In honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act on July 26, Denver artist Javier Flores is working with Access Gallery and Pizzeria Locale to promote conversations about the challenges faced daily by people with disabilities.
Access Gallery, a nonprofit located at 909 Santa Fe Drive, creates economic and educational opportunities for young people with disabilities. Damon McLeese, the gallery's executive director, explains that the organization helps disabled students make and sell art through galleries, corporate commissions and more.
“Seventy percent of people with disabilities in this country are unemployed,” McLeese notes. “So that’s why we really focus our attention on economic opportunities.”
The gallery is not open for normal hours during the pandemic, so the nonprofit is finding ways to work around that, says McLeese. The group is selling individual artworks online and multiple pieces through the new Art in a Box initiative; classes are also being offered virtually.
Pizzeria Locale, a Colorado-based pizza company, has collaborated with Access Gallery since 2014, and currently has pieces of Access art commissioned in all three of its locations. Throughout July, Pizzeria Locale is promoting Access Gallery on Instagram and Facebook. And now, the pizza joints are creating 23,000 specialty boxes printed with art by Flores.
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Pizzeria Locale brand manager Chris Donato hopes the pizza-box art will catch the attention of customers, pique their interest and raise important questions — the kind he has been asking, about how he can make his company more accessible by doing things like making menus available in braille.
“I hope the boxes make people think for a moment about accessibility and how they can facilitate that on their personal end,” he says.
Flores, who was paralyzed in a shooting at age nineteen, has been teaching with the gallery since 2008. He started drawing when he was four and works with a wide range of mediums: painting, drawing, 3-D art and printmaking. He has mostly taught woodcutting workshops.
“I like it all,” he says. “I think it’s really important for an artist to be able to express themselves in the medium they choose.”
The art on the pizza box is based on a sketch that Flores did in 2012 titled “Really?” At the time, he was frustrated with the United States Senate's failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, an international human-rights treaty of the United Nations that requires parties “to promote, protect and ensure the rights of persons with disabilities.” Since the passage of the ADA, he argues, there has been a shocking amount of inaction to help people with disabilities.
The piece is in a cubist style, modeled after Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which depicts the 1937 German bombing of the small Basque village in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. “Guernica” is one of Picasso’s most recognizable works, and has become a symbol of resistance and a reminder of injustice in the world.
Flores’s work relates Picasso’s message of injustice to the modern challenges that people with disabilities run into, even after the passage of the ADA. There is braille writing in the piece that advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities in these conversations. It states: “Nothing about us without us.”
Since Flores created the piece eight years ago, it’s seen many iterations: Thirty student artists from Access helped paint it on a fourteen-foot canvas now hanging at the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation on Santa Fe; it was then painted on the Cherry Creek bike path, on the side of an ArtFindsUs truck; and now it is being put on thousands of pizza boxes.
In addition to the pizza-box project, Flores is also contributing to an Access Gallery event highlighting disability advocates throughout July. The event was initially supposed to be an in-person gallery showing, but now will be a hybrid show (with limited capacity, in-person viewing at the studio, as well as online through social media and Access’s website, launched on July 16).
Flores is making two acrylic portraits for the show: one of Wade Blank, who was the founder of ADAPT, a grassroots activist organization fighting for the rights of people with disabilities; and one of Stacey Milbern, a queer, mixed-race disability advocate who spoke up for disabled people of color. The artist spotlighted Milbern to show how disability crosses all borders, genders, races and sexualities. “For me, it was really important to have a little bit more diversity,” Flores says. “I wanted to change it up and show that we’re not all the same.”
Flores speaks about the discrimination he encounters on a daily basis. Sometimes, he says, ramps aren’t long enough or wide enough for him, and he feels he doesn’t have dating appeal. In extreme cases, he says that he gets handed change because he’s misconstrued as homeless, simply because he uses a wheelchair.
“It’s not always overt, and it’s not always attacking, but it can come in very subtle ways — like the way people talk to you a little slower, a little more elaborate…they dumb things down for you,” he says.
He hopes the art on the pizza boxes brings awareness to the plight of people with disabilities, even through acts as small as reaching out or doing a quick Google search. “I hope people can recognize their privilege and help those that don’t have that privilege,” he says. “It’s difficult. It's a hard road. It takes many people advocating for these things for them to be brought to life.”
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McLease believes that art has the power to change the depiction of people with disabilities. “We need to have people with disabilities not just getting in to see performances, but being on stage. We need to have people with disabilities not just getting into a building, but working inside that building,” he says.
The specialty boxes will be used through July. And on Sunday, July 26 — the day the ADA was passed —Pizzeria Locale will host a fundraiser, with 33 percent of all profits from pizza bought that day going back to Access Gallery to help artists. Donato says that people can walk in or place orders through their website.
“If people come out on Sunday, I’ll sign the boxes with pepperoni grease,” says Flores.
Buy pizza on July 26 at any Pizzeria Locale location in Denver, and 33 percent of profits will go to Access Gallery artists.