Accessing gifts 


An arts organization and a social service agency strive for inclusion through the arts

Giving individuals with disabilities inclusion into the arts both as a maker of art and as an audience member,” says Jim Nulty, working artist and president and CEO of VSA arts of Indiana, on VSAI’s mission.

We are not all equally endowed with opportunities to access the arts. Sometimes the “disability” is economic or family background; sometimes its origin is in birth or from events in our lives, our own lack of confidence or society’s lack of support.

“The arts matter,” Nulty continues. “In the context of creating an active life, being engaged in and with the arts allows emotions to travel. As human beings we need that response to feelings. Being engaged with the arts in any form helps us learn to function actively as members of society.”

Nulty makes another point: When mental health treatment became based on taking away feelings, that standard “numbing effect” traveled into mainstream society, namely, excluding the arts in daily life and ultimately disregarding multiple learning intelligences.

“Not everyone learns in exactly the same way,” Nulty says. “We have to adapt our teaching to the individual. Not all of us learn through books; some of us learn through listening or watching or doing and making mistakes. Some of us learn one on one, some in groups of various sizes and configurations.”

VSA arts of Indiana invites individuals with physical and emotional disabilities to come to the Harrison Center in Indianapolis and to other VSAI sites statewide to work with specially trained arts instructors. Students’ work is exhibited in the EnRoute Gallery at the Harrison Center.

“The gallery is an intricate part of programming,” Nulty says. “It’s part of raising self-esteem of people facing challenges. It’s not just a place to hang art, but a place to change lives. We see artwork from people who are en route to more productive lives. We showcase emerging artists of all ages and abilities, including those who ‘graduate’ from our program, a group called Urban Artists.

“We also go into the community to work in partnership with organizations whose missions, like ours, are to change lives by serving populations who may be homeless, terminally ill, elderly and in need of creative inspiration.

“As part of our mission to develop and share best practices in arts education, we are helping Indianapolis Museum of Art teaching artists adapt their programs to a broader range of IMA visitors and students. This new partnership grew out of VSAI participants visiting the Roman Art from the Louvre exhibit,” Nulty explained.

Additional sites

Cassandra Pixey, director of cultural arts at the Jewish Community Center, describes the 2007 Anne Katz Festival of Books/VSAI collaboration as “the first of a future.”

“At the Jewish Community Center, VSAI teachers offered an intergenerational family arts workshop for all abilities and mounted an exhibit of VSAI work. People who might not make the trip to the Harrison got involved. It’s about inclusion and collaboration,” Pixey says.

TherAPlay, a Northside outpatient rehabilitation unit for children, includes horseback riding along with physical, occupational and speech therapy. Since early 2000, VSAI teachers have been offering painting, drawing and drumming classes for the family.

“TherAPlay is a place where kids with needs are in the majority,” commented Raquel M. Ravinet, executive director. “It’s all about programming to motivate and involve and include everyone. Art becomes something fun and participatory as a family.”

The Indiana School for the Deaf/VSAI partnership is also longstanding. However, a new initiative on Oct. 11, 2007, presented bilingual and bicultural themed arts activities that included student volunteers from North Central High School’s Learning Unlimited Program, IPS School 70 and Shortridge Middle School.

“We wanted to strengthen full inclusion by bringing a hearing population to peer and work together and explore creativity with students at ISD,” explained Jane McGorder, VSAI program coordinator. “The students at ISD don’t see themselves as having a disability. They have their own language and culture they enjoy sharing.”

Dayspring, an emergency shelter for homeless families, assists 150 to 160 families annually to stabilize themselves on multiple fronts.

“VSAI teachers come to the shelter every Friday. It’s vastly important because the artists interact with the children in ways that help them deal with issues of homelessness,” said Lori Casson, director. “It gives children an opportunity just to be children, to work with their hands and use their brains to be creative. Making art has a lasting effect.”

Revisiting Noble of Indiana

A half year ago, NUVO visited Noble of Indiana at its facility near 21st and Shadeland. In an art studio abuzz with activity, Kate Wagner, therapeutic unified arts coordinator and therapeutic art specialist, assisted artists working on paintings, collages, fabric art and structures of wood. In December 2007, NUVO visited Noble’s 1-year-old Broad Ripple facility at 6060 N. College Ave. In a public space exploding with sound, Laneia Thomas, therapeutic music specialist, was the rhythm section for an all-out vocalist and an assortment of instrumentalists following their own keys and tempo, while Heidi Lambert, therapeutic recreational therapist, and Wagner were in an adjacent art room assisting artists in a bevy of artforms.

The growth and impact of Noble’s arts programming from one to three staff members is nothing short of amazing for individuals with a developmental disability. Inclusion and collaboration are central at Noble, as they are at VSAI. At Noble, where assisting individuals to enter the workforce has been the main focus, the multifaceted arts program has seen an awakening of latent talent.

“One person in particular has become a really good sketch artist,” pointed out Kendall Tilton, program manager at Broad Ripple. “He is at retirement age and didn’t have an interest or passion beyond his job. For him the art program has made a huge difference. He now also works with an outside tutor and his work is gaining exposure in the community. But he’s also going to the art museum. His life is blossoming.”

Since inception of therapeutic art in August 2005, Noble artists have collaborated with VSAI and a dozen other organizations and businesses to create, exhibit, give away and sell art by Noble artists. An impressive timeline lists a presence in statewide gallery art exhibits and displays, including the Indianapolis Artsgarden, City-County Building, multiple Starbucks in Central Indiana and at Alcatraz Brewing Company in downtown Indianapolis. Noble art team projects include commissions for individuals and corporations, a line of greeting cards and illustrated books and mural work in Fountain Square at Santorini’s.

Noble artists mounted a fashion show, opened an art store and started a therapeutic music program and recreation clubs for opportunities to develop initiative and leadership skills and to serve their community.

“Noble artists have made prime-time news and headlines,” Wagner summarized. “But equally, their presence at galleries, museums and performances demonstrates the dignity and value of citizens living with disabilities.”

Noble of Indiana
7701 E. 21st St.
Indianapolis, IN 46219

VSA arts of Indiana
Harrison Center for the Arts
1505 N. Delaware St. #100
Indianapolis, IN 46202
enRoute Gallery: First Friday gallery openings 6-9 p.m.; daily: Monday-Thursday,
11 a.m.-4 p.m.


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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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