Labor of Love in the Valley

Assistant film and video professor Daniel Labbato felt inspired when he heard about Bill Richards, a retired artist who was teaching disabled people how to paint. His documentary, “Changing Identities: A Story of Traumatic Injury and Art,” originally began as a nine minute video showing the conditions that the art was made in to go along with a gallery show of all the artists’ work.

Labbato and the promoters of the art show thought the accompanying video was important because the artwork was so impressive and one would not necessarily know it was created by disabled people.

“When you see people painting with the brush in their mouth you can see the intricacy of it,” Labbato said. “You see people in wheelchairs and you see all this encumbrance, you really realize what an achievement this art is.”

After the artwork presentation, Labbato used the nine minute movie to generate more interest and get the ball rolling for a “more full-blown 60 minute documentary.” The Communication and Media Department will be showing this documentary narrated by Meryl Streep on Tuesday, April 26 in Lecture Center 102 at 6 p.m.

The 2006 documentary, which was shown on PBS, follows four patients involved in this form of art therapy at The Art Studio at the Northeast Center for Special Care in nearby Lake Katrine. The protagonists include Pat Gardner, a woman who endured brain trauma after a car accident, Erich Miethner, a musician who was left a quadriplegic after a freak accident, Tusay, a former carpenter and poet who had a stroke and Jurgen Blank, who developed brain tumors from agent-orange exposure.

Labbato chose to focus on these people because they were the ones who really wanted to speak to him at first and were frequently in the studio, very engaged in their art. Their art process is unique in that Richards does not give assignments, suggest ideas, give criticism or teach much technique. Instead, he allows them to work as they please in the studio, which is open all day.

The film also touches upon the flaws in our health care system and how this art program works in a different and beneficial way.

“It’s this idea that even if you’re 24 or 25 years old, what happens when you get a brain injury?” Labbato said. “What happens is even if you have insurance, after your insurance is done which is basically 100 days, you have 100 days to get well. Well, a brain injury is a lifelong affliction, then what?”

He continued by saying that if your family cannot afford the intense care needed at home, you are put into an institution that is basically an old age home. He sees this as “a real travesty” because at that point they give up on therapies. However, the Northeast Center believes in giving people more and more therapy that would last for years.

“This art program was designed to do that, to give them a new sense of themselves, a new identity,” Labbato said. “To move them through years of ‘you know what, I can get better at this,’ ‘you know what, people are saying this is really good,’ ‘you know what, now I’m an artist and I can think of myself like that.’ It’s really the image of ourselves that gives us our self-esteem and tells us what we can and cannot do.”

Making the documentary was a major undertaking for Labbato, requiring three years of work. During the creation of the film Labbato held other jobs and was also in graduate school for part of the production. At this time, the documentary was not even a part of his graduate studies.

“I had a whole other agenda for graduate school, so Changing Identities was really a labor of love,” Labbato said. “I was sort of doing it on the side and using my summers and extra time I had to work on it.”

While Labbato had to devote so much time and effort to the documentary, it ended up for the better as he was able to see his four central characters progress throughout the three years of shooting. Labbato aimed to show the struggles the patients dealt with and where they wound up.

“If the promise of what art can do for somebody is true, then you can actually show it because it’s something that takes time,” Labbato said. “It’s a process and how people evolve over time.”

Changing Identities is just one highlight of Labbato’s work as he has been in the film and video business for 20 years and has had a variety of experiences over the span of his career. He has worked on a wide range of documentaries and was a television editor at PBS for 10 years. The professor believes that this wealth of industry experience has positively impacted his teaching.

“This practice of being in film and being an editor, now that I’m a professor, has given me an opportunity to kind of reflect back on the process and look at the theory and history that involves the documentary process and to be able to analyze that,” Labbato said. “So that’s how it’s informed me to think about: What is an image? What is a document? What is a perception?”

Labbato is appreciative and grateful for the chance to present his documentary on campus and to the community for free. He felt strongly about the opportunity to show the film here due to New Paltz’s proximity to the subject of the documentary.

“This film was made right here in the Hudson Valley and the painter who teaches them how to paint is a local artist,” he said. “So it’s nice to have local people see what’s being done around them.”