Outsider Artists Find Freedom at Summertime Gallery in Brooklyn

Sophia Cosmadopoulos and Anna Schechter, who run Summertime Gallery in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, don’t write the press materials for their exhibitions. And when the women organize a show, they exercise little influence over the artwork on display, or even how the gallery looks. They are, by design, hands-off gallerists.

Housed in a 575 square-foot storefront tucked along a quiet residential street, Summertime is an art studio and gallery for artists with intellectual disabilities. In the broader art world, those who exhibit there might be categorized as self-taught “outsider artists,” and indeed several have shown at the Outsider Art Fair, but categories of all kinds are avoided at Summertime, which is the point.

“We’re trying to break down the barriers that have traditionally made these artists outsiders,” Ms. Cosmadopoulos said.

“We follow the lead of the artists,” added Ms. Schechter. “Some identify as a disabled artist and some don’t. The artists define themselves.”

Ms. Cosmadopoulos, 36, and Ms. Schechter, 38, do the traditional work of promoting their artists and introducing them to collectors. But their role might best be described as vision fulfillment, and in that way, they are hands on. When Vincent Jackson, a San Francisco-based painter, requested a red carpet for the opening of his solo show at Summertime last November, Ms. Cosmadopoulos and Ms. Schechter rolled one out.

To inspire Michael Pellew, whose sculptures, drawings and paintings are informed by his love of heavy metal, Ms. Cosmadopoulos took him to a Megadeth concert, where they ended up in the mosh pit together.

Summertime’s current solo exhibition, “One in a Millien,” which runs through April 10, features the work of Dean Millien, who makes sculptures of objects, figures and especially animals from aluminum foil.

Ms. Cosmadopoulos and Ms. Schechter founded Summertime in 2019, having both worked at similar spaces for artists with disabilities, like Creativity Explored in San Francisco, Bomb Diggity Arts in Portland, Me., and LAND Studio & Gallery in Brooklyn. Such programs have existed since the 1970s, and are often funded through Medicaid and defined by diagnosis. Ms. Cosmadopoulos and Ms. Schechter wanted to spin that model in a new way, bringing artists out of a siloed world and integrating them into mass culture. For instance, Summertime holds studio hours where artists with and without disabilities create alongside each other.

In March 2020, Ms. Cosmadopoulos and Ms. Schechter launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Summertime, which seemed like terrible timing amid a pandemic, but turned out to be fortuitous. They surpassed their fund-raising goal, and with available studio space during the lockdowns, they launched a residency program to give artists the time and space to focus on their work, and on their own terms. The residency often culminates in a show to sell the artists’ work. (In addition, Summertime received a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation For the Visual Arts.)

For the past three months, Mr. Millien, 49, who lives in supportive housing in Bensonhurst, has been coming to Summertime four days a week, making more art during his residency than he had in years. On a recent afternoon, he sat working at a long table in the gallery, surrounded by his silvery foil animals — pigs, sheep, a turtle, a horse’s head, a mother gorilla holding her baby, in sizes ranging from miniature to nearly life-size.

Boxes of Reynolds Wrap lay on the table; Mr. Millien had gone through 33 by last count, including two boxes of extra-wide grilling foil. A closeout sale at a nearby supermarket had been a boon to his practice, and Ms. Cosmadopoulos and Ms. Schechter took him to the American Museum of Natural History to get ideas for how to display his foil animals in the gallery.

“When I was younger, everything I did was cartoons,” said Mr. Millien, whose work has been shown at LAND and at the J. Crew flagship store on Madison Avenue, and commands as much as $3,000 for a large-scale piece. “Now I’m more focused on realistic things. The more TV I watch, the more music I listen to, the more creative I am. I don’t like to be regular.”

While Ms. Cosmadopoulos and Ms. Schechter watched, Mr. Millien grabbed a fresh sheet. He crunched and molded it to make a tiny rabbit with almost effortless skill.

Because Mr. Millien likes dark-wave music and disco, Ms. Cosmadopoulos and Ms. Schechter painted the walls and floors of the gallery black, at his instruction, to make his work pop and suggest a nightclub vibe. They also surprised him with something that he had wished for.

“Look, Dean,” Ms. Cosmadopoulos said, pointing to a disco ball that would hang from the rafters.

In the release he wrote for his show, Mr. Millien instructed visitors to “imagine Noah’s Ark at a disco,” adding, “it’s going to be shiny, to say the least.”

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