Colorado Springs gallery displays disabled artists' work

By Debbie Kelley Updated: December 27, 2013 at 7:14 pm • Published: December 27, 2013 | 6:10 pm 0

Art speaks to everyone, including the intellectually disabled.

On a recent weekday morning, Dream Catchers Art Gallery hummed with the intensity of Santa's workshop. Saws and drills buzzed. Smells of paint and varnish filled the air. Workers shared laughter and furrowed brows.

It was another day on the job for a group of clients from Ariel Clinical Services, which provides vocational rehabilitation for developmentally disabled adults.

But their work making aspen candles, wall hangings, paintings, furniture, chandeliers, birdhouses, paper m?h?sculptures and other art is about more than earning a paycheck. The universality of art is helping bridge the lives of the disabled and the able-bodied. And that lifeline to the local culture has become vital to the well-being of the disabled.

"Without integration into the community, it's an institution, and there's no recognition for ability, capability, individuality, dignity and self-worth," said Shirley Lee, regional director for Ariel Clinical Services.

The company operates in Denver and Grand Junction and provides foster care for children, along with job training and residential programs for intellectually impaired adults.

Lee's idea of teaching artistically inclined clients to become professional artists - and not only provide an avenue for them to sell their creations but also a way to be involved with the community at large - went from concept to reality fairly quickly.

After visualizing the program in June 2012, Dream Catchers Art Gallery opened in January 2013 in a large empty space at 103 S. Wahsatch Ave., just east of downtown. Up to eight clients work five-hour shifts, making art with staff supervision. They use natural, recycled and donated materials, such as old doors, window frames and tree branches.

They've also helped renovate the building, tearing down walls, painting, and making light fixtures out of empty bottles and counters out of rocks and discarded doors.

Evan Lilgerose is building a stage for the gallery, which he said he finds similar to the landscaping he used to do.

"It's not hard work. It's pretty good," he said. "At first, I was nervous about using a drill. Not now."

Clients have varying degrees of ability, with intellectual IQs of 45 and above, Lee said. Most have an arts-and-crafts background or interest.

Their art is displayed and sold in the gallery alongside pieces by fine artists from throughout the state. Clients' work is juried by staff, Lee said, and rejected if it's sloppy or deemed not marketable.

"The critical feedback has probably been the hardest part for them, but in employment, you have to accept that is essential, to produce a quality product," Lee said. "We're trying to make things people would want in their homes. Now, they seek advice and are receptive."

Clients are paid for items sold, said Kait Beck, store manager.

"We subtract the cost of materials, and they get the rest of the money," she said.

They're also charged 15 percent commission, Lee said, while the fine arts are charged 30 percent.

Clients also greet customers, show them around and answer the phone, to gain customer-service skills.

"It is the heartbeat of what we're doing, that connecting piece to the community," Lee said.

The venture has caught on so well that several expansions already have happened. The gallery hosts a weekly art entertainment event called Cork and Canvas. Attendees paint while enjoying wine and beer tastings provided by Downtown Fine Spirits and Wines, which leases the space to Ariel. The event has become popular, Lee said, growing to 35 or more participants.

Clients also transformed an empty downstairs level into an event space, The Alibi Room, which is rented to the public for weddings, seminars, workshops and meetings.

Clients do set up and clean up and work during those events as well.

A coffee shop is slated to open in one area of the gallery in the spring, featuring homemade sandwiches and desserts, which also will provide work opportunities for clients.

There's nothing better than the freedom of expression, clients have discovered.

"They like working here because there are rules, but there's also room for creativity," Lee said.

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