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Art Project Encourages Disabled Adults

Down a muddy stretch of New York Avenue Northeast, a pedestrian will find a place with a little more color than the other storefronts.

Art Enables, a nonprofit that works with mentally and developmentally disabled adults, provides the brightly lit studio space for budding artists. They create what’s known as outsider art, the raw kind of work produced by people who are not formally trained.

Founded in 2001, Art Enables moved to its current space in 2006. About 30 artists, most of them referred to the group by the D.C. Department on Disability Services, work in the studio. Some are there for five days a week, while others come for fewer days each week. The artists, who live with conditions such as autism and Down syndrome, work mostly on two-dimensional surfaces.

Though any disabled adult living in the metropolitan region is eligible for the program, those who are referred to Art Enables don’t automatically get in. There’s a waiting list of 15 to 20 people already, and spots open up only when artists move out of town or conclude the program isn’t a good fit.

“Once we’re contacted, we invite them in to do kind of an intake interview, and we actually have them draw their portrait and then draw a still life,— Operations Manager Stephanie Bonifant explained. “But a lot of it is really based on not their ability but their want to do the artwork. All the artists come to us with that drive to make art all the time.—

Participants represent a spectrum of ages from 25 to 73, both genders and several races. They come from across the D.C. region and have a range of disabilities. The diversity makes the New York Avenue space feel like a normal artists’ enclave, Executive Director Joyce Muis-Lowery said.

Shawn Payne, who has autism and is in his second stint at Art Enables, is using his time in the studio to nurture his love of fashion. Payne is known for his drawings of shoes, and on a recent visit he adorned a drawing of a stiletto-heeled pump with construction paper gems. With help from some friends, he’s looking to take his shoes to designers for production.

Chris Schallhorn, a longtime Art Enables participant who suffers from depression, focuses on patterns that often resemble quilts. His artwork has been a big seller, according to Bonifant, and the winter holiday cards he designs outsell everyone else’s.

Art Enables is unusual in that it uses art as a vocation, not as therapy. The nonprofit employs four full-time staff, including two artists who coach participants. For disabled adults, it’s also unique in that those they work with expect them to succeed, according to Muis-Lowery. Many involved in the program work at other jobs as well, often performing menial tasks or getting assistance from others.

“The fact is, we are for them modeling the role of a professional artist,— Muis-Lowery said.

The reward for all their work is the chance to display it publicly and get feedback from art enthusiasts, family and friends. Art Enables holds four or five shows each year, and artists sell their work for $100 to $300, Muis-Lowery said. Artists get 60 percent of their sales; the other 40 percent goes toward framing. Their next show is Feb. 27 at the studio at 411 New York Ave. NE.

Art Enables is not the only arts group catering to adults on the fringes of society in the D.C. region. Others include Miriam’s Kitchen, Arts for the Aging, Arundel Lodge and Studio In-Sight. With other groups and independent artists, they have co-hosted an annual show called Outsider Art Inside the Beltway in the fall since 2007.

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