Local nonprofits foster well-being through creative expression

PICTURE THIS: Art Studio World in Miami received funding for a summer empowerment program for Haitian youths, ages 8-12. Art Instructor Ms. Alex, second from left, spent 12 weeks working with students to address issues of stress, anxiety and grief after losing loved ones to an earthquake in Haiti, explains Art Studio World founder Rae Hughes. Photo by Benjamin Thacker

There’s much virtue to extol and benefit to applaud in experiencing the arts — attending an exhibition, going to a concert, strolling through a craft show — or signing up for a class in, say, plein-air painting or silversmithing or woodworking. But some Asheville-based arts organizations are focused on more than teaching technique to those in search of a new skill. Sure, learning how to use the tools is no small accomplishment, but these initiatives use artwork to expand horizons, explore self and community, and heal wounds both physical and emotional.

Some groups originated locally while others have national affiliations (yet still find a distinctly Western North Carolina approach to area programming). Populations served include young people, the differently abled and veterans. Read on for three of many such efforts.

Arts and Wellness for Veterans

In 2014, former North Carolina poet laureate Joseph Bathanti teamed up with Dr. Bruce Kelly of the Charles George VA Medical Center, which provides health care services to military veterans in Western North Carolina. The writer and the doctor crafted a poetry program for Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That innovative approach to healing — funded initially by a grant from the Asheville Area Arts Council and continued for two years with funding from the N.C. Arts Council and N.C. Humanities Council — culminated in standing-room-only poetry performances at the Asheville Community Theatre and the AAAC, and publication of the chapbook Brothers Like These.

“Since 2016, the Asheville Area Arts Council has developed collaborative working relationships with teaching artists, doctors and therapists at the Charles George VA Medical Center and Odyssey ClayWorks to plan and deliver more arts experiences to veterans in our community,” says Janelle Wienke, grants manager at the AAAC. The arts council plans to reach 200 veterans — women and men of all ages — during the first year of its Arts and Wellness program, an offshoot and expansion of the original poetry-writing initiative.

Local writer and workshop leader Mary Ellen Lough was approached by Kelly 3 1/2 years ago to work one-on-one with the Vietnam veterans. It’s an incredibly successful program, she says. After it was decided that the AAAC would spearhead the project, “We’ve been able to fund my continuing work and expand that,” says Lough. “Another artist is doing expressive arts therapy, and a writing therapist will take over where Joseph Bathanti left off and will do an eight-week class.”

Some offerings take place the VA Medical Center, Lough says, including the Veterans Restorations Quarter (which houses homeless veterans), Steadfast House (transitional housing for women) and the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (an outpatient treatment facility), but other locations, such as Odyssey ClayWorks and — in the future — the Refinery Creator Space, are in the mix so there are fewer barriers for veterans who don’t wish to go to the VA.

“There’s a difference between art therapy and expressive arts [or] poetic medicine,” says Lough, who points out that the instructors in the Arts and Wellness for Veterans program are not registered therapists. Instead, they’re “artists who bring art as a means of self-awareness and self-expression,” she says. “One of our hopes is that people will [gain] resources to bring to their everyday lives that help with stress reduction … help with symptoms of trauma [and] bring means of beauty.”

“We want [the veterans] to have a personal connection to their healing, through the arts,” says Wienke. “But we also want to create opportunities to help them connect within the community, not only to their fellow service members but to outsiders who are reaching out … who care deeply about helping.”

Upcoming efforts include collaborative work, where veterans can combine writing and clay.
Some of the works in progress will be submitted to the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition. “We’re also hoping to expand and do textiles, partnering with Local Cloth,” says Wienke. A grant proposal has been submitted to fund that project.

But even as offerings increase, the important thing is for the service members to have access to art in any form that works for them. The state of creative flow “can open up new insight pathways and self-awareness,” says Lough. “That’s the main focus.”

Learn more at ashevillearts.com

Open Hearts Art Center

CREATIVE TOOLBOX: Artist Erin participates in a kinesthetic drawing class at Open Hearts Art Center, a local organization that provides day programs for adults with intellectual disabilities. “Some come to the program with not much experience,” says Salley Williamson. “They discover what they love through all the different activities that are offered here.” Photo by Brit Davis
CREATIVE TOOLBOX: Artist Erin participates in a kinesthetic drawing class at Open Hearts Art Center, a local organization that provides day programs for adults with intellectual disabilities. “Some come to the program with not much experience,” says Salley Williamson. “They discover what they love through all the different activities that are offered here.”  Photo by Brit Davis

In Western North Carolina, there are only a small number of day programs for adults with intellectual disabilities, “and none that focused solely on the arts as a therapeutic approach,” says the website for Open Hearts Art Center. Art enthusiasts Sonia Pitts, Jessie Francis and Debbie Harris founded the center in 2005.

