Monday, 23 June 2008

if you happen to be in SLC sometime in the next 20 days

Canvases of hope by India's lepers
Sales from SLC exhibit aid Bindu Art School

By Elizabeth Miller
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 06/21/2008 10:40:14 AM MDT

When you hear the stories behind the colorful acrylic and oil paintings on display at Salt Lake City's Art Access Gallery, you have learned more about leprosy, still one of the world's most misunderstood diseases.

The artists at southern India's Bindu Art School have received little formal training. Instead, their work displays evidence of the human drive for creative expression.

Some of the artists attached brushes to their fingerless hands with rubber bands, while others painted despite having no feeling in their limbs. Still other artists, who are blind, created vivid paintings despite being unable to see the canvases.

All of the paintings exhibited at Salt Lake City's Art Access Gallery were created thanks to Rising Star Outreach, a nonprofit agency founded in 2005 at the Bharatapuram leprosy colony.

Becky Douglas, who lives in Atlanta but was raised in Salt Lake City, helped create Rising Star after seeing beggars while traveling in India. To get started, she called on friends, most of whom are from Utah and, like her, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As they worked with leprosy sufferers, she and other volunteers realized that giving them food, shelter and comfort wasn't enough. They were still isolated, even from one another.

"The biggest impediment to their improving is the stigma that they face," said Douglas, the executive director of Rising Star. "[The school has] really given a voice to people who have been isolated and ignored for millennia."

Leprosy - officially known as Hansen's disease - is caused by bacteria transmitted through droplets from the nose and mouth of untreated patients, according to the World Health Organization's Web site. In the past, lepers were isolated into separate colonies because of exaggerated fears of contagion.

The widely misunderstood disease is now considered curable, but in contemporary India, many sufferers have trouble getting access to medication. Because of their low place in the culture's strict social caste system, leprosy victims are considered cursed, even untouchable. If left untreated, the disease can cause nerve damage, often leading to the amputation of limbs.

Through art therapy, Douglas said, students have slowly broken out of the shame they have felt most of their lives, while art sales have helped them earn financial independence, ending the cycle of begging for alms.

Before they painted, the students isolated themselves and begged for sleeping pills to ease their loneliness. "The first paintings were dark and isolationist, but became more colorful as the students gained self-esteem and began selling their own work," Douglas said. "It's interesting to see the change over time as they start to feel better about themselves; the work has gotten better."

All proceeds of art sales from the exhbit will be donated back to the school, said Ruth Lubbers, director of the Art Access gallery.

The school is funded through donations and art sales, Douglas said. Proceeds are divided into thirds: One-third is divided among all 26 artists, one-third is earmarked for school programs, while the remaining third is bankrolled into a savings account to start another Indian school.

Utahns have supported Indian disease-relief efforts through more than just financial donations. "They come over to the colonies and hug them and touch the people considered untouchable," Douglas said. "The volunteers and I really believe we will have an impact on the stigma more than anything else and really help these people succeed."

At Art Access Gallery
* "TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT," an exhibition of 35 paintings from the Bindu Art School, made by artists with leprosy, will be on display and on sale at the Art Access Gallery, 230 S. 500 West, No. 125, Salt Lake City.

* THE EXHIBIT runs through July 11. For information, visit or call 801-328-0703. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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