the chest.
The work of these two artists, along with the work of seven more, is on display at “Persistence,” an exhibit hosted by the Trenton Artists Workshop Association that features the work of area artists with disabilities. The exhibit at the Trenton Free Public Library opened on Feb. 20 and runs through April 6. An artist’s talk is scheduled for Saturday, March 10, at 2 p.m. Attendance is free.
Along with Aubrey’s drawings and paintings of the world he sees when he looks around and Smith’s sketches of three women modeled after the monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil are the works of Priscilla Snow Algava, a Princeton-based artist who’s been battling cancer for the past two years; Justin Jedryk, a Trenton-area portrait painter who’s been dealing with diminished eyesight from a neurological issue for years; Ken Alexander, a Trenton-based painter who is legally blind and yet still works in bold colors; Mark Wilkie, a Hamilton resident who creates detailed shapes in pen and pencil and has a neurological disorder; Michael Austin, a senior at Lawrence High School with a passion for creating art; and former longtime art teacher at Mercer County College, Mel Leipzig.
Aubrey, 24, is the curator of “Persistence.” It’s the first time he has ever curated an art show, and that’s something he finds thrilling and a lot of work at the same time. He was steered towards the idea by his mother, Liz, who is probably his biggest inspiration. (Aubrey’s father, Dan, is arts editor at U.S.1 Newspaper, a sister publication of the Lawrence Gazette.)
Aubrey’s own issue to overcome through art is a neurological condition known as dyscalculia. It’s part of the autism spectrum and is best defined by an inability to comprehend math, despite how well it’s taught and despite how otherwise intelligent a person might be.
For Smith, a Lawrence resident, the obstacles are much more directly physical. He’s mostly paralyzed from the neck down following a motorcycle accident in August of 2015.
Both Aubrey, a Hamilton resident, and Smith found art as a way to explore and express, and to overcome. Aubrey struggled in school with math and reading comprehension. But seeing in images came a lot easier for him. His first serious foray into studying art came in middle school, though it was hardly an auspicious introduction.
“I felt it was a little more of the academic than the artistic sense,” he says of his first art class. In other words, it was a lot of theory, a lot of reading, a lot of what made art, well, artsy. “That made it hard to follow for me.”
It wasn’t until a few years later, in the summer following his graduation from Steinert High School in 2012, when he took a printmaking class, that he found what he’d been missing in his on-again/off-again study of art—namely, actually getting to make art and learning to follow his “very exploratory” creative instincts. He enrolled in the visual arts associate’s degree program at Mercer County Community College that year. His first semester turned out to be the last one taught at Mercer by Leipzig.
Art wasn’t the only reason he decided to go to college. Graduation from high school occurred in the midst of the recession, and Aubrey had a real choice to face—get a job or get an education.
“If there’s no hope getting a job after high school, I should maybe think about going to Mercer,” he says. “The future was very concerning to me. I kept asking myself questions.”
Serious questions. Questions like, “Should I volunteer?”
He decided yes on that one, in a big way. Aubrey volunteers at Cornerstone Community Kitchen at Princeton Methodist Church, helping with meals. He’s also helped with PR at a Hamilton-based advocacy group for disabled people called Progressive Center for Independent Living and with the Mercer County Parks commission, clearing away invasive or harmful plants.
He’s also volunteered at a nature center that’s part of the Abbott Marshlands and helped feed and clean the snakes and turtles there. And, fitting enough for an artist, he also volunteered at the gallery at Mercer County Community College for a few semesters as a gallery assistant.
For Smith, 24, life was going along without much direction in the late summer of 2015. One thing he did know was that he wanted to get really boss at riding a motorcycle. That August, he decided to take his father’s bike to a doctor’s appointment just a short trip up the road.
He made what he (twice) referred to as “a silly mistake.” He wanted to push his bounds and see just how well he could ride the motorcycle. So, of course, he drove a little too fast and took a right way too wide and ended up facing the grill of an oncoming SUV in the left lane.
