NJ Hero David McCauley & Rise Up Gallery Empowering Disabled Artists from JC to Miami

By • Jan 4th, 2013 • Category: Arts, Featured
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Jersey City’s got an art scene of movers and shakers but few can say they’ve done what David McCauley has in the past two years.

McCauley (seen at right), the head of Rise Up Gallery, has about ten artists contributing work to his traveling initiative and has shown their work at multiple places, most recently in October at the Tenmarc Building, the main Jersey City Artists Studio Tour venue. He’s also established an offshoot branch and physical gallery in Miami and won the New Jersey Hero award for his work through the gallery’s parent organization, Rise Up to Cure Paralysis, which was founded in 2010.

Oh yeah, by the way, McCauley’s been doing this all from a wheelchair. In 2008, he broke his neck and spinal chord while diving into a pool and became a paraplegic. Prior to his accident, he led an active lifestyle, snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding in his former hometowns in Colorado and Australia. Now, he has trouble moving the fingers on his left hand and can barely move his right hand at all.

To cope with his paralysis, McCauley underwent body weight support training, relied on loved ones and also started making art. His signature works are simple words and phrases spelled using cut-up, recycled skateboards (a hint at his former pasttime) with canvas-printed photographs strategically pasted over them. Unable to paint with his limited dexterity, McCauley says he has found sculpture to be his ideal adaptive art style. (One of his works can be seen below, at left.)

All of the artists working with the Rise Up Gallery are also disabled and the organization aims to empower them and use their sales to support the cause by supporting specific individuals or creating art workshops and studios for artists with disabilities. Through art, McCauley says, they can get their mind off their injuries while expressing themselves.

Now McCauley is establishing his territory on some new ground — the Wynwood art community in Miami, Fla., which is home to contemporary art exhibition and fair Art Basel, which is held every December and is a sister event to the original in Switzerland.

He sort of accidentally set out to conquer the Sunshine State. Last year, McCauley decided to move to Miami Beach during the winter to avoid the everyday hassles of trying to navigate a snowy Jersey City.

“It’s tough for me to get around anytime there’s snow or slush on the ground. It’s very difficult for me to actually get on public transportation, to push for a half-mile or even three-quarter mile,” he says. “Even just bundling up and putting on layers of clothing — I can be plopping around in bed for an hour putting on clothes and when I get out of bed, I’m totally exhausted.”

With plans to return in April to live at a live/work apartment where he eventually hoped to run Rise Up, McCauley headed south. When those plans fell through, however, he decided to explore his options in Florida, where the weather was always easy to dress for and the flat, uniform land was easy to navigate. Plus, there was that booming art district in nearby Miami.

McCauley left Rise Up Gallery’s Jersey City operations in the hands of fellow paraplegic artist Laurie Kammer and set to work finding a physical gallery space in Miami, a far cry from the pop-up art shows and auctions they held in the Northeast which would come down weeks after going up.

“For someone in a wheelchair, that’s a lot of labor to put together and rely on volunteers for, so we were looking for a more permanent location,” explains McCauley. “We settled on Wynwood because there are a lot of great things happening over there and the rent was very inexpensive in comparison.”

He adds that the area has the same community feel he enjoyed in Jersey City. “In Miami Beach, there are so many tourist and people who live here part-time that you don’t get that sense, but go toward the urban areas, you do. That’s the type of vibe I like, just saying hey to neighbors and having people sit out front playing dominoes and relaxing in the morning.”

The gallery opened its doors the last week of November right before Art Basel came to town and had well over 1,000 people in and out of its doors in the first three days of the fair (the gallery will have its official grand opening on Jan. 18). “It was a huge success for us because we not only sold some of the art, but also greeted people and gave them information and fliers about the organization,” says McCauley.

He aims to raise awareness about people with disabilities as well as gather funds for adaptive art workshops in the Miami gallery. Recently, they used a grant for art supplies to buy a digital printer that will allow the artists to create stencils using just about any image. “It gives someone with limited hand dexterity a way to create a piece of art,” he says. “It’s like an adult coloring book. Some people think it’s cheating, but it’s a great tool for us.”

They’re also working to establish a Floridian network of volunteers and contributing artists who will find ways to be more independent by having art as another vital source of income, McCauley says. For many, an extra few hundred bucks could mean medical supplies, pharmaceuticals or even just groceries.

His ambitions don’t stop there. “Now that the seed has been planted down here, if we design a sustainable business in Miami, it should be easy to replicate in other places,” says McCauley.

Rise Up Gallery also isn’t quite done with JC, yet. Under Kammer’s leadership, they partnered with ST-Art for a six-week exhibit at Projective Space in New York City in September, participated in the Artists Studio Tour and were invited back to celebrate this year’s New Jersey Heroes.

“We still have operations in Jersey City even if we don’t have a permanent physical location and that’s where a lot of our art is in storage,” says McCauley, adding that he was proud to pass the baton to Kammer, who ran an adaptive art workshop at the Push to Walk summer camp for people with disabilities in July and hopes to bring similar events to JC and the surrounding area. “We haven’t turned our back on New Jersey and when opportunities for us to showcase work or provide workshops arise, we definitely want to be involved,” he says.

To learn more about the Rise Up Gallery and Rise Up to Cure Paralysis, click here.

Top and preview photos courtesy of David McCauley; bottom photos by Summer Dawn Hortillosa



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is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.
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