Ellen has a traumatic brain injury. TBI's as they are called, are a life-altering, mind-bending handicap.
But when she's at Gallery U & Boutique, Ellen says, "I feel great.
"They're real people who know what's going on in the world and don't just talk about what's wrong with them."
The gallery on Broad Street in Red Bank is a light-filled modern art space featuring the works of local and emerging artists. It's got that hip gallery vibe, but without the accompanying snobbery or price tags. Here many works are less than $100 and none are more than $500, and the staff is friendly.
Robert Langdon is the manager of the gallery which is tied to Universal Institute, a rehabilitation facility that serves adults with TBIs. The program gives vocational training to clients who work in all aspects of running the gallery, from watering the plants to building databases. In the back room, staff and art therapists guide clients through vocational therapy, where art is the medium.
In every exhibit about 20 percent of the artwork is created by clients, in collaboration with resident artist Carmen Bury.
"People like to buy artwork made by our clients," he said. "And it's a source of pride [for clients] to make something people will buy and enjoy."
Through Langdon, the gallery has worked its way into the community, offering up its space for fundraisers, hosting a young artist exhibit with area high schools and sending out works to exhibit in JBJ Soul Kitchen, whom Langdon says have been "great supporters.
"The community has really stepped up," he said, "That's what I'm really thrilled about."
Universal Institute has locations in Montclair, Pennsylvania and Michigan. At each location the gallery hosts community events and rents out space for private functions. Red Bank's gallery and Langdon have been keys in the revival of the Red Bank Art Walk. On Jan. 18 it will host Poetry U, a night of spoken word by local writers.
Many of the people who come to the rehabilitative program suffered traumatic brain injuries from stroke, drug overdose or gun violence, but most often, Langdon said, their injuries are the result of a car accident.
That's true for Eric, a 37-year-old with the boyish good looks of Clark Kent, in his Ray Ban glasses, and the charm and smile of Superman.
A car accident when he was 13 or 14, he said, left him with a traumatic brain injury, as well as other physical problems. He walks with the aid of crutches.
Eric comes to the gallery to create art and also to work.
"It's really fun," Eric says with enthusiasm. "It's exposure to different kinds of art and it's learning.
"I've always liked working with my fingers, with my hands," he said, adding that artwork is in his blood. His great grandpa, he said, worked in the Smithsonian and his grandfather was the artisan who created the Budweiser Eagle. Another relative was a cartoonist for Warner Bros.
As he recalls his story, he struggles a bit to make his words behave to his thoughts and when he walks and sits down it takes visible effort. But as he sits with his artwork, a drawing "Mr. Evan Sleepy Eyes," he is lit up from the inside. He beams as he shows off a wooden plaque with a fuzzy red heart, which he made the day before.
Around the heart in white paint it says "My Heart Beats For U." It's a piece he made for his girlfriend Devery, "who has the most beautiful set of eyes of anyone I have ever seen."
Langdon calls Eric his "right hand man" in his work as a gallery assistant. Eric says that at Gallery U, "the people are out of the ordinary great." Turning to Langdon, he said, "Especially you."
Langdon, who came on board full time with the gallery this summer, spent 20 years in publishing before he decided he "just didn't want to do it anymore."
He almost began a second career as a teacher before taking over the art space.
"It brings together everything I feel passionate about," he said, "helping people, art, music, poetry, and bringing the community together."