By Jennifer Sadler
All people have the ability to create. Whether it’s art-making as a hobby, profession, or simply for exploration, art can offer a platform for personal expression and a way of engaging with the world that surrounds us. For artists with disabilities, the creative process can open doors that may not have seemed possible before. Art also can be a captivating means of challenging and transforming assumptions about disabilities and can serve as a powerful tool for advocacy.
Several organizations in Columbus are forging new paths to creativity for people with disabilities. Each organization is unique in their focus and the range of services and tools they offer, but all are dedicated to making the arts accessible to people of all ages and all disabilities. By providing a safe and supportive environment, organizations such as Open Door Studio, Goodwill Art Studio & Gallery and VSA Ohio are inspiring individuals to reach beyond their limitations to enjoy the experience of a deeper engagement with the artistic process.
The spirit of openness and collaboration among these organizations has created new and exciting opportunities for artists to share their work, including the upcoming show, Outside / In, opening on August 11 and on view through September 21 at Open Door Studio. Outside / In will feature work from several progressive accessible art studios throughout Ohio including Open Door Art Studio, Rendville Art Works, Passion Works Studio, Visionaries and Voices, Thundersky Gallery, Inc., Goodwill Art Studio of Columbus, Blue Shoe Arts and Our Town Studios, Inc. With this exhibition, these organizations hope not only to build partnerships, but more important, allow the beauty, depth and humor of the work to provoke fresh perspectives and foster new regard for the talent of artists with disabilities.
Established in 2007 and located in Grandview, Open Door Art Studio is a division of Columbus Center for Human Services, Inc. The non-profit is dedicated to providing art education and art services to individuals with developmental disabilities, acting simultaneously as a creative space and a gallery.
GCAC recently spoke with Caitlin Lynch, an art facilitator and habilitation coordinator at Open Door Art Studio. Lynch gave us some insight into what they do and about their upcoming collaborative exhibition, Outside / In.
Lynch began by explaining that the staff’s job at Open Door is to provide guidance; to share the skills they’ve learned and help the artists bring their own ideas to life.
Artists come in to the art studio Tuesdays through Fridays. Open Door’s art facilitators are each assigned to work with a group of people—from three to 10, depending on how much assistance they require.
“We rotate working with the groups so that we can each offer our unique set of skills and input,” said Lynch. “We don’t really teach or do lesson plans here. We’re more like an upper level studio class. Our artists tend to want to focus on what they are doing on their own,” said Lynch. “They take their time here very seriously; when they’re here, they want to make art.”
As a break from the intensity of creating art, they also offer some fun non-art making experiences. At the end of each day one of art facilitators takes a turn at running the “Awesome Time” for an hour. “Awesome Time” can be a game or activity, an art history lesson or even formal critiques of the works the artists have created.
Additionally, Open Door provides their studio artists the opportunity to earn income from the sale of their artwork and to pursue a livelihood as artists to the fullest extent possible. Artists receive 50 percent of the sales of their artwork through the gallery. The other 50 goes right back to the art supplies so they can continue creating work.
Lynch said that a few Open Door artists are very serious about professional art-making and have built up a following. Studio artist Tony Hoover has been creating work for more than 20 years and usually seeks out opportunities on his own. Another Open Door artist, Wallace Peck, was recently juried in to the Columbus Arts Festival.
“We try to sponsor artists who want to do shows through VSA Ohio and other locations. We also helped sponsor Wallace Peck so he could do a major arts festival,” said Lynch, who helped Peck out as an assistant during the Columbus Arts Festival in June. “Wallace produces a lot of marketable work. He had a complete blast doing the show and was fun to work with! He was very charming and loved seeing and meeting all of the people and sharing his work.”
With all of the fine work being created at Open Door and other similar organizations, the idea came up during some staff meetings to travel around to different art studios to pull together a sort of “retrospective” of the worked being created. Lynch took charge of curating the Outside / In exhibition. The date for the exhibition was set in January and Lynch began searching for works in March.
“I got to travel to these wonderful studios to survey their artists and meet their staff,” said Lynch. “There was so much great work to choose from! We chose the best we could find which meant we had to cram as much art as we could fit in the van each trip. Outside / In will feature more than 60 pieces in a huge range of materials—paintings, drawings, collage work, soft sculpture, wood carving and mixed media. It’s going to be an amazing show.”
The Goodwill Art Studio & Gallery, located in the near west side of Columbus, is an innovative fine arts program serving more than 100 individuals with disabilities each week. Goodwill offers the opportunity for creative self-expression, improved self-esteem, increased life satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment through encouragement and collaboration with professional artists. This process results in the creation of high quality artwork that is original and expressive.
GCAC recently spoke with Deborah Griffing, the program manager at Goodwill Art Studio to learn about what they have to offer for their artists.
Griffing started working with artists with disabilities through an Ohio Arts Council artist-in-residence at Passion Works Studio—an organization similar to Open Door—based in Athens, Ohio. Her path eventually led to the Goodwill in Columbus where she started working one day a week when the art programming was just starting.
“When this first started seven years ago, we had 15 artists. We now work with around 130-135 artists, we now have staff, studio and a gallery. The program has blossomed quite nicely,” said Griffing.
