The Art and Life of Jessica Park



For the last six years, students of Dr. Tony Gengarelly, chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Department at MCLA, have studied art through the eyes of renowned Berkshires artist, Jessica Park, whose colorful and meticulously assembled drawings and paintings have earned both critical acclaim and national recognition. On March 1, a traveling exhibit of Park's work - curated by MCLA students - will continue its showings throughout the United States when it opens at Wheaton College in Norton, MA.

MCLA's association with Park began in 2004 when students organized an exhibition of her work for the College's 94 Porter Street Gallery. It was the catalyst for a multi-year educational endeavor as students study and promote Park's art.

Four years later, students in Gengarelly's "Topics in Art Management: Art Book" class published a 96-page book, Exploring Nirvana: The Art of Jessica Park, which highlights Park's career as an artist, as well as her lifelong struggle to overcome autism.

The book was launched in May 2008 at the first stop of the traveling show, "The Art and Life of Jessica Park," also organized by Gengarelly's students.  Since then, the exhibition has traveled to places such as Endicott College in Beverly, MA, the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, MI, and the Halle Library at Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, MI.

"It's exactly what we're trying to do," Gengarelly says of the Wheaton show. "The exhibition was meant to promote Jessy's art, to let others know what we are doing, and to promote our book that we created, Exploring Nirvana. We're connecting not only with Wheaton College, but the Groden Center in Providence, RI."

According to Dr. June Groden, director of the Groden Center, an autism research institute in Providence, R.I., Exploring Nirvana is "a student project with professional results." The exhibition at Wheaton College was spearheaded by Wheaton psychology professor Grace Baron, who conducts clinical work emphasizing the teaching of self control or self-management to persons with autism at the Groden Center.

At the exhibition's official opening on March 9, Gengarelly will present a talk about Park's art, looking at her work as a means to understand autism and creativity. He also will participate in a panel presentation about the exhibition. The day's events will conclude with an opening reception at 8 p.m., at Wheaton's Madeleine Clark Wallace Library.

The show will be on exhibition at Wheaton College through April 11.

What's next for the project? Gengarelly envisions some smaller exhibitions shown for shorter periods of time to be combined with workshops and educational outreach activities. This project will be the work of yet another group of his students this fall.

Exploring Nirvana continues to sell at a steady pace, Gengarelly says.  And, it appears as though the publication of yet another book is on the horizon. In fall 2009, another class created a children's picture book about Park, called The Very Tidy Baby.

"It comes from the fact that, Jessica as a very young child, given her disability, was always obsessed with order and neatness. A lot of that comes out in her art later on. That's the theme that was carried through the story," explains Gengarelly.

His students drew the pictures and wrote the text as they created their own story for young readers about Park. Gengarelly expects to publish the book later this year.

For more information on the Jessica Park project at MCLA and the exhibition at Wheaton College, go to JessicaPark and