In Ruby Pearl’s latest painting, four women rendered in gray look in different directions — but each gaze holds a similar sorrow.
“I carry the pain, what I have, and I know these women have it also,” explained Pearl, 72, who said she has bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe anxiety. “The reason why I paint women is because the painting and myself accept each other. I can sit there and allow the women to come alive and relate their emotions to me.”
Pearl has been an artist at Gateway Arts — a Brookline studio art center for adults with disabilities that’s been around since 1973 — for more than two decades. The untitled painting of the four women will be on display in “Return,” Gateway’s first full, in-person exhibition since the pandemic began. Held in Gateway’s newly constructed gallery space, the show is slated to run from March 15 through May 7.
Pearl’s painting may capture a heaviness of spirit, but being at Gateway makes her feel lighter. “I walk in here and I feel like I can breathe easy, and the world can stay outside. This place gives us that,” she said. “It’s a true world of our own.”
That world has gotten smaller over the past couple of years, because of the pandemic. The center dropped from 115 artists to just over 90, said director Rae Edelson — some artists chose not to return, and others couldn’t be accommodated because of the social-distancing measures now in place. The staff has shrunk. And visits to local institutions, such as the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library, once a staple of Gateway’s program, are now few and far between.
The availability of some mediums, like pottery, has been curtailed to avoid sharing materials. The gallery used to be adjacent to the artist studios, but the dedicated jewelry studio (situated behind the store) was repurposed to create the new gallery in order to limit the public’s face-to-face interaction with the artists.
Gateway was closed completely from March through August 2020. During that time, the organization kept in touch with its artists, sending them art supplies from Blick Art Materials and holding Zoom sessions and online exhibitions. Even now that they’re back in person (with each artist at their own individual workstation), things still aren’t totally back to normal.
“We used to be so noisy — it was really a place of art and din. And now it’s quiet,” said Edelson, who has been at the helm of Gateway since 1978. For the artists, “[Gateway] builds their identity and their sense of well-being and sense of community — or at least, whatever is left of community at this point, which exists, but it’s certainly diminished.”
And yet, as the organization approaches its 50th anniversary next year, some constants have remained. Most of the mediums — painting, weaving, digital art, textiles — are still available for use, and many of the artists are hard at work on their pieces for the “Return” exhibition (artists make 50 percent commission on all sales of their work in the gallery or store). Artistic director Stephen DeFronzo estimates there will be about 80 pieces in the show, representing “just about” every Gateway artist.
“We wanted to show all the work that people had done since they came back,” said DeFronzo, adding that the show will also be accessible online later in March. “Especially in the new environment, the new workstations … the newly designed studios. A lot of people are working with new mediums that they haven’t really worked with before.”
At “Return,” artist Darryl Richards will show his untitled painting depicting a woman with a candy-colored hairdo filled with a hodgepodge of items — a pineapple, a telephone, a smiley face — meant to express “how she feels inside and out,” he said. For Richards, the community of Gateway has provided a valuable support system. “They help me out. Anything that looks off or wrong, they give me ideas or advice to help me [with] my paintings,” said Richards, 28.
Artwork, Richards said, is a way to “make a doorway” into his mind. “I do try my best to try to get the image out [of] my head,” said Richards. “I like to do more fantasy and real life at the same time.”
Artist Colleen McFarland dabbles in a number of different mediums, including ceramics, illustration, and textiles. Her untitled acrylic painting that will be on display in the show is abstract, depicting a green dancer amid stripes of blue and yellow. Most of her work is of dancers, particularly ballerinas. “I just loved how they were able to tell a story that I could relate to,” McFarland, 30, said.
McFarland also works as an associate at a Marshalls department store. She called her role at Gateway “a nice respite.”
“They never will say any of my ideas are bad,” she said. “There aren’t supposed to be any rules in art.”
Despite her venture into black and white, Pearl often works in the vein of pop art, employing vivid colors and playful lines. Her Gateway sales, she said, are her primary source of income, but that’s not the main reason she keeps coming back.
“You have these people that are like you, they have similar emotions. It’s allowing us together to grasp a hold of each other, because we know when we walk out of Gateway, it’s not going to be the same,” she said. “That’s what Gateway does ― they allow me to heal day to day.”
She added: “If I didn’t have Gateway, I wouldn’t be who I am.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.