Exhibition in Newport to Showcase 80 Artists in ‘Very Special’ Show

On Saturday at Newport’s intimate Galerie Olivia, Fullerton watercolorist Karen Wheeler will chalk up yet another Orange County showing of her work.

A part-time commercial illustrator and instructor of art workshops, Wheeler is gaining a reputation in local art circles for a precise and somewhat puckish artistic style she laughingly calls “sarcastic realism.”

For Lee Baingo of Woodland Hills, Saturday’s show will mark a sort of professional “coming out.” Relatively new to the world of visual art, Baingo began painting less than two years ago. His first work sold before it was completed for nearly $1,000. A self-described “Georgia O’Keeffe groupie,” Baingo says he patterns his uninhibited technique and use of strong colors after O’Keeffe.

Two artists, two styles. But while each works fro a different perspective, both artists approach their craft the same way: in a wheelchair.


Wheeler and Baingo are among the 80 artists whose work will be featured in the Very Special Arts California Gallery Exhibition, a one-night show and sale that will be held Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Galerie Olivia in Newport Beach. On display will be more than 125 paintings, drawings and three-dimensional art works by physically and mentally handicapped artists from Oakland to Orange County.

All the pieces will be available for purchase at prices ranging from $25 to several thousand dollars.

Denise Vail Lapp, executive director of Very Special Arts (VSA) California, oversees the activities of 25 VSA sites across the state. According to Lapp, Saturday’s show is oneof 30 VSA exhibits to be held this year. Partial proceeds from the shows will support programs of Very Special Arts, an international organization founded in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith to provide creative opportunities for the disabled through dance, music, drama and the visual arts. An educational affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., VSA involves about 1 million people in 50 foreign countries and the United States.

Actress Kate Mulgrew, who appears on the ABC-TV series “HeartBeat,” is state spokeswoman for VSA California.


Mulgrew will host Saturday’s exhibit along with Christopher Kennedy Lawford, VSA California Honorary Board member, Galerie Olivia owner Kathryn Townsend and Marylyn P. Pauley, vice chairman of community relations for the Orange County Performing Arts Center and a major VSA supporter.

Very Special Arts California was established in Orange County in 1977. There are currently two VSA programs encompassing more than 60 special education schools and community agencies under the supervision of Phyllis Berenbeim, coordinator of the Orange County Dept. of Education’s Arts for the Handicapped program and a member of the VSA California board. About 1,500 disabled children and adults countywide participate in VSA California activities and art festivals.

“Llama on Vacation” is one of five works by Wheeler that will be featured at Saturday’s show. Wearing an imperious smirk and a pink orchid lei, the llama typifies the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor that has become Wheeler’s trademark.

“You should have fun with what you do. I consider myself very sarcastic; that’s why I prefer to put humor in my work,” said Wheeler, one of about 12 Orange County artists participating in the show. “Some people catch it, some don’t. But that’s fine. I don’t like explaining myself.”

Wheeler, who was born with an unusual form of muscular dystrophy, began drawing as a child. While a student at Saddleback Valley High School, she started working with oil paints at the encouragement of her art instructor, before switching to watercolor.

After receiving her master’s degree in art from Cal State University Fullerton in 1981, Wheeler worked at the CSUF Handicapped Center. She became associated with VSA California about five years ago, and soon found herself leading art workshops for children at the annual Very Special Arts Day, an all-day program of arts, crafts and entertainment by and for disabled students that is held in conjunction with the Orange County Imagination Celebration. This year’s event will be held April 22 at the MainPlace mall in Santa Ana.

Since 1980, Wheeler has exhibited her work locally at the Brea Civic and Cultural Center gallery, the Huntington Beach Library, Cal State Fullerton and in a VSA-sponsored show at the Hanson Gallery in Beverly Hills.

In 1985, Lee Baingo fell 80 feet in a hiking accident. An accomplished musician and sportsman, he found himself confined to a wheelchair with limited use of his hands.


“Since the accident, I guess I’ve just channeled my energy into painting. I didn’t even know I could do it. I was just doodling, thinking about designing a line of greeting cards. A friend of mine saw (the designs) and told me I should paint.”

Baingo’s friend pressed the issue. Soon after, she outfitted him with canvas, brushes, paint and an easel and set him to work in a makeshift studio in her garage. His first work, a landscape that he describes as “Monet-like,” sold before the paint was dry.

After visiting a collection of Georgia O’Keeffe works, Baingo’s art took on a new perspective. “I loved her ‘Jimson Weed,’ ” said Baingo. “After the show, I went home and got out my biggest canvas and just started sketching.” The finished work, which measures three-feet-by-four-feet, is a faithful yet imaginative re-creation of the O’Keeffe piece that inspired it. The painting, Baingo’s second, will be among his works featured at the VSA show.

“Before my accident, I was very into long-distance swimming,” said Baingo. “Now, art is a lot like that for me. You just get immersed in it. For a while, all you see is something outside your disability.”

The Very Special Arts California Gallery Exhibition will be held Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Galerie Olivia, 2816 Newport Boulevard, Newport Beach. Admission is free. Information: (213) 803-6504.