Meet the Extraordinary Artists of the Exceptional Children’s Foundation

ECF has been shining a spotlight on outsider artwork for 50 years, and you can cop your own piece this Saturday

In the back of a bustling art studio, Tammy Brackens hunches over a white drafting desk, carefully arranging cutouts of women’s faces on a colorful scrap of paper. Step one in her intricate artistic process, the tiny collage will eventually be transformed into one of the surreal watercolor paintings that fan out on the studio wall before her. The dreamlike images of ducks in a bathtub, a house lined with faces, and a futurist Coke and fries are just a few of the many works she’s created during her decades-long tenure at the Exceptional Children’s Foundation Art Center, which provides artistic training for adults with developmental disabilities. “I’ve been here since October, 1985,” says the bespectacled Brackens. “I love it.”

 

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Since it was founded in 1968, the Extraordinary Children’s Foundation has helped foster unique voices like Brackens’ by providing workspace, supplies, and creative guidance to over 200 adults across the Los Angeles area. Functioning like open studios, its three centers in South L.A., the Westside, and Downtown give artists an opportunity to explore a wide variety of mediums, trying their hand at painting, collage, ceramics, and even sewing, to find out which one they enjoy most. “There are no classes per se,” says Virginia Arce, supervisor of the program’s DAC Gallery. “Everyone gets to work on whatever they’re interested in at their own pace.”

Working with a staff made up entirely of practicing artists, students hone their craft over a period of months or years, learning practical skills and exploring new conceptual territories. “They’re able to express parts of themselves that are much more complex than quote unquote ‘developmental disability’,” says Arce. “At the Westside Art Center, for instance, [the artist] Michael Norton will wear a wig only in the studio, and makes artwork and videos as a character called Miss Cookie.”

 

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And the ECF students aren’t the only ones getting an education—Francesca Lalanne, program manager at the South L.A. ECF Center, says working with students has shaped her into a better artist, too. “I’ve learned to be more authentic with my language just by watching people who have no filters in what they’re trying to express,” says Lalanne.

Getting these talented artists on the radar of a mainstream audience is a big part of ECF’s mission, too. Participants’ pieces have been displayed in museums nationwide, from the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center in Washington DC to the Armory in New York. Longtime ECF artists Milton Davis and Vickie Uyeda were the the subjects of an exhibition at L.A.’s Main Museum this year, and works by ECF artists Larry Pearsall, Debra Alexander, and Sandy Chale are currently on display at the Main’s show Office Hours.

 

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Pearsall, who has gained some acclaim for his darkly humorous series of narrative paintings about a fictional city called Apple Bay, says one of his favorite parts of being an artist is making sales. “I like making money,” he grins. All of ECF’s artists have the chance to sell their work in the program’s downtown gallery, an online Amazon store, and at periodic art sales. Proceeds are split 50-50 between the artists and the foundation.

Your next opportunity to pick up an original by one of these extraordinary artists is at the ECF’s 50th anniversary celebration and art sale, which will take place at DAC gallery on Saturday, November 10. From 1-5 p.m., visitors can see the artists in action at a “live art” event, peruse fabric and mixed media works on display at the gallery’s new show In the Making, and peep a new, large scale collaborative mural that several ECF students worked on. Just a few blocks away at the Main Museum, ECF Artist Antwan Jones will also be participating in a panel discussion on representing disability in cultural institutions.


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