Mount Baker Neighborhood Center for the Arts (MBNCA) is a cozy and welcoming space with Barbara Oswald at the helm. Eclectic art hanging on the walls is part of the show “Into Outsider Art.” Among the works is Carol Wessberg’s painting “Synesthesia: I Wish You Could See the Music,” a visual representation of the unique sensory experience where people can see colors in letters or numbers. “Just Another Starry Night” by Jordan Quinn is an interpretation of Vincent van Gogh’s famous work.
Outsider Art is a label given to artists who haven’t had formal art training, where one learns techniques such as the rules of perspective, vanishing point and the horizon line. All of the artists in the show have a disability except for one.
“I want art for everybody,” Oswald said. “I want to especially make it inviting and open for folks who don’t usually have an opportunity. You’re not seen as an artist by the art world, or you’re just an emerging artist.”
As Oswald walked through the space, she proudly talked about the art in the show. An artist herself, she’s not bound by traditional rules and standards about what art should and shouldn’t be. She appreciates the beauty in self-expression and is accepting of whatever the artist chooses to create.
In addition to the show, there’s a group of paintings set aside that are for sale including “African Dancer.” In the center a woman is shown with her arms and legs outstretched. The variations of orange, red, green and blue hues on her clothing and in the background appear to move with her. It’s an alluring painting created by Oswald, who is also legally blind.
“Eighty percent of blind people have a little bit of functional vision. I’m one of those 80 percent,” Oswald said. “People say, ‘But there’s so much detail in there’ and I go yeah look at how much color there is because I live for color.”
Oswald was born three months premature and weighed only two pounds. The medical apparatus used to save her life also took her vision. She considers herself lucky to be alive.
“Too much oxygen in the incubator basically destroyed my retinas,” Oswald said. “Your eyes and your lungs are the last thing to develop in utero.”
Growing up, Oswald’s parents didn’t treat her blindness as an insurmountable obstacle; instead they told her she could be anything she wanted. Oswald initially set out to become a psychiatrist. She received a four-year scholarship to college and was pre-med. After taking several science related courses, an adviser told her she couldn’t be a doctor because she wouldn’t be able to complete rotations at a hospital when the time came. Oswald switched her major to sociology and spent her junior year studying art in Vienna, Austria, at the Institute for European Studies. Later she received a Master’s in Education from Cambridge College in Boston.
In 1976 Oswald relocated to Rainier Valley. Initially she worked as a community organizer for South End Seattle Community Organization. She moved onto a career as the disabilities director for several community colleges around the state. Oswald also spent time championing environmental causes as well.
“I feel in many ways my lack of vision has given me an opportunity to understand justice or the lack of justice issues in a way that, had I been fully sighted, I might not have an opportunity to experience,” Oswald said. “No one group should think they’re better than the next.”
Three years ago she returned to her artistic roots with the opening of MBNCA. Located just steps away from the Mount Baker light rail station, the space is more than a gallery for emerging artists. Oswald hosts classes and encourages those who think they can’t be an artist to try anyway.
“I want the mission of the gallery, which is ‘art for all,’ to be true,” Oswald said. “When people come in and they say, ‘Well I’m not an artist.’ I say, ‘Who told you that?’ They say ‘Oh my third grade teacher.’ I’m like, ‘Well she’s probably dead and gone, so let’s just throw that out and see what you can do.’”
When “Into Outsider Art” wraps up at the end of the month, work from the next show, “PLEASE TOUCH,” will be moved in. The show is interactive and will give visitors a tactile experience. The works are “arpilleras,” 3D textile pictures that originated in Chile. Under the regime of General Pinochet, female political prisoners used arpilleras to disguise notes to helpers on the outside. Some of the pieces in the show will be based on photos from the Womxn’s March in Seattle.
In the years to come, Oswald wants to continue her mission to provide a space for people of all abilities to come learn and express themselves, whether it’s visually, through written language or music. She wants the artists to be financially successful as well.
“I see it as a collective of artists of many ethnicities and many skills and many talents who start here and then this is like the nest. Then they get to go and fly,” Oswald said. “I can be a nurturer and encourager to get people to be able to make connections in the community so they can take their own creativity and expand it to the next level.”
WHAT: Mount Baker Neighborhood Center for the Arts
WHEN: "Into Outsider Art" runs until Sept. 29, "PLEASE TOUCH" begins Oct. 4
WHERE: 2919 Rainier Ave S., Seattle, open Wed. - Sat. 1:00 p.m - 6:00 p.m.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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