Thursday, April 26, 2012



Gallery U benefits those with traumatic brain injuriesRobert Lach’s recent installation art piece “American Tourister” features deconstructed suitcases suspended from the ceiling, separated by floating nests and surrounded by hanging toy birds. Although not obvious at first, the unusual work was inspired by Lach’s childhood experience of growing up with a disabled parent.

Because his mother had a brain tumor, his family frequently moved from the home of one relative to another in search of additional assistance, which he represented in his piece with the nests, which symbolize home, along with the birds and the suitcases, which were meant to represent migration.
The West Orange artist also had his mother’s struggle in mind when he decided to collaborate with art space and boutique Gallery U. With locations in Red Bank and Montclair, Gallery U is an extension of the Universal Rehabilitation Institute, an organization with branches in Long Branch and Livingston that has been assisting adults with traumatic brain injuries for more than 25 years.
“Growing up with a disabled parent, I can really connect with this organization,” Lach says.
His work has been displayed in the Red Bank and Montclair art galleries with “American Tourister,” which was on display recently at the Red Bank gallery.
The galleries typically have an art show each month and also host poetry readings and musical events.
Each art show at both Gallery U locations features art by regional artists, both upcoming and established, as well as pieces created by those with traumatic brain injuries as part of the Universal Rehabilitation Institute’s art therapy programs. A portion of the proceeds from every piece of art sold goes to fund the institute’s many rehabilitation programs.
Artists whose work has been shown at the Red Bank gallery include JP Valderrama of Edison, Kathy Polenberg of Long Branch, Laura Brunetti of Ocean Township, Ben Danzi of Rumson, Lauren Curtis of Somerset, Alan Barnett of Asbury Park and New York and Bridget Errante of Nutley. Artists whose work has been featured at the Montclair gallery include Kenji Hasegawa of Scotch Plains, Mike Ferrari of Montclair, Jay Wilson of Newark and Jada Fabrizio of Maywood. Art created by Universal Rehabilitation Institute’s disabled clients always remains anonymous when it is presented as part of a Gallery U show.

Affordable art

All the pieces in Gallery U exhibits are priced under $500 in order to make art more affordable for people of average means, says Red Bank Gallery U coordinator Robert Langdon. Many artists dropped their prices specifically to be part of the galleries’ shows because they believe in the organization’s mission to help those with brain injuries, he says.
Artist Eileen Kennedy of Red Bank submitted a watercolor painting of a women looking into a mirror to the Red Bank Gallery U’s show “Awakenings.” The painting was significantly smaller than her normal work in order to be able to keep her asking price under $500.
“I think it makes sense in this economy to offer cheaper art,” Kennedy says. “It gets people to collect who might not otherwise do so. I think that is great, and I am happy to support it.”
Both locations also serve as vocational training programs for clients of the Universal Rehabilitation Institute. The institute employs its clients in the galleries doing inventory, working the register, responding to requests and performing whatever other jobs they are able to do. The clients are paid for this work. Working in the art galleries gives those with traumatic brain injuries a sense of purpose, Langdon says.
“We want to give them a sense of being back to work,” he says. “Most rehabilitation programs just sit people with brain injuries in front of the TV. We want to give them something different.”
Finding something different to stimulate and help heal those with traumatic brain injuries is also the purpose of the institute’s art therapy programs. Along with providing beautiful art to sell in the gallery, art therapy can help the clients communicate and deal with their disability, Langdon says.
“Art therapy can be used to release anxiety and emotions,” Langdon says. “You would be surprised by how people react when they create something, especially those who have been through the issues our clients have. They don’t always think they can do it, so it is amazing to them when they create something.”


Much of the art created by the clients is done collaboratively with the assistance of an art specialist at Gallery U in Red Bank or at the rehabilitation centers in Livingston and Long Branch. Client-created art recently exhibited at the “Awakenings,” exhibit held at the Red Bank Gallery U, include a “Lake of Tranquility,” an oil-on-canvas abstract painting of a lake and trees in shades of green, red, black and tan, and “Positive Energy,” a mixed-media piece with textured colorful circles and partial circles appearing on a lime green backdrop. Both pieces were collaborative efforts by several of the organization’s clients.
This team effort can be comforting to those with traumatic brain injuries, says Jayne Rock-Gangale, the institute’s director of services.
“Being disabled can be isolating,” she says. “Working together in a group helps them overcome that.”
Art therapy also can reap physical benefits, Rock-Gangale says, as holding a paint brush or pencil can serve as occupational therapy and improve hand and muscle coordination.
Both the art therapy and the vocational training programs have the same end goal, Rock-Gangale says.
“It is all about getting people with disabilities back into our communities,” she says.

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