Meet some Creative Vision Factory artists
Contributor Larry Nagengast profiles some of artists who have come out of the Creative Vision Factory in its first decade.
Eliseo Gonzalez wanted to come in from the cold, to find a place that would ease the chill of homelessness.
Mary Makwach, disabled and homeless, needed somewhere to go during the day.
Knicoma Frederick had been painting on Rodney Square and along Fourth Street but he wanted to take his artwork indoors.
All three of them, and dozens more as well, have found their way to the Creative Vision Factory, a place artist Carl Bailey says is “like a social club. Anybody is invited to join, and the only price they have to pay is just respect everybody there.”
Here are the stories of some of the artists whose lives have taken a positive turn through their affiliation with the Creative Vision Factory, a program created in 2011 as an outgrowth of a settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the state to improve and increase the number of state programs for Delawareans with mental illnesses.
Mary Makwach, 29, a native of Kenya, came to the United States in 2016 when she received a scholarship for a five-week college summer program. A civil war broke out in her homeland, her visa was extended, she became pregnant and could not safely return home.
By November 2019, disabled and needing crutches to walk, Makwach was staying at the Salvation Army shelter in Wilmington with her then 3-year-old daughter. Out for a walk, she passed by the Creative Vision Factory, a couple of blocks from the shelter, “saw good stuff,” and was invited in by Michael Solomon, one of the CVF’s first artist members, who died early last year. “He said, ‘you want to visit? Come look around,” Makwach recalls.
Makwach says she had no art experience other than doing some embroidery while a high school student in Kenya. “I saw mosaics, I saw drawings. I said, ‘I can do this,’” she says.
Quickly learning the techniques, Makwach has become “an amazing mosaic artist,” CVF executive director Michael Kalmbach says. Several of her vases were sold through Brandywine Counseling’s annual online auction.
“I enjoy mosaic. I don’t have a job, so this keeps me busy. And I get some money when Michael sells it [for me],” she says.
She praises Kalmbach for the support he provides. “I don’t know many people like him. He does amazing things for the people who go there,” she says.
The stability Makwach has gained at CVF has helped her put her life in order. She’s now staying at the YWCA’s transitional housing and taking English as a Second Language classes at Delaware Technical Community College.
“I’m going to school, taking my daughter to daycare. I cook, I clean. I do all of this,” she says. “It’s everything I want.”
Knicoma Frederick, 41, a prolific artist who creates hundreds of works per year, says he “just showed up” at the Creative Vision Factory soon after it opened in 2011. “It gave me a place to chill out, to relate to people, to talk about art,” he says.
And when he needed supplies, he could always count on Kalmbach. “If I needed canvas, Michael had it. If I needed paint, he had it,” he says.
Frederick works in a variety of media, including colored pencil, marker and pen, crayon, acrylic, watercolor, and oil pastel.
He says he has perhaps 5,000 paintings and drawings in binders he calls his “art books,” and hopes that he and Kalmbach can find a way to digitize all those works into one massive file. Many of his pieces portray symbolic battles against the evils of violence and drugs. He sees his art as an antidote to physical violence.
“Once they see it, they’ll have something to relate to, pictures to keep them busy … and they’ll have no reason to fight,” he says. “I want to be the type of painter who can help people get through it.”
While that might seem ambitious, Frederick is already considered one of CVF’s first success stories, having had his work exhibited in Philadelphia, New York and Melbourne, Australia.
That recognition hasn’t translated into anything approaching financial stability for Frederick, but he’s grateful for the environment where he works. “Now, I’m around people who are interested in artwork,” he says.
Carl Bailey, who began making art in 1991, arrived at the Creative Vision Factory in February 2012, soon after Knicoma Frederick. His individual works are primarily landscapes, gardens, floral motifs and geometric abstraction, mostly in acrylic and watercolor, but he has been a regular participant in CVF’s public art projects, starting with the Kalmar Nyckel mural in 2013.
Blunt and straightforward, Bailey offers this personal assessment: “They say I have a mental illness, but my mental illness is that I deny having a mental illness.”
He acknowledges that he fits the “starving artist” profile. “I’m in it to make money, but that’s not happening,” he says.
But CVF has given him a sense of serenity that he hadn’t experienced before. “It’s comfortable. I fit in,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here for 10 years if I wasn’t getting something out of it.”
CVF, he says, “is the best education I ever had in learning about art.” More importantly, he adds, “it taught me to respect people.”
Even though he’s not a big fan of art therapy, he appreciates Kalmbach’s approach, using art to help the program’s clients overcome the demons in their lives. “People go there to get help,” Bailey says. “And they’re getting it. You can tell by the numbers who return.”
Eliseo Gonzalez once had regular work, first building automobile starters and operating a forklift for an auto parts and supplies company on South Market Street and later with Enterprise Flasher Co. By 2015, however, he was a 54-year-old out of work … and homeless.
Living outdoors, the summer days were too hot, the winter days too cold, so he needed a place to feel comfortable. He found the Creative Vision Factory. Lacking any art experience, “I started messing with the stuff, drawing and painting,” he recalls.
Soon he was drawn to clay, and there he found new life. “I can grab a couple of handfuls of clay and something pops into my head,” he says.
He describes his work simply and directly. “I made an angel a couple of weeks ago, an angel holding kids in his arms. I paint them. I give them color. That’s basically it,” he says.
Sometimes his ideas don’t pan out. “I tried to make a giraffe, but the clay was so soft that its head and neck kept tilting to the side, so I made it into a llama.”
The simplicity of Gonzalez’s work gives it an everyman’s appeal, and that caught the attention of Alex Baker, director of the Fleischer/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia, who included several of his figurines in exhibits he curated in Philadelphia and in Melbourne, Australia. (Works by Frederick and Gerardo Gonzalez, below, were also part of those exhibits.)
But Gonzalez harbors no illusions about making it big in the art world. He’s just enjoying his work and the knowledge that people appreciate his style.
“When people look at my work and like what I do, I love to see the smiles on their faces,” he says.
Gerardo Gonzalez, 33, the self-proclaimed “King of Transit,” is as reliable as the buses, commuter trains and subway cars he draws, and his works are as prolific as those vehicles are ubiquitous on an urban landscape. Gonzalez was one of the first artists to arrive at the Creative Vision Factory and it didn’t take long for Executive Director Michael Kalmbach to realize that his self-direction and passion would serve as a model for new clients at the drop-in art studio.
Gonzalez, who started drawing as a teenager, works mostly with colored pencil, creating unique depictions that reimagines cities in a vibrant, psychedelic way.
“My artwork is louder than words,” Gonzalez told University of Delaware professor Anne Bowler and Wilmington artist Nancy Josephson for an article the wrote for the Winter 2019 edition of Raw Vision, billed as “the world’s only international journal of outsider art.”
While at work, Gonzalez often plays a video with the sounds of bus engines to provide some background noise, and he told Bowler and Josephson that the engines’ hum makes him go faster, so he can complete a drawing in an hour and a half to two hours.
Gonzalez incorporates realistic detail into his fantastic landscapes, Bowler and Josephson wrote. “Buses fly or sit majestically in the foreground of technicolor landscapes, but they are often faithfully labeled with numbers and logos that situate them in the literal present.”
(For a look at some of the work of Creative Vision Factory artists, view the digital archive created for the CVF by University of Delaware art students.)