It all began a couple of years ago in Washington, when Steven Saleh called up Craig Kraft, an artist who makes sculptures using light, and asked him to make a pair of neon crutches.
Out of that grew "Light as a Helping Hand," the exhibit now on view at the new Merrick School of Business building at the University of Baltimore. It's a show that uses light to address communities with special needs -- among them the sight- and hearing-impaired, people with seasonal affective disorder and people with AIDS.
The doorbells that light up, the neon cane, the lighted crutches are a departure from what people usually think of as art, says Kraft, the show's curator as well as one of its artists.
"Art is seen as intellectual and visual entertainment. You don't think of saying, 'OK, we've got a problem, let's get a bunch of artists together and see what they can do.' "
Though Kraft's crutches initiated the project that led to the show, he takes no credit for the concept. "It was Steve Saleh's idea," he says.
Saleh, 34, a Commerce Department project officer who has multiple sclerosis, explains: "When I walked on the street, I occasionally got a reaction from people. They'd look at my face and smile and then look at the crutches and look up nervously or look away with some expression of discomfort on their faces. I wanted to have an opportunity to present myself before they judged me by the crutches. To make it fun and be treated like anyone else."
Previously, he had painted his crutches and attached leather strips to them. "But I was thinking all along the wildest thing I could do was put neon lights on them." So when he happened to come across Kraft's card one day, he called him.
Kraft, a 45-year-old sculptor who has used light in his work for 12 years, liked Saleh's idea, and fortunately, the technology was there. "We were just starting to get neon operating with a battery pack, so it could be mobile. I had a lot of fun making the crutches." They're made with clear plastic and with red, yellow and blue neon, and Kraft called them "Mercury's Wings."
To the delight of both men, they had the desired effect. "People come up to him and say, 'Where did you get those?' instead of shrinking away," says Kraft.
"I've been able to make light of the situation and express my determination not to let my disability get in my way," Saleh says. "It's very moving for me, because it's something I use and wear with a lot of pride and anticipation of some pleasant fun even if I'm not feeling good."
The crutches gave Kraft an idea. He put together a show on the theme of addressing people's needs, created by other artists he knew of who use light. The show was first held about a year ago in the converted 110-year-old firehouse-turned-studio near Dupont Circle that Kraft shares with his fiancee, artist Adrienne Beck.
Subsequently, Kraft wanted the show to travel. When a volunteer at Baltimore's The League: Serving People With Physical Disabilities saw the show in Washington and mentioned The League to Kraft, he got in touch.
The University of Baltimore agreed to have the show in the spacious atrium of its new Merrick School building at Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue, and it opened with a benefit party on April 7.
"It was a new way for us to heighten people's awareness of the disabilities issue and make people aware of The League and the people it serves," says Terry Leckrone, director of development for The League.
Of the 20 works in the show, most address people with special needs in one way or another. Some, such as Kraft's "Neon Crutches" (a new pair he made for the show), can actually be used to help people. Jan Sanchez's "Homage," in honor of her father, who lost his hearing in World War II, is a doorbell light-up device in the form of a sculptural tower that shows a bomb descending. When you ring the doorbell, a red light goes off at the bottom, as if the bomb is hitting the target and exploding.
"S.A.D. Lamps/Happy Lights," by Michael Young, is a pair of standing lamps with white and colored neon, for people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder and need to sit near a light source each day during the winter.
Other works could be used more indirectly. David Yocum, a Baltimore artist, created "Ray of Hope," a lighted wall piece with the red AIDS loop that could be used as a sign for an AIDS clinic.
Still others, such as Quentin Moseley's "The Wall" and Adrienne Beck's "In the Name of God," stray from the show's subject to vaguely address individual or societal issues. They dilute the show, but it has enough works that stick to the point to be effective anyway.
What: "Light as a Helping Hand"
Where: Merrick School of Business building, Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue
When: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays; through April 28
$ Call: (410) 837-6190