By Amanda N. Wegner
Many of us have ideas brewing in the back of our minds, ideas of feats we want to accomplish, things we want to experience, stories we want to tell, maybe even businesses we want to start. For Deborah Blackwell, that bubbling, brewing idea finally came to fruition in July 2009, when she opened Whitewater’s Studio 84.
“It had been a back of my mind idea for some time and while in my last year of college, I had a business plan put in place and began looking for a space to rent,” says Blackwell, who is the studio’s director.
But Studio 84 isn’t your typical art studio. Instead, Studio 84 is a nonprofit art studio that provides visual arts experiences for the community, with an emphasis on working with individuals with autism, physical disabilities, cognitive limitations and mental illness, creating an environment of inclusion whenever possible.
“We are open to all people, but we specialize in working with people with disabilities,” says Blackwell, “providing them with the individualized attention required to help them be successful in a way that would probably not be available in a typical classroom or workshop setting.”
While the studio is an asset to the community as a whole, it’s an even greater asset for the students who are exploring the bounds of their creativity and honing their artistic talents. “I love my art,” says Jessica Barden, who does commissioned pet portraits. “Deb is a good teacher. She taught me a lot about art. I didn’t know much about art until I started coming to Studio 84. I learned a lot through Deb, and now I have my own business thanks to Deb.”
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
Blackwell has always loved art, and after years of raising children and figuring out what she wanted to do in life, and experiencing lots of unforeseen life happenings along the way, she eventually found herself at UW-Whitewater in her 50s, pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree. It was there that her love of art and working with people with disabilities merged.
“I worked as an in-class aid, homework aid and transportation aid and found I had a gift not only in art, but also with working with this population,” recalls Blackwell. “In the meantime, in the back of my mind, I always thought it would be cool to have a community art center where people could enjoy making art without the demands of a classroom.”
With that thought now in the front of her mind, Blackwell started investigating what it would take to establish and incorporate a nonprofit in 2006. When she graduated from UW-Whitewater in 2008, she was ready to hit the ground running.
“Art is beneficial to all people,” says Blackwell. “Humans are born creative beings, but our school systems and life, as we become adults, bury that quickly. Art provides thinking processes that don’t come from other areas of learning. It teaches us to think outside the box and find new solutions to problems.”
Oftentimes, Blackwell says she finds that individuals with disabilities are rarely given the chance to find the creative part of themselves while growing up, as schools, families and therapists are busy trying to prepare them for life. With their creativity unleashed, art can provide them with a new identity of an artist and not someone with a disability.
“So often the creative nature is left behind, even more so than someone without a disability. Many of our students have never made art before, and we have found what incredible talent they have because they’ve been given the opportunity and guidance needed to discover it,” says Blackwell.
Studio 84 offers individualized programing for artists, so individuals can schedule their own time to come in and work on whatever creative processes they are interested in. Blackwell and studio staff provide individualized guidance, teaching techniques, tools and materials as needed and challenge artists to grow at their pace. Staff typically assess each artist to help them find the best fit for themselves and the studio’s schedule.
With the help of Studio 84, pet portrait artist Barden has enjoyed honing her skills and learning more about the business of art. In fact, she’s started her own business, which can be found at jjbarden79.wixsite. com/artist. “Art is important to me because I like to learn new things about art,” says Barden. “Deb helped me learn and start my own business.”
In addition to art instruction, Studio 84 has a gift shop and gallery, which are additional opportunities for the studio’s artists to explore the world of art. The gallery features the work of students individually and as a group; community members are invited to exhibit as well. “Providing that gallery experience for them and exposing them to community artists is important,” say Blackwell. “The gift shop is a way for them to learn some of the retail end of art, and they can choose to sell their work.”
Studio 84 also does a few art fairs during the year to extend artists’ work further into the local community.
A COMMUNITY SPIRIT
Aside from helping artists hone their craft, Studio 84 provides a community for its artists and an outlet of self-satisfaction. “It’s given me something to do with my time. It has given me a springboard to happiness,” says artist Helen Bucholz. She also loves how Studio 84 provides her the freedom to create whatever she wants.
Debbie Franzen, an artist who focuses on painting and drawing natural objects like leaves and flowers, loves the social interaction. “It’s fun, making new friends and making art. Deborah makes me laugh and she taught me about art.”
All these aspects bring to life what Blackwell had hoped to achieve when she first set out to establish Studio 84 nearly 10 years ago. “I think the program exemplifies and enhances the community spirit of giving and helping others,” she says. “All too often people with disabilities are a neglected part of society and due to their disabilities don’t have the financial resources to partake in society as many others do. With funding cuts in constant downward motion, they often get only bare necessities. Many are already out of school and come to us as adults who are just living day to day in a group home, often not being challenged like we are everyday with life. Our programing gets them out of the house and thinking, growing and learning on so many levels. It also shows society that they are very incredible people!”
DONATIONS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
Studio 84 relies on the generosity of the local community to fulfill its mission and welcomes monetary gifts to continue its work supporting the community and individuals with disabilities in their artistic endeavors.
“This helps not only to provide the staffing and mentorship needed but to purchase supplies when needed and keep a roof over our heads, “says Blackwell. Donations are also used to assist artists with materials as often their funding sources are very limited and their incomes are below $10,000 per year.
For more information on Studio 84, visit studio84inc.org, where you’ll find a link to donate online and a selection of cards by students that are available for purchase.