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Arts & Culture

Is It Harder For Houston’s Disabled Artists To Make A Living?

The term, “starving artist” remains popular for a reason: It’s difficult to make a living in the arts. Now, imagine having to overcome a disability to pursue your passion. A group in Texas recognizes that challenge and is helping people overcome it.


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photo of Lau
Una Lau lost her eyesight five years ago and picked up woodworking. "It's very therapeutic as a disabled person," Lau says.

artist Manier
Grant Manier with his mom, Julie. "I always say Grant came into this world first to teach me about autism, and then I had to learn about art, and now I'm learning about business. So, he came for a purpose," Julie says.

Ron Hull says he's been a writer his entire life. Before voice dictation software became available, he typed everything with one finger. His works include fiction, poetry, and his autobiography, Hanging by a Thread. "I don't write about disability," he says. " I find that disabled writers that I run into tend to write about their disability — and that seems like that's all they can write about. With me, I wrote my story because people wanted to know what it was."

Brian Dodd is an autistic artist whose playful paintings bear clever titles like Cakenstein and Accordion Legs Willie. "It started as a hobby, but when one of my paintings sold for $200, I just decided to make more paintings to sell," he says.

Una Lau sits at her table and smiles as people stop to look at the display of wooden music boxes in front of her. They're built from smooth, light pine and have little shiny brass hinges. On the lids, words like "Hope" and "Love" are written on them, both in regular text and braille. When Lau says she's the one who made them, she can't see the surprised expressions on the peoples' faces.

That's because she's blind.

"So when I'm doing woodworking, I would be like totally concentrated, 100 percent," Lau says. "So, it's very therapeutic as a disabled person."

Lau isn't alone when it comes to using art as therapy, and that's been well-documented for years. However, can it also turn into a career for some? Or at least generate some extra cash to help pay the bills?

We headed to a recent expo at NRG Center to find out. The Abilities Expo has any and everything servicing the disabled, from state-of-the-art custom vehicles, to workshops for caregivers.

There's also an artist market, featuring six Houston-area artists with various disabilities. That's where we found Grant Manier, a 19-year-old with autism.

Manier is an eco-artist — he takes recycled paper, tears it up into tiny pieces, and creates vibrantly-colored, impressionistic collages. His subjects include peacocks, horses, and water lilies.

"I've been doing this for more than five years now," Manier says, after talking about one of his pieces to a couple of people at his booth. They'd stopped to ask if he really tears every single scrap of the paper he uses. "The first year started out as a homeschool art project and then the next four years, it was all a business right after."

The business has become so successful that Grant's mom Julie was able to quit her tutoring job and step into the role as his manager. Now, his work takes them across the country for art shows and gallery exhibitions.

The expo's artist market is an initiative by VSA Texas. They work as advocates for disabled artists by finding opportunities to display their pieces. They also have a broad definition of what qualifies someone as being disabled, ranging from autism and depression to people who are quadriplegic, blind, or deaf.

The organization's April Sullivan says their mission is to help give these artists more exposure than they otherwise may not have.

"We do help them branch out if they want to show their work in other venues," Sullivan says. "I mean, their art's their art, so it should be able to be in any venue where art is shown."

So, how easy for it for them to get into those other venues — and ultimately, get more exposure?

"I think it's becoming more and more common," says Houston arts consultant Lea Weingarten.

Her art advisory firm's clients range from those with private collections to corporations. She's helped several international artists with special needs earn large-scale commissions.

"It's a really terrific question and I think it's a very current question," she adds.

Weingarten agrees that taking some of these artists out of the box labeled "disabled " and putting them with the rest of the creative community could, in turn, lead to more opportunities — and a better chance of making money as an artist.

But then again, sometimes the story behind the artist is the story of the art. Some would argue that there's a fine line between the two. Just look at Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's self portrait of herself in a wheelchair.

"I think it's really almost impossible to unlink an artist from an artist's work," Weingarten says. "When you come upon a work of art that you admire and like, then learn that the artist had a disability, it's obviously more impressive and interesting."

After all, how many music boxes have you come across that have been created by a blind woodworker?

This story originally aired and was posted online on August 17, 2015.