Local artist to participate in new Frist Center Exhibit

Local artist to participate in new Frist Center Exhibit
He turned 51 earlier this month, but it was only recently that Bobby Swift uncovered a hidden talent. He always enjoyed drawing, but it wasn’t until others began recognizing his aptitude for art that he began pursuing it more ardently. “I noticed right away that he had more going for him as an artist,” says David Sheridan, of Martin, who is also an artist. “Just for fun, I thought, let’s do a self-portrait. He came up with a very nice likeness. It was surprising. When I saw that, I thought, well, let’s see what else he can do.” With the help of Sheridan and other staff at Community Developmental Services – a community-based program in Martin providing services for more than 150 people with developmental disabilities in Northwest Tennessee – Swift, who has Down Syndrome, began honing his skills. Today Swift’s talent has been acknowledged by several sources beyond the walls of CDS, most recently, and notably, by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. “The Artist’s Voice: An Exhibition Featuring Tennessee Artists with Disabilities,” began this past Friday, May 16, and runs through Sept. 14. Swift, who lives in a group home in Martin, learned earlier this year that one of his works would be included in the new Frist Center exhibit, along with 50 other paintings, prints, sculptures, digital art and documentary film created across the state by individuals with disabilities. LuWan Spivey, another CDS client, received an honorable mention for her submission. The chosen works, including Swift’s, were juried from over 400 submissions. “It’s a wonderful piece, and now it’s going to be in the Frist Center,” says Sheridan, a bit in awe. “I mean, I wish I had one in there,” he adds with a laugh. Last November Sheridan submitted five of Swift’s original artworks after reading about the upcoming exhibit in a magazine. The piece the Frist Center selected, a 30-by-36-inch acrylic painting on gessoed cardboard, has a special significance for Sheridan. “I was in the hospital, really ill, in 2002,” says Sheridan, who has worked at CDS the last eight years. “Bobby worked on this painting while I was in the hospital. My coworkers at the time told me that Bobby said he was doing the painting for me.” The painting is Swift’s largest, and has all aspects of his personality in it, including the Three Stooges, whom he loves, and a self portrait, says Sheridan. Swift also chose different colors than he normally uses – blues, purples, blacks – rather than the bright oranges, yellows and reds he was accustomed to. “It really meant a lot that that’s the one [the Frist Center] chose,” Sheridan says. But the Frist Center is not the first place to display Swift’s work. A prolific artist, Swift has created over 50 pieces of art since Sheridan first began working with him in 2001. Swift has participated in two exhibitions at the University of Tennessee at Martin, along with fellow CDS clients, and has done a solo show at Martin’s CE Weldon Public Library. Swift’s works have also been included in juried group shows at the Ice House Gallery in Mayfield, Ky. – three times – as well as the West Tennessee Regional Art Center in Humboldt. The first competition Swift entered at the Ice House Gallery, Swift’s piece got in, but Sheridan’s did not. “I went, ‘wow, okay,’” recalls Sheridan. Adding, “The Ice House had no idea. When they first met Bobby, they were surprised.” When asked directly about his art, and his success, Swift responds with a nod of understanding and a smile. “I do my own art,” he says. “I do my own work.” Then, he changes the topic to his birthday, or his parents. Pointing above he says, “My mom and dad are dead. They’re watching over me.” Perhaps more importantly than helping Swift discover his art, CDS has helped him find family. Swift first came to CDS almost 20 years ago. Although Swift has siblings out-of-state with whom he now regularly communicates, his family sort of “lost him” for some years after his parents died, says Linda Plunk, a longtime CDS staff member. Plunk recalls her first Christmas at CDS, in 1989. “All of our clients had places to go, either family, or respite, but Bobby didn’t have anybody.” Plunk talked it over with her family – if she was going to get involved in his life, she was going to do it with her whole heart – and they agreed to welcome Swift into their lives. Swift has spent every major holiday since with the Plunk family. “It just seemed natural to us, we had three sons, and Bobby fit right in,” Plunk says. Swift’s “family” – Sheridan, Plunk, and several other CDS staff members – were there to support him once again this past Saturday, when the Frist Center held its opening reception for all the participants of the exhibit. “We are just really proud of Bobby,” says Plunk. “This time one of our ‘special’ people will be recognized as special for something he has accomplished, not only for who he is.”

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