When Mara Clawson was an 11-year-old summer camper at their neighborhood JCC, the family went to an end-of-session art show that Mara had a piece of work in.
“You looked at the picture,” Mara said to her mother, Michelle, “and thought whoever made this, they’re very lucky. My counselor came to them and said ‘Are you kidding? This is Mara’s art!”
Mara went from being the one inclusion camper at that art camp at the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., to be the focus of the documentary Living Art, which is being screened on Feb. 21, as part of Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. The event is free and you can register for it here. After the screening, there will be a Q&A with Mara, her parents, and David Rochkind, the film’s director.
“We were able to bring this in at a time where there’s no boundaries or state lines,” said Stacey Spencer, the inclusion program manager JFCS Minneapolis. “One of the things that really got to me was this is an example of when the Jewish community supports the Jewish community. She was a camper that created these masterpieces, and it’s because she was in an environment that supported it.
“One of the goals of JDAIM is that Mara’s not identified by her disability; her identifying feature is her love and her artwork and not her disability. It was so tangible and it shines through.”
Mara was “discovered” for the film at Art Enables, the Washington, D.C. art gallery and vocational arts program which creates opportunities for artists with disabilities to make, market, and earn from their art.
“At the beginning, I didn’t set out to do a film,” said Rochkind. He had been invited to a show at Art Enables and was taken by the organization. “I wasn’t burned out by client work, but I was looking for something I wanted to do. I thought I’d do a 90-second short talking to an artist that they could use” as promotional material.
“The first question I asked was ‘why do you make art?’ She said ‘To make people happy,” Rochkind said. “That was fairly profound to me. She’s very charismatic, engaging, and smart.”
Mara, who just turned 29, was born with Familial Dysautonomia, a rare condition that affects the development and survival of certain nerve cells in the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions such as breathing, production of tears, and the regulation of blood pressure and body temperature.
“If my blood pressure is too high or I feel dizzy, I lay down or I need to drink lots of water,” Mara said of how the disease affects her. “And sometimes I get sick, like throwing up and stuff. But I take (medicine) at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime.”
Michelle Clawson said that the film has helped open many doors for Mara.
“Last February 2020, Mara was flown down to Houston by Jewish Family Services of Houston and it was like the red carpet,” Michelle said. “Mara was on television. And the Celebration Company had an art show featuring Mara’s artwork along with work done in their amazing program for artists that happen to have disabilities too.”
A year earlier when the film was at the ReelAbilites Film Festival, Michelle said there was an art exhibition and sale at the Allouche Gallery in New York, which raised $90,000 for the Familial Dysautonomia Foundation from the sale of Mara’s art and other artists who also have FD.
Mara’s home studio is filled with framed paintings — as is much of the rest of the family’s Bethesda, Md., home. She creates both on paper as well as digital works on an iPad which can then be printed onto many different materials: paper, metal, fabric, and recently, a piece of vegan leather.
Rochkind said that the film finished shooting in 2017, and he spent 9 months editing the footage for the 31-minute documentary. The film was released in 2018 and did the festival circuit, which would have — in a normal world — finished last year. Coronavirus pushed some festivals to this year.
The film follows Mara as she prepares for her first solo art show at the Goldman Gallery in the Bender JCC of Greater Washington. Rebecca Hoffberger, who founded the American Visionary Art Museum, visited the exhibition and appears in the film talking to Mara and about Mara’s artwork.
“What a sweet soul that did this work,” Hoffberger said while looking at Mara’s work. “You can feel the basic goodness coming through the imagery. I don’t care about disability when selecting art. I’m looking for how much of the person is really revealed in their work. Whenever you can find people who are so authentically themselves that’s a huge gift.”