Published in the

Monday, March 7, 2011
New Haven artist's disabilities don't cramp her style
By Pamela McLoughlin, Register Staff

NEW HAVEN- Elisabeth Catasus has struggled all her life with learning disabilities, but cultivating her artistic talent came much easier. Catasus, 32, a graduate of Chapel Haven's two-year residential program to gain independence, began dabbling in art about five years ago, taking weekend classes at the Yale Center for British Art.

She went on to take a printmaking class at the Creative Arts Workshop, where the striking quality of her monotypes was noticed by another student, Suzanne Kachmar, who is also director of the City Lights Gallery in Bridgeport. Kachmar displayed Catasus' work for the gallery's annual holiday exhibit, "ArtFul Gifts," in 2010, and it was an instant hit.

Since then, Catasus' monotypes have been displayed at the Case Memorial Library in Orange, and they are slated for display in many other venues, including the CAW student/faculty show and a new club called The Outer Space.

"I'm enjoying it," Catasus said of her new success.

Marilyn Catasus, her mother, said although Elisabeth has learning disabilities, including her visual perception and difficulty interpreting subtlety and innuendo, she is determined in everything she tackles. People are taken by Elisabeth's use of color, balance and sense of design, Marilyn Catasus said. Her daughter doesn't plan it intellectually in the way other artists might; it just comes from her heart and translates to something beautiful to view, she said.

"Both my husband and I are extremely proud that Elisabeth has found a talented way to express herself," Marilyn Catasus said. "It makes my heart sing to see her express herself."

Liz Pagano, Elisabeth Catasus' mentor and printmaking teacher at CAW, said her student creates such interesting pieces because she's nonjudgmental about her choices and "just lets it flow out of her." Pagano said Catasus makes her "aspire to let go," in her own pieces, and other artists could benefit from that lesson as well. Pagano said when Catasus comes into class, she asks the young woman what colors she'd like to work with, and sometimes she'll ask for colors you might not typically put together, like brown, yellow and purple. More than once, Pagano was wary of the combinations, but then, it turns out great.

"It really blows my mind," Pagano said. "She's able to let the art flow through her and make it better. You have to respect the voice that you have."

Chapel Haven President Mike Storz, who nine years ago was Catasus' support coordinator at the program for independence, said he's "blown away" by her work, and also that she was able to do it on her own by applying the skills of independence aquired through Chapel Haven.

"Her artwork has found its way into businesses, homes, offices," Storz said. "Who knew?"

Storz said there's little that's more fulfilling than seeing students find their gift.
"There's so much talent and ability with these individuals. They just have to give them a chance," Storz said.

Catasus, who is from Brooklyn, N.Y., where her parents live when they're not at their condo in Branford, is married to Mike Albert, a swim coach and organist. The couple live in the Westville neighborhood.

It may be that genetics played a role in the gift Catasus found within. Her father, an artist, teaches at a middle school in Brooklyn, and her mother is a retired special education and shop teacher. She is also an accomplished ceramics artist and photographer. Marilyn Catasus said her daughter liked to go to museums as a child and is a big fan of Claude Monet's work, but didn't necessarily create art in a serious way until a few years ago.

"She has amazing perseverance. ... She tries again and again," Marilyn Catasus said. "She doesn't get hurt by defeat. She eventually learns and understands."

For the Art in the Library exhibit in Orange, Catasus' work was a last-minute fill-in when another artist dropped out. When her work was chosen, the committee didn't know she had special needs.

Margart Ulecka-Wilson, a member of the library committee that chooses the art, said of Catasus' work, "I like the sense of color, composition. It's pleasing to the eye. ... She's a fantastic artist."

Photographs by Marilyn Catasus