One-woman show just another first for unusual artist

The art show at the French Hotel in Berkeley is remarkable for several reasons.

Reflecting the wide emotional range of a talented young Jewish artist, Julie Weissman, the mood of the show swings from three mostly black paintings to joyous, brightly colored canvases. The darker scenes — two of which are already sold — depict creation, while brighter moods are reflected in pictures such as "Dusk is my favorite time."

However, the show is all the more remarkable because Weissman, 33, was born with cerebral palsy, which profoundly affects her speech and muscle control.

But Weissman is a fighter. In her motorized wheelchair, she gets to more places and does more things than many able-bodied people.

She just returned from Washington, D.C., for a disability-rights conference. And in December she traveled to Cuba with a group from Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. She has served on the synagogue's board of directors for nine years.

Then there are her two professional jobs.

Weissman is executive director of Maya's Music Therapy Fund, which uses music to help disabled people gain physical and social skills, in the hopes of easing their entry into the larger community. Headquartered in Berkeley, the program serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

On the national scene, she is a children's advocate with the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund, specializing in curriculum.

Painting is a relatively recent avocation, even though, she says facetiously, her blue eyes twinkling, "I sold my first painting at age 10, for five chocolate bars."

Because of her disability, speaking takes tremendous concentration. But she is eloquent with the written word. Through e-mail, Weissman now has a whole new way to communicate.

She learned to type with her fingers five or six years ago, after years of therapy and extremely hard work. Before that, she typed with her toes.

She began painting seriously three years ago, with the help of an art therapist. It was a way to relax, she said, "and a good emotional release."

As Weissman explains in the written introduction to her show, sometimes she paints idyllic scenes from nature, inspired by treks through Tilden Park or by Bodega Bay. "At other times, I paint to work out feelings of anger and/or sadness. Along with other therapy, art has enabled me to overcome some great traumas in my life."

Weissman grew up in New York, where her family still lives. She attended U.C. Berkeley and earned a degree in English in 1989. After graduation, "I just stayed here," she said.

She has made a good home in Berkeley.

"I love the Berkeley Jewish community," she writes in an e-mail. "This is where I feel most comfortable." In addition to being on the board of Netivot Shalom, she served on the board of Berkeley Hillel and taught seventh-grade students at Temple Beth El in Alameda.

"The community supports me unconditionally," writes Weissman. "In spite of the fact that many disabled Jews feel excluded from Jewish life, I have become a leader. There are very few activities in which I am not included. Last December, I became the first Jewish disabled person to visit our sister congregation in Santiago de Cuba."

For Weissman, the nine-canvas one-woman art show is another first, though probably not her last.