Most folks would be hard-pressed to paint or draw a simple landscape with the use of both of their hands and some of the best art equipment in the world, but at the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, people with physical disabilities, ranging from muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and paralysis, are expressing their creativity in spite of those limitations.
Instructed by David Early, a Long Beach resident from the Wrigley area, outpatients will present their works at the 21st Annual Art of Rancho Exhibition at the center, 7601 E. Imperial Hwy., on Wednesday, Sept. 27, from 6pm to 9pm.
“It’s all people with various disabilities,” said Royce Morales, a caretaker and former gallery owner. “[…] There are physical handicaps where they are not able to even hold a paintbrush with their hands. So, it’s quite a variety of interesting challenges that go on with the artists. And there’s just some amazing talent there. It just blows my mind.”
The show will feature more than 65 artists and is funded by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission’s Community Impact Arts Grant. The center’s art equipment and programs are funded through the same grant.
The exhibition is free to the public, and the majority of the artwork, from students and professionals, will be on display for purchase.
“When people come here, it’s basically what they look forward to all week,” Early said of the students in his classes. “They have a place to be rather than focusing on their own physical disabilities or whatever it may be. Suddenly, they are among friends and peers. For three hours, they don’t think about if they’re in pain, they think about the artwork.”
Royce will help set up the exhibit that Wednesday. Three years ago, her husband Michael suffered a stroke and lost the ability to speak. Since then, Royce has served as his caretaker and helps him during classes and day-to-day life when needed.
“There’s a lot of challenges being a caregiver,” she said. “What brings the most joy is just sitting there and seeing these artistic scenes pour out of him. He’s always been artistic […] I don’t think he’s ever allowed himself to express himself creatively like he’s now doing […] He wouldn’t miss those classes for the world.”
At the center, outpatients can participate in art classes or show up and do whatever they choose. Royce said the center features artists with different levels of ability, with some simply doodling works and others spending hours creating a single piece. Michael is the latter.
“He’ll literally sit there for three hours in the class, and these fascinating things come out of him,” Royce said.
Michael spends his time in Early’s classes and is currently taking his “Abstract & Collage” course, where he expresses himself through nonverbal communication. Royce is there, as always, to clear up any confusion during class.
She humorously mentioned how stubborn of a man Michael is– “That’s one thing that didn’t go away with his stroke”– and admits that he doesn’t like it when people tell him what to do. But, at the same time, she said that trait is what allows him to be persistent and learn.
She attributed much of the enthusiasm and benefit Michael and the other students get from creating art to Early’s teaching style and discipline.
“Just watching David be there for each student– he is never frustrated,” Royce said. “He has students that have some real challenges […] He’s just amazingly patient and amazingly caring. You can just see that it comes straight from his heart.”
Prior to his work at the center, Early only had experience dealing with people with mental disabilities. Interacting with individuals with physical challenges proved to be an insightful experience.
“Art really impacts all of our lives,” he said. “People don’t really think about art affecting our lives in the day-to-day, and I try to, with my students now, encourage them to have a future in the industry. And their eyes light up. ‘Me? But I can’t move my legs.’ And I say, ‘But you can move your hands, and you’re creating some wonderful art.’”
Early’s contribution and method of healing to neurologically disabled patients at the center first came at the price of dealing with some physical anguish in his own life. He emerged from a nearly fatal car accident more than 20 years ago.
Early was driving his typical route home on the 22 Freeway at around 7pm on Nov. 24, 1994. As he continued down the road, a car in the slow lane suddenly veered into his lane and crashed right into the side of his van at full velocity.
As Early crashed into the center embankment on the freeway and continued to roll off the side of a mountain, one thought crossed his mind in the adrenaline-filled moment– “I’m going to die.” And worse– “I’m not ready.”
“After that accident, my whole perspective on life had changed,” he said. “Because, to me, it very much was a near-death. And I remember those rolls like it was yesterday. It seemed like everything was in slow motion. Every time I would roll and pop back up, I’d say, ‘Here we go again. Am I going to die this time? Nope.’ So that ran over and over in my mind.”
The suspect fled the scene; it was a hit-and-run. But, police captured the driver soon thereafter. Meanwhile, Early was in the hospital recovering from his injuries.
After three weeks, Early made a full recovery. He was never bedridden, but he simply required plenty of rest, which allowed him to replay the accident constantly in his head.
During the end of his recovery, he met and fell in love with Alain, a doctor from Paris that Early met at a bar. It wasn’t long before Early, a 30-year-old, sold his condo, left his job and moved to France.
“I just reevaluated everything,” he said. “And after much time, we agreed that I should move there. I was probably flying to France about four times that year already […] Life is too short. You only have one life. What’s the worst that can happen?”
After five months, the two separated. He returned to the United States, but he quickly realized he had found a different love– he was infatuated with France.
He flew back yet again and pursued his artistic ambitions in the country, immersing himself in France’s customs and art style, which led him to paint portraits and ceilings a la Michelangelo. His paintings soon were accepted into the Marcher de Artistes, an international and prestigious art group.
In 1996, he founded David Early Fine Art (DEFA), which was his brand of commission work and featured the painting of murals throughout France. He later turned DEFA into a commercial-art company.
Early was in France from 1996 to 2000 and maintained himself financially in the country with his art. He never had the intention to return to the United States, but a combined element of citizenship complications in the country and opportunities in North America led him back home.
In the present day, Early continues to challenge himself artistically in a similar fashion. His current project has him painting a series of landscape works of Galapagos Island.
He is creating 12 artworks that will be exhibited in the upcoming Long Beach Open Studio Tour on Oct. 14 and Oct. 15.
For now, Early looks ahead to the exhibition next week that will feature the works of many of his students.
Royce, who will be present to support Michael and his art, is always amazed at the courage the artists at the center display.
“It’s just phenomenal to me,” she said. “Being on the caregiver side and the gallery-owner side, my heart is constantly being filled with what is going on in Rancho […] It’s like family there for us. Everything they do is all about giving people hope and healing and encouragement […] Everybody does that for everybody else there no matter what life situation they are in and no matter what the disability is […] All of that goes away. It’s just human to human. It really is quite an amazing place.”