Artists brighten adult residence hall in Squirrel Hill


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When residents of Jason Kramer Hall walk through their newly refurbished space or gather in the recreation room, they are surrounded by artwork that transforms a HUD-subsidized building into a warm, welcoming home.

Kramer Hall, in Squirrel Hill, is home to 10 adults with intellectual disabilities. Residents go to work, drive, share Friday night dinners and live independently in their own apartments within the community they've known all their lives.

Six months after it opened, the walls are decorated with more than 60 professional-quality paintings, prints and photos by 17 local artists who answered the call of Lila Hirsch Brody, the exuberant artist/teacher who never takes no for an answer.

By way of thanks, the artists will be honored at a reception at Kramer Hall today.

Ms. Hirsch Brody's painting classes at the Jewish Community Center are a local institution and much in demand -- people on the waiting list half-joke that the only way in is for someone to die. As such, she inspires deep loyalty among her students and other artists. She also has a long-standing commitment to people outside the mainstream, having started the Zola Hirsch Fund for Special Needs at the JCC in memory of her late husband.

Deborah Friedman knew all this. The director of Jewish Residential Services, parent organization of Jason Kramer Hall, Ms. Friedman called Ms. Hirsch Brody about getting art for the new building, much as the two had done for other JRS projects.

"What's your budget?" Ms. Hirsch Brody asked.

"Zero," said Ms. Friedman.

"Sold," said Ms. Hirsch Brody.

She put out the call. "We want good pieces," she told everyone, "not the stuff from your attic. We want to turn Jason Kramer Hall into a canvas."

They did. In addition to paintings by Ms. Hirsch Brody and 11 of her students (including professionals), donated works came from other familiar names -- Kathleen Zimbicki, Rochelle Blumenfeld, Suzie Sparks.

Donald Robinson, the photographer and philanthropist, donated 22 photos from his world travels.

"He asked me to look at what he had and choose the ones I wanted," Ms. Hirsch Brody said. "I said, 'I want all of them.' He had them matted, framed and installed."

Ruth Drescher also donated 10 of her pieces, including large photos of bridges, paths and walkways signifying the journey to independence.

"Isn't this all so great?" asked Blaine Kramer, standing beneath a painting by Zivi Aviraz, a longtime student of Ms. Hirsch Brody and now a painter who shows in New York. Ms. Kramer, an original board member of JRS, is the mother of Jason Kramer Hall's namesake, who lived at another JRS facility until his death at 36 from cancer.

Linda Lewis, director of operations for JRS, said that in other places she's worked, people with good intentions didn't necessarily follow through, but this was different.

"They said they were coming with art, and lo and behold, they did it," she said.

Ms. Aviraz said the artists get as much as they give.

"We are lucky to have this joy of life inspiring us to paint, and to share it with someone else," she said.

Residents were invited to take works into their apartments but most chose to leave them in the public spaces where everyone could see them.

One parent of a Kramer Hall resident thanked the artists for hanging pictures across from her daughter's front door.

"She was so happy that her daughter has something beautiful to look at every time she comes out," Ms. Lewis said.

Jason Kramer Hall is the third residential program of JRS, following Leonard Staisey House (supported living) and Charles Morris Hall (for people with developmental or cognitive issues). The organization also runs supported housing in scattered sites around Pittsburgh,and the Howard Levin Clubhouse, a daytime psychiatric rehabilitation program.

All programs are non-denominational. More information is available at jrspgh.org.

artarchitecture

Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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