A group of eight art students are at work with hushed intensity brainstorming ideas for papier-mâché sculptures. Ms. Violet confidentially renders a multitude of pigs, while Judy Jones draws a very imperial-looking bear. Their colleague, Nancy, is drawing birds and a horse for Hannah Montana — her favorite celebrity at the moment.
This is a typical day at the Open Hearts Arts Center in Woodfin — a stimulating facility where developmentally disabled adults are schooled in the visual and performing arts. The homey center provides a clay room, a drama room, an arts classroom and a kitchen and back porch for students, as well as a gallery for visitors. "Our philosophy is that we want to keep the students engaged," says Sonia Pitts, one of the center's three directors. "We want them to be in touch with the world around them."
The use of art as therapy is not uncommon, though surprisingly, Open Hearts is one of the only organizations of its kind in WNC. The group relies primarily on Medicaid for its funding and works with roughly 50 students throughout the year. Students include Scott Arthur, 34, a prolific artist with Down's Syndrome whose love for Michael Jackson has inspired more than 100 paintings.
"We've had clients who have come to us, who people told us to expect violent behavior, or nonverbal behavior," Pitts says. "But those behaviors have never been exhibited here because they're so stimulated and so relieved to have an outlet to express themselves."
One such artist is Miss Judy Jones, who was referred to Open Hearts after her mother died. "When she came to us, she wouldn't eat, and she just wanted to do word searches," Pitts says. "Now she has become one of our best artists. She's so outgoing, she always has very animated and vibrant stories to tell. It's amazing to see the transformation."
Often people with developmental disabilities like autism or Down's Syndrome are placed in "sheltered workshops" to do work like stocking bookshelves or sorting envelopes. "We feel like that corrodes the human spirit," says Pitts, "and we have higher expectations for our students."
Stina Anderson, Richmond Smith, Kristina Benshoff and Virginia Allen are four artists who work directly with students, and all have to regularly meet federal standards of certification in direct-care work. "Open Hearts is really about the individual, which is why I love being here," says Anderson, a clothing designer who has been working at Open Hearts since its 2005 inception. "The students build confidence within themselves, which then applies to other areas in their lives."
The artwork of the students is especially appealing, given its unbridled point of view and inspired characters. A booth in the Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville regularly displays paintings, drawings and crafts created at the center. Proceeds from sales are divided equally between the artist and a fund established by Open Hearts for the purchase of art materials.
"They are storytellers and people are captivated by that," Pitts says. "There's no jaded outlook and no ulterior motives. They just do it how their heart and guts tell them, and that's what is so powerful about their work."
Visit the Center at 100 Weaverville Highway to see more of the students' artwork. www.openheartsart.com and 658-8875.