Disabilities Don’t Deter Spindleworkers

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 14, 2001

The sign on Theresa LaBrecques loom reads Incredible Worker Award. Its been hanging there for quite a while, but it still makes the 42-year-old weaver beam her million-watt smile. Sometimes when I get up, I dont want to come to work, she admits. But then I see all the faces here, and its just glowing. Its nice to be wanted.

LaBrecque is one of nearly 30 artists whose talents are definitely wanted every day at Spindleworks, a nonprofit cooperative for the developmentally disabled in Brunswick, Maine. People who would have been shuttered awaymany of LaBrecques older co-workers were once institutionalizedare today a vibrant part of Brunswicks art scene. Theyve published two books of poetry and exhibited their paintings and wall hangings in galleries.

We are surpassing what anybody expected, says Spindleworks director Charlie Buck, herself an artist, jeweler, and writer. It comes from them coming to work, having a strong work ethic, and seeing this is not a workshop but a real art studio.

Spindleworks opened in the late 1970s as a weaving studio and an arm of the Independence Association of Brunswick (pop. 15,000), founded to help people with disabilities following the court-ordered closing of a state home for mentally disabled citizens.

Located just off Maine Street, the Spindleworkers quickly won a following for their fanciful wearable artbrilliantly colored jackets, vests, dresses, and hats. Over the years, the studio expanded to include painting, drawing, and poetry. This year, Spindleworks opened a second location where artists make whimsical wood sculptures.

To a large extent, Spindleworkers are like workers anywhere. They are expected to show up Monday through Friday and to produce a prescribed amount of work depending on their abilities. They receive 75 percent of the proceeds when their art sells; the rest is channeled back into the program. Away from the studio, some of the artists live independently in their own apartments. Others live in group homes or with family.

These guys are working artists first, last, and foremost, says Stephanie Levy, one of six staff members, all artists in their own right, who assist and collaborate with the Spindleworkers. They come here with their own ideas and inspirationand, sometimes, lack of inspirationjust like anyone else in the world.

Visitors stop in frequently to shop or just to soak up the energy. The artists work at looms or tables on two floors of the ramshackle old house that serves as the main studio, and every available surface overflows with art in progress. Most striking are the poetry quilts, handsome patchworks of woven and painted fabric with poetry, written on scraps of cloth, layered over all.

The artists are matter-of-fact about their disabilities, which include impaired communication, learning, and motor skills. They also are refreshingly confident about their work. Betty, thats gorgeous! Betty Pinette, 61, often exclaims as she works on her Picasso-inspired nudes. She isnt the only one who thinks so. Bettys a wonderfully talented artist, Buck says. She could actually make a living from her work. Pinette says art keeps her young. Because I like it, she explains simply.

With a touch of sadness, Terri Bonin, a young woman with owlish glasses and a fringe of bangs, remembers being teased in school and says her family used to help her shower and brush her teeth. Today, Bonin is a working artist who takes care of herself. She has been commissioned to make logos for several businesses, most recently a sausage maker. Bonin describes the sausage logo as a sun or moon. When Buck says it reminds her of a smiling hot dog, Bonin grins broadly. Oh, I could write a poem about this, she says.

In whatever medium they choose, the artists uninhibited expressions are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and often insightful. All are powerful reminders that people are limited only by what they believe. Poet Rita Langlois puts it this way:


I heard about it

but I aint got it now.