Art Cart Gets Legs

Written by Marie Weller

Betty Blayton, an artist in the Columbia University program Art Cart: Saving the Legacy, describes her artistic process, as “painting something that is a future knowing.” When Professor Joan Jeffri dreamed up her idea to create a course at Teachers College that paired aging professional artists with teams of graduate student fellows to document and preserve their creative legacy, she had no idea what the future held. Now, in the second semester of the course, she is overjoyed by the success the project has achieved.

“When people hear about Art Cart they immediately want to get involved,” says Jeffri. Since the course began in fall 2010, it has generated a number of unforeseen outcomes that have greatly benefited the lives of its artists. Eva Deutsch Costabel was recently featured in a 60-year retrospective of her work at Gallery 307, an opportunity that came from her involvement with Art Cart. She received a great deal of press for this show; including an interview by NY1 that she says had a great impact on her career.

This past weekend, Art Cart artist Ray Grist exhibited his work at the Harlem Fine Arts Show, which features works from established and emerging African-American artists from around the world. There he spoke about his experience in Art Cart as part of a talk by Jeffri entitled, “Artists and Aging: The Good News.” Grist first realized his need for documentation when he sat down with his lawyer to write his will. He thought it would be as simple as “signing the stuff over to his daughter,” but when his lawyer asked him what the “stuff” was, he was stumped. Art Cart has helped him define his legacy.

Art Cart developed out of recognition of the need for aging artists to document and preserve their artistic legacy for future generations. In her 2007 study, “Above Ground,” Jeffri found that only one in fi ve artists have a will and the majority of them have no preparation for the preservation of their work after their death. In many of these cases, without someone to take proper care of the work after the artist’s passing, years of hard work and creativity would be lost.

The documentation does more than capture the artist’s body of work; it creates a record of the artist’s life of creativity, a history of the artist’s creative process through the course, which includes an oral history, the artists are telling their story in a new way. Ting Olatunji, Betty Blayton’s artist partner says, “For the first time, artists are able to record their own histories. A project like this has been a long time coming…it is a great opportunity for artists’ words to finally be heard.”

In order to share the full experience of Art Cart, Jeffri realized she has to do more than just talk about it. This spring, with the help of Columbia graduate journalism student, Josh Haskell, the Research Center for Arts and Culture is producing a short documentary to show the story of Art Cart. Spearheaded by Art Cart fellow and Social Work student, Paul Nikolaidis, the documentary will follow the stories of the collaboration of students with aging visual artists, illustrating the process as well as the impetus behind the project.

In April, the artists will be featured in a panel at Columbia’s Creativity & Innovation conference. In the fall, Macy Gallery will present a multi-media exhibition featuring the work of the artists and their collaboration with the fellows. At the end of its pilot year, Jeffri plans to take the program to a national level with the National Center for Creative Aging.