Hands speak for the disabled Exhibit: An amateur photographer captures the residents of Keswick Multi-Care Center in black and white as they work with their hands.


David Osborne travels around the globe taking pictures of exotic landscapes. But it took switching his focus to an art class to show him a new world.

Osborne spent three days in March at the Keswick Multi-Care Center in North Baltimore, photographing the center's disabled residents in an art class that he read about in The Sun. Twenty-two of his black-and-white photographs make up the exhibit "Hands at Keswick" at the Keswick Center.

Osborne, a Columbia resident, is not a professional photographer, but his company, a specialty chemical distributor called International Resources, allows him to travel extensively. He takes advantage of his travels to indulge his landscape-oriented photography hobby.

Although it's not his traditional subject matter, the idea of about 30 people, mainly in wheelchairs, working with clay moved him to preserve their perseverance in photographs.

Officials at Keswick say they allowed Osborne to come into the class, which meets two days a week under the tutelage of local artist Joan Kelly, because the exposure gives the residents confidence in themselves and their work.

"It [the exhibit] affirms the dignity of the people who are here," says Osborne, 54. "It says they do matter. Even though the residents are out of sight, they are here and they are living lives and, actually, very fruitful lives."

The photographs mostly target the residents' hands: Hands caked with dry clay. Hands delicately smoothing the base of a vase. Hands that persist creatively despite being withered or otherwise incapacitated.

The subject of two of Osborne's photographs, Robert Smith, 41, has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair, and he communicates by using the back and sides of his hands to type words onto a keyboard that transforms his thoughts into an electronic voice.

Because Smith cannot use his hands to mold his pieces, Kelly, holds the clay up, and Smith pounds out the forms with his elbow. Osborne's photographs capture Smith's resourceful approach on film.

"You should see him do pottery. It's really something," Osborne says. "When I caught that image, he wasn't posing, he was pounding," Osborne says.

Smith describes his time with Osborne as "very cool."

Smith says he admires the art of the hippie movement, specifically John Lennon. His own clay works include a small model of a wheelchair inscribed with the words "We Have Our Own Minds," and a plaque proclaiming "Disabled are better lovers because they stay put."

"All of us are diminished, sometimes with age, or other things that may befall us," Osborne says. "These people have gone beyond that, and I think that's really the story here. They're not ashamed of the diminishment."

Osborne's image of Smith pounding the clay is vivid and intimate, consistent characteristics of the photos. The residents' openness to Osborne allowed him to get close enough to capture the struggle and joy behind their work.

"I felt like the residents and I had a good rapport where the camera, they and I, could be together, close," Osborne says.

Kelly, who comes to Keswick for two 10-hour days a week, , noticed the camaraderie between Osborne and her students.

"He fit in really well. He got their trust really quickly," Kelly says. "He talked so plainly. They were very receptive to him."

Osborne says he hadn't originally intended for his work to evolve into an exhibition. But after seeing the photos, Keswick officials were so moved that they went forward with the idea.

"When he presented the photos, there was such a strong, positive feeling," says Nancy Daly, Keswick's administrator of Clinical Services.

Osborne wishes the exhibit could help turn positive public attention toward people who are often left out of the mainstream.

"These people are in many ways forgotten," Osborne says. "We drive by in our cars, and we don't give anyone in Keswick Center or other centers a thought."

Resident Helen Willey just wants to be recognized for her artistic accomplishments. Willey has been known to work for eight straight hours in the art studio, after which she takes her materials back to her room so she can continue working on her pottery. Among her works are bowls and decorative plates, including one with a bronze-colored cityscape.

She says people on the outside have a hard time believing that the aged and disabled are capable of creating art. Osborne's photographs, she says, provide hard evidence of her and her fellow residents' hard work.

"It's wonderful," she says. "He showed our hands. That's something they never show in a picture."

Photo exhibit

What: "Hands at Keswick"

Where: Keswick Multi-Care Center, 700 W. 40th St.

When: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; through July 5

Tickets: Free

Call: 410-235-8860

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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