by Gayle Holtman. ArtMix is a nationally award-winning arts-based workforce development program, and is a 2016 recipient of a Trinity Community Outreach Grant.
The program mentors students with disabilities ages 15-22, equipping them with transferable, pre-vocational skills through the making and selling of art work in an inclusive, professional studio. ArtMix partners with local high schools to recruit students with diagnosed cognitive, emotional and or physical disabilities (of which approximately 75% live at or below the poverty level).
Urban Artisans: Art Redefining Disability
by Trinity Parishioner Gayle Holtman who serves as ArtMix President & CEO
It’s a Monday morning, and seven high school students and their Teaching Artist mentors are seated around the table in a ceramics studio in downtown Indianapolis going over the day’s tasks – glaze an order of ornaments, clean the studio, reclaim some clay, and inventory flower pots. And while these tasks will be completed, the really important outcome is the development of basic job skills.
The students are part of the nationally award-winning Urban Artisan program provided by ArtMix, a nonprofit organization that provides access to the arts for people with disabilities. Celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2017, ArtMix (formerly VSA Indiana) provides inclusive and adaptive arts programs for people with disabilities as a means of learning, self-expression, and community engagement. In late 2016, Trinity Episcopal Church awarded a $1,500 grant to ArtMix in support of the Urban Artisan program.
The Urban Artisan program is an opportunity for young people with disabilities to “learn crucial vocational skills and to prepare for life, “explains Linda Wisler, ArtMix vice president for programs. The students work as a team to craft quality ceramic products that are sold in the ArtMix Gallery and in a variety of shops around town. For their work, students earn school credit, a stipend, or minimum wage. Wisler explains “artistic knowledge and skills are gained alongside key life skills such as initiative, self-sufficiency, problem solving, decision-making, and resilience.”
Young people with disabilities face enormous barriers when it comes to finding and keeping a job. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is nearly 65%, significantly higher than the national average for all workers. Created in 2001, the Urban Artisan program helps reduce that figure by providing young adults with transferable job skills that they can use to get and keep a job. The year-round program is offered on-site at ArtMix (located inside the Harrison Center for the Arts at 16th and Delaware streets) and off-site in school settings.
The program is well regarded among special education teachers, parents, and funders, and always has a waiting list. In November 2015, Wisler and Urban Artisan student Meghan travelled to a White House ceremony to receive a National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama! This prestigious award identifies the Urban Artisan program as a national model for creative youth development, making a difference for youth with tremendous potential but limited opportunities.
“The multiple steps of the pottery-making process provide ample opportunities for the students to practice and learn how to set goals, organize tasks, follow directions, interact with others, manage change, and accept constructive criticism,” Wisler explains. Students with disabilities encounter many barriers each day, and are frequently misjudged to be completely unable. The reality is that given a welcome, inclusive setting where the focus is on ability, students can and do thrive.
A good example is Joshua, a student who began working in the program but refused to take his coat off and sit with the group. He worked diligently on a flower pot that then accidently exploded in the kiln. We thought we’d never see him again! But he returned and we continued to guide and support him. Now he interacts easily with others, no longer wears his coat, and he’s a valuable member of the program.
Another example is Cody, who tends to be quiet and shy. His mother shared that at ArtMix through the Urban Artisan program “he has just blossomed! By learning to make beautiful objects that people really want to buy, his self-confidence has grown. He has become much more outgoing with his peers, and learned responsibility and leadership.
These stories reflect the transformative power of the arts. This is the work of ArtMix and its Urban Artisan program. We are grateful to Trinity Episcopal Church for helping make the 2017 Urban Artisan program a reality. With your support, art really can redefine disability!