“It’s like a big family here,” says Salley Williamson, development and communications manager. “Some of the artists have been coming for more than 10 years.”

The program focuses on visual arts as well as dance, drama, music and yoga. “We try to mix it up as much as possible, to keep things interesting here for the artists,” says Williamson. There are currently about 60 participants, most of whom are Medicaid-funded, and they have a wide range of abilities — some only need verbal instructions while others receive one-on-one assistance.

Many of the artists discover their creative penchants through the opportunity to work in various mediums. “Some come to the program with not much experience … and they discover what they love through all the different activities that are offered here,” says Williamson. “There was one artist in particular who I don’t think had ever painted. Now she’s prolific … she makes these beautiful, colorful paintings.”

Some go on to develop and market products through a supported employment arm of the center. Close to 15 businesses in Asheville are selling the works of Open Heart Art Center participants. The artists receive 50 percent of the proceeds of the sales, and the rest goes back into the program to pay for supplies. A couple of the participants have written books, says Williamson, and “we also have an artist who is getting training to become a DJ.”

Programming also includes daytrips to local studios, to learn more about area creatives. A recent outing stopped by electronic instrument manufacturer Moog Music.

The center unveiled its new facility and front gallery on the South Slope with a September grand opening. The event included visual art, a fashion show with apparel designed by program participants, and food and beer. “We’ll have continuing exhibits up,” promises Williamson.

Open Heart Art Center holds its annual talent event — a variety show and CD release party — on Saturday, Nov. 18, 4:30-7 p.m. at the center’s 217 Coxe Ave. location. Tickets are $10 (only 100 are available). openheartsartcenter.org

Art Studio World

“This is my life’s work,” says Rae Hughes, who was still in college when she started writing art program curricula. Her plan was to become a teacher, but, through various internships, she realized her ideas were not a good fit for school systems. Instead, while employed in the corporate world, she continued her efforts as a teaching artist on the side, earning various certificates and implementing her programs — called Creative Vision at first, and later Creative Holistic Art Integration, or CHAI Life — in homeless shelters.

An illness sidelined her hands-on volunteer activities, but Hughes wasn’t ready to set her vision aside. “Giving, for me, is part of my purpose,” she says. So, while based in Florida, where she lives part time for her health, she started sharing her curricula with other teaching artists. The group achieved nonprofit status in 2008 and adopted the name Art Studio World, instituting Hughes’ CHAI Life concepts.

“We use holistic arts to learn about other things — academics, career development, life skills,” explains Hughes. “We’re [even] teaching kids how to drive.” Part of the idea is to fill in holes resulting from the defunding of arts education in many public schools. The Art Studio World approach allows each student to “do and feel what works for them. … Everyone works differently, but there are commonalities,” says Hughes. “When we’re using dance as a tool, the holistic aspect is that we’re allowing each student to express themselves in their way.”

While the Art Studio World curriculum is already in place in New York, where Hughes is from originally, and Florida, Hughes is also in the process of creating a base for her work in Asheville. The group is already working with local artists such as Albien Gilkerson, whose vision is to “empower people through creating their own art in a safe environment,” according to Hughes. And, “for the last two years, we’ve been focusing on festivals and networking with people,” she says. Earlier this year, Art Studio World hosted the Nonprofit Arts Arcade — an umbrella for nonprofits, healing arts and sustainable businesses — at the inaugural Xpand Fest.

Art Studio World also has a land trust in Candler, with a retreat center and yoga studio. There, through a partnership with the Forest School, kids will be able to study in outdoor classrooms. There will also be mini-field trips and cultural exchange opportunities all based on a three-level model of sustain, train and serve. “We want to make this our training hub,” says Hughes.

“The reason I was drawn to this area is because there’s already an understanding what creative, holistic art integration is here,” she continues. “In Asheville, you have a painter who is also a yoga instructor.” In other places, Hughes has to hire two instructors — a visual arts teacher and a holistic teacher — to implement her curriculum. Here, she jokes, she can multitask because “you find people who are bridging both worlds.”

Learn more at artstudioworld.org

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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