Before our talk begins, photographer Robert Flatt makes his apologies. “I have Parkinson’s Disease, so I stutter from time to time.” He does this not to apologize for his illness or even to bring focus to it, but to acclimate me. Flatt is much more interested in the White-Tailed Eagle and the Red-Crowned Cranes at Sunrise than the symptoms of his disorder. Both are titles of his photographic works. And both are among the over twenty artworks by Flatt that now belong to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s collection.
“It turns out I have a bit of a talent,” he says cheekily. He found this talent at Rice University. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1999, Flatt took as many photography courses as possible. He boasts that he took most of the course offerings at Rice’s Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. He took his seminal course, Arts 205, an undergraduate beginning course in photography, at the university also. His work in the course produced four MFAH-worthy self-portraits. Not too shabby.
Flatt has racked up a number of awards and accomplishments since then. In addition to contributing to the MFAH collection, he has written two books and is publishing a third, appropriately titled Healing Art - Don’t Let Anything Ruin Your Day. As he says triumphantly during our discussion, “as bad as it is, by god, it’s not going to ruin today.” And he has been part of the Art Ability Program, which is the main topic of the day, for years now.
For nearly 20 years, the program has highlighted artworks created by artists with disabilities at the Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Malvern, Pennsylvania. It is comprised of a permanent art collection, juried exhibition and sale, interactive demo days, and a corporate art acquisition program. Art Ability has a wide artistic scope. It is open to international artists and a magnitude of mediums. Paper is just as accepted as canvas as is sculpture, jewelry, crafts, mixed media and, of course, photography. There are very few restrictions. One is that the artwork displayed must be made by an artist with a disability. And another is that the art must be good.
The program has been life-altering for Flatt. He had never considered how his neurological disorder affected his life until being asked on the Art Ability entering application. Art Ability inspired Flatt’s current day response. “[Parkinson’s Disease] gave me the gift of time.” Flatt was the typical business guy, he says, before his diagnosis. He was too busy building and maintaining a successful 31-year career in the oil service industry to pursue his artistic interests.
“It’s given me passion for living and seeing,” says Flatt of Parkinson’s. The disease has paradoxically given him the very tools he needs to cope with it. This is why Flatt calls art healing. To drive the point home, Flatt recounts his experience at last year’s Art Ability reception. During a group photograph, Flatt looked around the room to see a sea of smiling faces with varying levels of disability. He was overwhelmed. “It was so, so moving to me [to see] the smile on their faces after what they’d all been through in their lives.”