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Disabled Artists’ Work Graces Kennedy Center

Visitors to the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States will find themselves face to face with life-sized puppets, stunning blocks of color and a new way to picture D.C.

Artists with disabilities created these large-scale installations for the center’s three-week celebration for the 50th anniversary of the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

VSA — the International Organization on Arts and Disability — commissioned three studios around the country that work primarily with artists who have mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities to create works for the exhibition.

VSA Director of Visual Arts Jennifer Wexler said the organization, which was founded by JFK’s sister and former Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, wanted the visual arts show to celebrate JFK’s legacy as a champion of disability rights. In particular, she said, Kennedy’s landmark 1963 signing of legislation addressing mental illness and intellectual disabilities inspired the concept.

“VSA was looking to contribute in a way that really highlighted President Kennedy’s legislation,” she said. “During his presidency, he consistently upheld the rights of people with disabilities. Since we’re an arts organization, we wanted to pay tribute to this through three large-scale installations.”

“Diverse Design” comes from D.C.-based studio Art Enables and highlights the District with a vivid backdrop depicting iconic sites. The installation also features an eclectic mix of paintings, pottery and decorated furniture. A three-part sculptural installation, “Finding the Way to Balance,” tackles the subject of bipolar disorder with large panels painted in stark, solid colors. And a multimedia display showcases 10-foot paintings and giant puppets to explore the artists’ theme, “Sticky Situations.”

The artists completely designed and directed the commissioned pieces, Wexler noted.

“The Kennedy Center Hall of States is a very large space, and we wanted to conceptualize something that wouldn’t get lost.

“These are important pieces, and it’s a grand space,” Wexler said. “We told the studios to think big.”

The exhibition, located in the Hall of States, is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. through Feb. 13.