A very special show at SAM: Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation artists show self-portraits in Seattle

Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation program director Bryana Deits helps Simon Shaffer put the finishing touches on one of the 15 fused glass self portraits that BISNF will display at the Seattle Art Museum starting this week.  - Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review
Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation program director Bryana Deits helps Simon Shaffer put the finishing touches on one of the 15 fused glass self portraits that BISNF will display at the Seattle Art Museum starting this week.
— image credit: Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review

Why do humans create art?

For what reason did our ancestors — who were plenty busy hunting, gathering and trying not to get eaten by giant Saber-toothed cats and whatnot — make the time to draw on cave walls and carve intricate showpieces out of stone?

While modern man may have the luxury of time and freedom to create pretty things, that was clearly not always the case. The desire to create art has withstood terrible wars, barbarous dictatorships, natural disasters and, in fact, these events often foster a greater quality of creation.

The truth is, when you strip away the ideas that surround art — the auctions, galleries, fame, scrutiny, hype and academic analysis — humans create art because it makes them feel good.

One particular exhibit demonstrates this, one of the most basic tenants of humanity, better than most.

Beginning Friday, Aug. 1, the Community Corridor Gallery on the first floor of the Seattle Art Museum will showcase 15 self-portraits made out of fused glass by the clients of the Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation.

The portraits are set on 14-inch-by-14-inch tiles and assembled out of repurposed glass pieces in countless shapes and colors. The material and instruction was provided by Gregg Mesmer and Diane Bonciolini of Mesolini Glass Studio.

“Mesolini learned of BISNF through [program director] Bryana Deits and has been doing workshops with the participants to create small sellable ornaments, sun catchers, art pieces for sale,” explained BISNF volunteer spokeswoman Cara Thompson.

“They have donated all the materials, their skills and their immeasurable time and given BISNF all the flexibility to benefit from these artworks,” Thompson said. “They love to work with the clients and continue to forge the individual relationships with each participant. It is important to learn the idiosyncrasies of the participants to help bring out their best work. Diane and Gregg really know BISNF clients well and the clients enjoy working with them. The fused glass is a good medium as well for its bright colors and accessibility.”

Bonciolini recalled the participants’ excitement during their early visits to the studio.

“They’re absolutely delightful and wonderful people,” the glass artist said. “The director in the fall brought them in for a field trip. It was so successful and everyone had so much fun, including ourselves.”

“This just seemed like a really good way that maybe they can make some interesting glass pieces and maybe sell them to make money for the facility,” Bonciolini added.

After the first few creation sessions, the possibility of larger projects was discussed. Eventually, the artists would make Christmas and Valentine’s Day ornaments and Mother’s Day gifts at the studio.

The program participants took to the idea of a larger project with gusto even before the idea of an exhibition was brought up, Thompson said.

“The participants at BISNF are all very unique and creative,” she said. “This event means something different to all of them. What I do see though is the pride in their gesture and in their smiles when they bring in their parents, friends, and caretakers to see the work they have created. They will finish making a work of art and hold it up with a grin over and over again. The lack of inhibition and the ability to share themselves without condition is what inspires me to work with them.”

The portraits themselves run the gamut of highly abstract and stylized to more realistic — one was even very careful to include eye glasses — but all of them reflect the genuine joy of the creative process.

“Each person started with a tile, donated by a glass company we work with quite often,” Bonciolini explained. “We personally cut the tiles, found the arcs that were the appropriate size to be the main head shape. That gave the participants a parameter as to where the head was. Then everybody gathered, we had them around the table, and we just kind of took it step by step. We started with a nose, I said find a color and a shape that you like. Then a mouth, then eyes.”

Creating the art, as it turns out, was actually the easiest part of organizing the show. But a proper venue, Thompson said, proved rather elusive at first.

“We all had this desire to share the artwork, and I started to visit local galleries to inquire about space,” she explained. “But I was turned down multiple times. At one gallery, in fact, I was told that ‘We only take real artists here.’ This statement, although disheartening, inspired me to seek out venues beyond Bainbridge — like SAM — where BISNF participants go regularly for field trips.”

At the Seattle museum, the artwork was well received almost immediately.

“SAM was hesitant at first because the Community Corridor Gallery in the past had only been used for kids art,” Thompson said. “I showed them some samples, and they were quite excited to have the work displayed. Everyone is excited to see them in the gallery all together.”

Proceeds from all art sale fundraisers go to benefit continuing programs and activities at BISNF.

BISNF, also known as “Stephens House,” was first established in 2002. The program operates a weekday program for young adults with developmental disabilities, focusing on quality of life enhancements. Planned activities include field trips, swimming and daily exercises, art projects, computer learning, and small work contracts for local businesses. The facility is located at 191 Winslow Way West.

For more information, visit

“Bainbridge needs a place like Stevens House,” Bonciolini said. “Bainbridge is lucky to have a place like Stevens House.”

To learn more about Mesolini Glass Studio, and their various projects and events, visit

The Seattle Art Museum is located at 1300 First Ave. There is no charge to enter the Community Corridor Gallery, located on the first floor, which is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday.

“We are really looking forward to our upcoming show in our Community Corridor Gallery where we will feature artwork from the participants of the Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation,” said SAM spokeswoman Wendy Malloy.  The show coincides with SAM’s “Modernism in the Pacific Northwest” exhibition, Malloy said, which remains on view through Sept. 7.

Island artists at SAM

What: Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation art show.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays from Friday, Aug. 1 to Saturday, Sept. 9.

Where: The Community Corridor Gallery on the first floor of the Seattle Art Museum (1300 First Ave.).

Admission: There is no charge to enter this portion of the SAM.


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