by Bethany Keener
A group of people with and without intellectual disabilities rounded up coffee cans, empty oatmeal containers, fabric, and leaves, and then left them in the sun. The result: a stunning collection of photographs titled Organic Inclusivity, which will be on display in downtown Tacoma, Washington’s Woolworth Building from September 17 – December 4, 2015.
Megan Bent is the photographer and installation artist behind the project. She heard about Spaceworks Tacoma’s Artscape program to temporarily place artwork in storefront windows, lobby display cases, outdoor wall spaces, and an outdoor video gallery in the City of Tacoma more than a year ago.
She had recently arrived at L’Arche Tahoma Hope, a faith-based community of people with and without intellectual disabilities who share life together in four family-like homes, a farm and garden, and a craft program. Megan thought the art project could be a good way to get to know her new friends and housemates.
“In the last few years I’ve become interested in community-engaged artwork, which highlights how art can be the foundation that brings people together,” she said.
In November of last year, a group of 26 people from L’Arche agreed to participate in the project. They began by learning about the process of creating pinhole cameras and thinking about how to incorporate images of daily life at L’Arche Tahoma Hope into their work.
“I gravitate toward alternative photography—for my personal work I use a Holga camera, which creates images that tend to have imperfections in the end result,” she said. Having been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in her early 20s, Megan finds this process important in dealing with her own “imperfect” body.
By February they were building cameras, and when April brought sunnier days they headed outdoors to begin making photos.
The group experimented with a variety of printing processes. From the coffee cans and oatmeal containers they created pinhole cameras. They poked tiny holes in the containers, painted the insides black, placed chemical-free black and white photo paper inside, and sealed them shut. Then, they chose their subjects and left the cameras out for three or four days. The result was photo negatives that could then be turned into digital images for printing on a larger scale.
They also made chlorophyll prints using black and white photos printed on transparencies (a clear sheet of plastic that used to be used with old-fashioned overhead projectors). The transparencies were inserted into special frames on top of leaves and placed in the sun for a day or two, leaving the photographic imprint on the leaf itself.
A few artists tried their luck with creating cyanotype photos—white prints on blue fabric (the term “blueprint” was coined from this type of printing). The process involves placing an object on fabric treated with a solution of potassium ferricyanide and ferric salt, exposing it to sunlight, drying, and rinsing.
The project’s name, Organic Inclusivity, reflects both the process of using natural elements to create art and the inclusion of people who have intellectual disabilities.
“At L’Arche,” Megan said, “I see inclusion lived out every day. There is a way for everybody to be part of it and share their gifts.”
For her, the most exciting part of the project was watching members of L’Arche who have intellectual disabilities build cameras, choose their subjects, and see their photos for the first time.
“It is empowering to create something from nothing,” she said. “When Ricky saw the image he created from the pinhole camera he shouted, ‘Look at this, I made that, I am awesome!’”
L’Arche Tahoma Hope is part of an international federation of L’Arche communities that seeks to make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities, revealed through mutually transforming relationships. There are 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries, including 18 in the United States.