Griffing says the arts programming serves anybody with disabilities, even if they aren’t affiliated with Goodwill (though artists not affiliated with Goodwill will pay a private studio fee). The majority of the participating artists have developmental disabilities, but Goodwill also works with people with sight and/or hearing impairments and mental health issues. The ages of the artists range from 18 to 90.
Goodwill Art Studio & Gallery staff is made up of professional artists whose goal is to guide artists on a path to creating, as well as selling their work through the gallery. As part of the agreement with the artists, staff takes charge of marketing and getting shows for artists outside of the studio. They also take care of framing and hanging the works in shows.
The gallery sells original works—65 percent of which goes to the artist and the rest goes back to funding the programs. Like Open Door, they sell products and items based off the original artwork (like cards, magnets and jewelry) and the proceeds go back into running the programs. If an individual’s work gets chosen to reproduce for the products, the artist gets a one-time $25 fee.
Griffing and her staff are thrilled to be collaborating with Open Door for the Outside / In exhibition. The show will feature six works of art created by 14 Goodwill artists, many of whom collaborated on the pieces.
“One work titled I am I am Superman—three different people worked on it,” said Griffing. “We have a gentleman who is blind and deaf and he paints the backgrounds. Another guy who draws only super heroes but doesn’t like to color them in drew his art on top of that. Then another artist who prefers coloring in finished the work.”
To hear Griffing talk about the artists, it’s obvious that she has a great passion for her work. She told the story of an artist named Charlotte McGraw whose work will also be featured in Outside / In. Charlotte has cerebral palsy and came to the Goodwill in an “extremely fragile state both physically and mentally” and was very reluctant to do art. With the constant urging of resident artist, Cody Miller, Charlotte is now a studio regular and her work has blossomed into an imagined world she calls “Charlottesville” where she happens to be the permanent mayor.
“Charlottesville is a place where everybody is embraced and accepted with freakishly fun and odd looking characters with wonderful stories behind each one,” said Griffing. “Charlotte is so articulate and her passion for art is so inspiring. She’s had to overcome so much and art truly has changed her life. In fact, she’s going to be honored at the Goodwill’s Extraordinary People awards luncheon this year for her accomplishments.”
Griffing says that one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is seeing people transformed and doing things they never thought they could do.
“These folks are part of a pretty sheltered population dealing with a huge range of cognitive and physical disabilities. It’s wonderful to be in a position to help adapt their environment—to help them create and share their work. Even family members are sometimes shocked at the talent they didn’t realize these artists had. It’s a joyful experience to witness their pride and to see the perceptions being changed.”
Fpr more information, visit the studio and gallery's site at www.GoodwillColumbus.org. They're also now on Pinterest! Image: A view of Goodwill's art gallery.
VSA, the international organization on arts and disability, was founded more than 35 years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. Each year, 7 million people of all ages and abilities around the world participate in VSA programs, which cover all artistic genres. VSA is an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Erin Hoppe is the executive director for VSA Ohio (VSAO), located in downtown Columbus. Since 1986, VSAO has provided an inclusive environment in which children and adults with disabilities are given the opportunity to celebrate life through the arts, education and creative expression.
VSAO offers a unique range of opportunities for aspiring artists with disabilities—professional development workshops, technical assistance including resume and artist statement development and help with applying to grants. Some new professional workshops are in development now that will provide information on topics like photographing artwork and utilizing social media for promotion. VSAO also serves teaching artists and educators through the Adaptation, Integration & the Arts program.
Each year VSAO produces Accessible Expressions Ohio (AEO), a statewide exhibition and tour of visual art for artists of all ages with disabilities. This professional development opportunity helps raise awareness about art and disability by presenting the art in inclusive settings. The tour begins with an opening ceremony early in the year where awards are given for first, second and third place in each category, including Best in Show and People’s Choice. Following the opening ceremony, the exhibit goes on tour across Ohio through December. AEO has been displayed at libraries, government and corporate offices, galleries and conferences.
Hoppe says that many accessible art studios around the state submit artwork to the Accessible Expressions Ohio program and sometimes will host part of the tour as it travels during the year.
“We’re also very excited about hosting the Reelabilities Columbus Disabilities Film Festival this year from November 3-7,” said Hoppe.
ReelAbilities is the largest festival in the country dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities. Initiated in NY in 2007, the festival presents award-winning films by and about people with disabilities in multiple locations throughout each hosting city. Post-screening discussions and other engaging programs bring together the community to explore, discuss, embrace and celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience. The groundbreaking program now offers cities around the country the opportunity to host their own festivals.
The first edition of the festival in Columbus will include nine international, award-winning films and take place in multiple locations: the Columbus Museum of Art, Arena Grand Theatre, OSU Urban Arts Space, King Arts Complex and Ohio Historical Society.
In addition to being able to offer these wonderful programs and opportunities to aspiring artists, Hoppe says one of the very best parts of working at VSAO is meeting the constituents.
“Their unique stories, perspectives and talents have inspired and humbled me,” said Hoppe. “I've not only learned about individuals who are amazing artists and happen to have a disability, but I've come to understand that disability is everywhere, could happen to anyone at any moment—and that our society really is better off when we include everyone.”