MEDFORD — Else Eaton’s office is guarded by the Incredible Hulk — or rather, a solid, 7-foot paper mache replica, its algae-green torso rippling with muscles, its eyeballs bulging. The Hulk stands surrounded by walls of tribal-mask-like faces, and cityscapes built from neon shards. One wall oozes a mold-like protrusion speckled with beads. Overhead, an eclectic collection of objects hangs from a strand of fishing wire: deflated balloons, a blue plastic elephant, a brass menorah.
Eaton has found an artist’s office job — a management position that calls for raw creativity and that satisfies both her idealism and her longing for community. She is Project Manager of Outside the Lines, an art-based day program for adults with developmental disabilities run out of a giant warehouse on the Tufts University campus. The people served by O.T.L. are not simply given art projects to do, they are managed as artists — it is both a workshop and a gallery space in which participants’ artwork graces the walls and gets sold at shows.
"We’re different from other programs," Eaton explains, "because a lot of them are work-related programs where people mostly just do piece work."
O.T.L. is an experimental offshoot of the nonprofit organization, Resources for Human Development (R.H.D.). "We call ourselves an â€˜alternative day program.’ We give them work that’s more meaningful, I would say."
Eaton and the staff she oversees are different from most social workers. They are themselves, artists, and they know how to treat their clients as such. Everyone in the building shares the same talents and obsessions, and they enjoy learning from one another.
"Hiring artists works, because we’re all sensitive, we’re intuitive. We’re free with them, and we can treat them like human beings, rather than, like, â€˜You’re a patient and we’re going to analyze you,’ we can just be like â€˜We are who we are and you are who you are,’ and we appreciate them for that."
Eaton is 30 years old. She is tall, and although she is soft-spoken, her stature and her constant state of calm make her a convincing figure of authority. She could not, however, be easily mistaken for corporate. While her office is the only closed room with a desk in the scattered warehouse, her speech and dress are informal. Today, she wears a short skirt over a pair of jeans, a dark blouse and a colorful silk scarf.
Eaton was not always specifically drawn to working with the disabled. She has, however, always been an artist. Before O.T.L., she struggled to find an artistic community that felt like home. At Mount Holyoke College, she majored in art and anthropology, and while these disciplines excited her, the "art crowd" she discovered, did not.
"I actually got really fed up with the whole â€˜Art World.’ It can be really inclusive, if you’re in it. People are making pieces that are speaking to other artistsâ€”meaning that those other artists have prior knowledge of art history, or contemporary artists — rather than having an original vision of how to express themselves, with the idea that they can reach people through what they’re creating.
"But art for me is really just doing a thing that I like. Something that I feel like I always have to do — is part of my life in some way. I have to manipulate materials and make pretty things — well not necessarily pretty, but visually interesting. When I was at school though, I got involved with that whole scene."
Eaton spent her junior year studying photography in Florence, Italy. Her exploration of this new medium combined with her experience abroad and her studies in anthropology led to a new inspiration.
"I wanted to travel, I wanted to tell people about what’s going on in the world through art. I was idealistic, and I did do that for a while. I did travel the world and take pictures. I went to Southeast Asia. I went to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos. That was pretty awesome. It was really amazing."
Before long, however, she ran into a barrier. Just as she hadn’t been able to connect with what she perceived as the art world, she came to feel that photojournalism prevented her from connecting with the people she found on her travels.
"I took pictures. I mean, I had my camera with me. I was a person with a camera. People would ask me for money for taking their pictures. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do."
Back from the States and out of college, Eaton continued to pursue her skills where she could, but there was a lot missing. "I was working for a jewelry designer and working as a house painter," she recalls with a laugh, "so the stuff I was doing was kind of isolating and I really felt like working on my own artwork was self-indulgent. I really wanted to be able to reach out to people and be creative."
Eaton heard about O.T.L. from a friend who worked there before it had a management structure. She began on the floor, as a "Direct Support Professional," and was prompted once R.H.D. decided a manager was necessary. Her first breakthrough with an artist did not come while working on an art project, but it did call for an important kind of creativity. She was working with a woman known for acting out.
"If she’s not getting what she wants she’ll do temper tantrum kinds of things like, screaming and whining. So she started to do that one day, and I started whining back, and I made it into like, oh, you sound like a seagull,’ Eaton remembers, laughing. "And it totally just threw her off. She thought it was hilarious. So she started doing it in a way where she was calling like a seagull, and then I was calling back like a seagull, and it was just really funny."
Eaton calls this "redirecting," and it is central to the work of O.T.L. where one of the defining practices in working with the developmentally disabled is never to punish, never to provide negative attention. As much as in designing art projects, this is where the creativity and sensitivity of the artist are called upon. It’s about finding ways to make abnormal behavior OK, to laugh together and direct focus back to the shared value of art-making. This seems to be exactly the atmosphere Eaton has been searching for, and she is not alone.
"There is a strong feeling of community here," says Allison Stroh, an Art Therapist, recently hired for the â€˜Direct Support’ role. "Everyone here feels part of it. When Else walks in, all of the artists smile. She has a million tricks up her sleeve to make them feel at ease. Meanwhile, she’s got me singing, dancing, working on giant monsters– stuff I never thought I’d get to do at work."
"We really try to make it so that everyone here just feels comfortable being who they are. No matter who they are," says Eaton. You know we’re all awkward and weird in some ways and we just let that be. Both the staff and the clients, their personalities really come out here."
Outside of Eaton’s office, a heavyset man wearing an unattached pair of earphones is showing off his brand new cowboy boots — from L.L. Bean, he boasts — to a bespectacled twenty-something in skinny jeans. The subject exhausted, he shows off his latest glowing cityscape. The kid looks impressed. So does The Hulk.