“I panicked and pulled down on the throttle more,” he says. He ended up in a yard, barely missing a parked car before slamming into a tree. His helmet popped off and he bounced to the ground. Somehow, he says, he didn’t get a head injury from the crash. Also, despite the injury to his spine, he didn’t actually break anything. The impact created a kind of whiplash injury that had doctors thinking it was entirely possible that he would regain all his mobility. His spinal column remains in tact.
Two-and-a-half years later, Smith has come far enough in his rehabilitation to move his arms again and regain some dexterity in his fingers. Today, he can use a stylus or a pencil to draw. Immediately after the crash, he was limited to a mouth brush. Then, as now, the thought to not draw simply never occurred to him.
Both artists find inspiration around them. Aubrey finds much of his muse in nature, even that in his backyard.
“When I do my art, I usually focus on landscapes,” he says. “If it’s a nice day I usually sit out in my backyard and sketch the trees.”
Inspiration comes from people too, first and foremost his mother, Liz. She would often bust out the sketchpad on family vacations and start recording what she saw, he says.
“I love her work,” Aubrey says. “She draws or paints from observation. She makes things a little bit more surreal; she plays with shapes and sizes and proportions.”
While Aubrey says he’s followed her lead and been encouraged to find his own style, he does take after his mother artistically in that he’s fascinated with translating the world he observes.
“I differ by looking for a sense of realism, mostly in the color,” he says.
His other inspirations come from the artists in the Persistence lineup. Ken Alexander, the painter who’s lost most of his vision, is a big influence on Aubrey. Aubrey met him at a reception at Artworks in Trenton and was deeply impressed with Alexander’s urge to just keep painting.
Still a bigger inspiration for Aubrey is Priscilla Snow Algava.
“She was at the point where she really lost hope,” Aubrey says. But through her illness, her treatments, her recovery, she’s just kept at it. “She’s a very big influence on me. I’m inspired by people who just keep going.”
Smith’s influences come from short stories he writes (he wants to be a writer for a living), movies he watches, the many books he reads, and of course, from real people.
“I like to take real situations from everyday life and add an element of fantasy to them,” he says. He and his friends once had a conversation about what kinds of fictional characters they might be. He would be a werewolf, he says. Obviously, “because I’m exceptionally hairy.”
He drew up these characters before his accident; after, the idea came back to him, along with a pile of others. So he’s been working on ideas like this, mostly with the help of a digital drawing program on his phone. Smith says he uses a stylus that allows him to draw with ease and do something he’s still not able to do with a pencil—erase. He can’t quite control the pressure, nor does he have the hand dexterity to use an eraser properly. The digital platform gives him all the brush and eraser options he wants, though he admits the program offers its share of creative curve balls. But he enjoys the challenge.
Then again, Smith is not the usual patient in recovery. Relentlessly upbeat and funny (he says the EMTs who took him from his accident told him his jokes in the ambulance cracked them up all the way to the hospital, though the ride is fuzzy for him), Smith says he actually appreciates having become paralyzed. It’s given him a chance to see life in a new way.
“I honestly don’t know if I’d go back and change it,” he says. “Obviously, being paralyzed is not ideal, but I’ve met people and I’ve experienced things I never would have if I’d lived normally.”
As Aubrey wends his way through his art education, in art itself he has found the thing that drives him. He is planning to complete his education and work towards being a professional artist. And as Smith wends his way through rehabilitative therapy, he plans to be a working writer. It has occurred to neither to just not do it.
“I obviously struggle,” Smith says. His mother remains his primary caretaker day-to-day, and he needs help with most of his daily life. But he agrees with his doctors that he’ll be back to 100 percent some day. Until then, he keeps in mind this from his Baha’i faith: Go through life not with sullen recognition, but with radiant acquiescence.
That keeps him going a lot.
“Life is never fair to anybody,” Smith says. “But you have to always strive forward. I’m struggling, but I’m struggling with purpose.”