I first saw Renee’s paintings on the walls of a local coffee shop. Her abstract designs reveal a sophisticated use of color theory and a fondness for circular, arcing shapes. In the studio, she paints deliberately and purposefully, painting both on canvases and furniture. She’s caught the attention of an international art buyer, textile and design departments of large companies and local galleries.
Renee has Down syndrome, and for the past seven years she has made most of her art at Creative Work Systems in Saco as part of the YES Art Works program. Mary Jo Marquis, who manages the program, says the program is part of a blossoming initiative to integrate the art of people with disabilities into the contemporary art world.
Note: Renee’s interview was assisted by her mentor, Jen Davis, who works with the artists in the YES Art Works program and has been working with Renee since 2008.
TELL ME ABOUT WHAT YOU LIKE TO PAINT
I’m going to paint that bird. I painted the eagle, the parrot.
Jen- She loves birds and eagles. Always inspired by them. She made a lot of sculptures out of paper maché.
What did we give you a ton of to paint? What are you working on right now?
A stool. A table. A bureau. And mirrors.
And what do you paint all over those things?
Jen- You usually go and get a stack of magazines.
I get ideas, like flowers.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU BEGAN PAINTING?
I can’t remember. Probably in high school, at Thornton Academy, my school. I did painting in grade school. When I was really little I did painting my mom or sister. Finger painting.
TELL ME ABOUT WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED PAINTING HERE AT CREATIVE WORK SYSTEMS?
Jen- Yes, we started the art program around then. That was 2008. We’re going into our 7th year. The one thing you notice about Renee is whenever she starts painting, she’s just prolific. She can just go go go go go and you’ve got this beautiful design. And she can do it over and over and over. You do big things and small things…but she’s got this style that just keeps repeating itself.
WHEN YOU’RE PAINITNG HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT COLORS TO USE?
A bit of blue or red or green, the right colors. I pick red.
WHAT DO YOU FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU’RE PAINTING?
I get happy.
Jen- You get very happy!
WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING IN MAGAZINES, WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU FIND SOMETHING THAT YOU THINK IS REALLY COOL THAT YOU WANT TO PAINT?
I can paint trees.
YOU HAVE YOUR PAINTINGS IN GALLERIES. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO SEE YOUR PAINTINGS ON THE WALLS?
Oh yeah. Yes, you’re right. I saw my picture that I paint. Some of them have sold. That makes me happy. I want to get paid! I like my check in the mail.
YOU’RE A WORKING ARTIST!
Jen- I know, that’s really lucky because a lot of artists don’t get paid for what they do and they just keep doing it and doing it and doing it.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE COLOR OR SHAPE TO USE?
Blue, red and green. A bit of white. White paint. And I like to make circles.
Jen- You’re mostly round-y. Round shapes, definitely very fluid, round-y.
TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF YOUR FRIENDS THAT YOU PAINT WITH HERE
Joyce, Tina and Donna.
Jen- She’s been part of this Thursday morning group for a long time. She’s added other blocks of art during the week but this has been a regular for a long time since we’ve started. It used to be just women but always these core four: Joyce, Donna, Renee and Tina.
I NOTICED THAT SOME PEOPLE ARE DOING ART OTHER THAN PAINTING. SOME PEOPLE ARE WEAVING ON LOOMS, FOR EXAMPLE. DO YOU EVER TRY DIFFERENT TYPES OF ART OTHER THAN PAINTING?
I do painting. I use balloons. Yes, I’ve done sewing, stitching. Embroidery.
Jen- You use tape a lot.
Jen- She’s addicted to tape.
I made that big sculpture up there.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT PAINTING?
I can find happy.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE HAPPIER WHEN YOU’RE PAINTING THAT WHEN YOU’RE DOING OTHER THINGS?
WHEN YOU’RE NOT PAINTING DO YOU GET IDEAS FOR YOUR PAINITNGS?
Jen- Seems like you never run out of ideas. You always want to keep going.
SO WHEN YOUR MORNING ENDS, YOU WANT T KEEP PAINTING AND YOU DON’T WANT TO LEAVE?
Yes. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I go home at 3:30. And on weekends, me and my mom go out to lunch, shopping and go to Target. I buy office supplies. I have a desk at home. And I buy paper. I like paper clips. And pens. Sometimes I paint at home, but most of the time I paint here.
WHAT KIND OF PROJECTS DO YOU LIKE BEST?
I like doing bigger projects. Yes. This sculpture, that one too.
Jen- She started doing just small paintings when I was working with her and then I found a bureau that we dragged up here and she just went to town on it!
WHEN YOU MAKE YOUR ART, WHAT DO YOU HOPE WILL HAPPEN TO IT?
I want to paint things blue. I want to paint the eagle sculpture red and white and put it on the ceiling.
Jen- I think it should go to New York City. I think a bird exhibit with all these birds hanging down. She found every roll of tape in the building to make that sculpture. There were about 20 rolls of tape.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Oh yes, Mike- On Sunday, Mike and I go to my house, play Uno.
Jen- Mike is her boyfriend.
My boyfriend is important to me.
Jen- They were high school sweethearts at Thornton Academy. And he comes here too.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
I’m grateful for my mom, my sister, I’m grateful for my brother, my two brothers, I’m grateful for my father, he’s in heaven.
Jen- Her father passed away last year. Renee, your family’s very strong. Very, very tight.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
Hmm. Sometimes getting up in the morning is challenging. Yes. I don’t want to get dressed. I want to go back to bed. I like routine. I work in the workshop on different jobs.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE DAY?
My Fridays. My paycheck. I get pizza in the kitchen. We make pizza.
WHAT IS A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING RIGHT NOW?
When I get older, I get happy! I think you get better, yes. I like my friends, I like my bosses and my cell phone.
Jen- Renee, you have more responsibility now you’re older. You have more stuff; you didn’t have a cell phone at Thornton Academy, did you? So you have more things, you’re like an adult. You have your desk at home. You and mom just moved to a new apartment, right, new house. And your room, don’t you have a lot of stuff that you painted in your room? And your mom is so awesome because she says, “let’s get this for Renee’s room.” Everything that you do…you’re an artist, you’re living in your artist room, that’s pretty cool.
HOW DO YOU MAKE ALL THESE BEAUTIFUL ART PIECES?
Hmm. I can’t remember.
Jen- It’s a gift.
Jen- You just have a natural gift. You’re a great artist.
Yes, you’re right!