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DECC exhibition showcases works by artists with disabilities

"Up, Up and Away" is a piece by Bridget Riversmith that is part of the Disability Mural Project in Berkeley, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Riversmith)

When Todd Olson was 10 and hospitalized with cancer, he received 1,000 paper cranes as a get-well gift.

"That was my inspiration to get into paper folding," he said.

More than 20 years later, he is legally blind in his left eye and doesn't have full vision in his right, either. But the origami has been a constant. Olson knows more than 50 folding patterns -- enough for a full origami zoo.

Olson is one of the artists involved with the Disability Mural Project, in which local artists created pieces of art on uniformly sized tiles. These tiles -- crafted at workshops in Duluth, Cloquet and Two Harbors in the past four months -- will be part of a one-day exhibition on Oct. 19 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center during National Disability Employment Awareness month. About 300 tiles will be part of the exhibition.

Olson's piece has a red background with an origami dragonfly, dragon, crane, hummingbird, elephant and frog affixed to the surface.

"It's very meditative to do," he said of the work.

The project is part of an international initiative started by Frances Valesco and housed in Berkeley, Calif. Local artist Bridget Riversmith became interested in the project when she met Valesco while she was in Hungary in 2005. Valesco told her about the project, then sent Riversmith a tile to work on.

Select tiles from the Duluth branch of the mural program will be included in that display. Riversmith's piece is in the collection -- a tile that includes graphic novel-type panels starring a young girl with a hot air balloon, clutching art supplies and eventually shedding the weights that kept the balloon grounded.

"This (exhibition) is showing what we, as people with disabilities, can do," Riversmith said. "It's about bringing people together to show what power we have."

Artist and writer Julie Jeatran's tile also has a graphic novel theme: a red background with the word "Behold" written in blue balloon letters highlighted in yellow.

"I thought about comic book heroes," she said. "It's wonderful to be able to express some part of me that's been locked up like a genie in a bottle -- and to facilitate it in other people."

The project is about awareness: jobs for people with disabilities, accessibility issues in public spaces and government funding for organizations that help people with disabilities.

"Sometimes you have to get creative and think outside the box," Riversmith said. "This project feels like it has more impact than any protest sign."

Riversmith said she is hoping to find a place to permanently exhibit the tiles that have been made locally.