Fostering unique expressions


When Liz Johnson was three years old, her mother realized she had a budding artist on her hands after seeing the brightly colored pictures her little girl painted at nursery school.

Nearly two decades later, Johnson rediscovered her early passion at Providence Center's Art Institute, where she has spent the past nine years honing her artistic skills.

Yesterday, the 38-year-old developmentally disabled artist watched over the hanging of her third one-woman show. The display of 20 of her vibrant abstract acrylics runs through July 6 in the Gallery at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park.

An artist's reception is planned for 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday in the gallery.

In Johnson's work, visitors will see the artist's signature feathery, overlapping strokes of blended primary colors. Her unique brushwork is evident in a seascape of frothy blue and white against an intense background of purple and red. Nearby is a cool waterfall of blues and greens.

"I paint abstract with acrylics," said Johnson.

Colors flow brightly and boldly from her brush, and she uses this intensity to express her feelings about nature, animals and birds.

One of Meredith Johnson's favorite works by her daughter is "White Heat," a boldly colored painting sliced in half by a horizontal swath of pure white and bright yellow. The pictures in the show have all been professionally framed, and a few are available for purchase.

"Some of Johnson's paintings have almost an iconic feel," said Nancy Saarlass, curator of art at Woods Church. "Others are more expressionistic."

The art exhibit program began at Woods in the 1970s, somewhat intermittently. Since assuming responsibility for the exhibits about five years ago, Saarlass has scheduled a new show every six weeks.

Johnson's art career was reborn in the classroom at Providence Art Institute, where many of the county's developmentally disabled adults - age 21 and older with disabilities that range from physical limitations to mild disabilities - gain experience for a more productive life through artistic expression.

Providence Center program coordinator Pat Quigel said that the facility gives clients the opportunity to try different things. For example, Johnson studies pottery making, has a reading class twice a week, and takes art classes at Chesapeake Art Center in Brooklyn Park. There, Quigel said, "She sees what it's like to be in the community in a real artist studio."

Most of the time, however, Johnson studies with Providence Art Institute instructor Mike Patton.

"She's very adept with color and composition," said Patton, "and she has a distinct style, somewhat abstract, that leads to landscape. She's focused on her work and has had other successful shows.

"Some of my folks have real distinct ideas about what they want to do," said Patton. "Others are more open to new ideas."

Patton's students study art history and visit area art museums.

An instructor at the art institute for 15 years, Patton said that he held his first visual arts class in 1991 with 12 students and now has about 180. His students study all media, including drawing and painting, and wood and clay sculpture.

About 35 students study dance in the performing arts program. Its popular singing class is scheduled to return this summer. The center is also looking for a drama coach to bring acting back into the curriculum, Patton said.

Beginning more than 40 years ago as a resource for developmentally disabled children, Providence Center became a facility for adults in 1975 with the passage of a law that allows developmentally disabled children to be admitted to special education classes in public schools.

In the early 1980s, Providence Center introduced a crafts program that included woodworking and pottery studios, along with sheltered workshops and a horticulture program.

The expanded program augmented the center's goal to provide opportunities for adults with disabilities to experience more independent, valuable and functioning roles in society.

"We're the ultimate vocational training center," Quigel said. The center provides job coaches for its clients.

Julie Provan, who is director of Providence Center's Community Opportunity program and oversees the art institute, said, "Our goal is to get as many of our folks in the community and bring the community to us."

Currently, 105 individuals work in the community at a variety of jobs at locations as diverse as the Maryland State Archives, McDonald's, Sears and the Arnold Pet Station veterinary clinic.

Providence clients also work at restaurants and grocery stores, and for service companies such as the cleaning crew at the U.S. Naval Academy, Provan said.

The Earth Tones pottery shop offers handmade pottery and housewares created by center students. All of the stoneware is decorative and functional, safe for cooking and serving.

Providence Center is moving some of its programs in July to a renovated facility in the Cloverleaf Business Park in Millersville. There will be a performance room for dance and drama programs and an art room for the visual arts.

"We purchased a building and totally gutted and remodeled it," said Provan. "Our goal is to be able to offer more choices to our folks, like the ones in wheelchairs, without the barrier of transportation."

The center has additional facilities in Arnold and Glen Burnie.

Students at the Providence Art Institute participate in art shows throughout the year at the Maryland Federation of Art, Maryland Hall, the Arundel Center and Chesapeake Art Center.

The next student show is July 17 through August 25 in the AIR Gallery in Maryland Hall.

For more information about Providence Art Institute, call 410-315-8303.

To contact the Earth Tones Pottery Shop, call 410-757-1247.

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