With open hearts

When Scott Arthur saw one of his paintings hanging on the wall at the Satellite Gallery this February, he immediately sat down beneath his work and did not budge.

As his peers wandered around the downtown art gallery, Arthur sat. As his teachers commented about different works on display, Arthur sat. He did not move from the spot on the floor directly beneath his artistic creation — a painting of Michael Jackson.

The King of Pop has long reigned over Arthur’s creative work. For a while, the Arden artist even signed his pieces with the initials “MJ” as an homage to the singer who regularly inspires him not only to paint, but to get up and dance (and moonwalk, of course).

But like most creative types, there’s something unique about Arthur that makes him stand out. The experienced artist has received no classical training whatsoever. What he knows, he learned from regularly attending Open Hearts Art Center, an adult day center in Malvern Hills that serves adults with developmental, mental, physical and emotional disabilities. Arthur, who has Down syndrome, has been coming to the center since it opened in 2005.

“It gives them inspiration about what they could be doing, what's available and shows them what's possible,” says Jessie Francis, who co-founded the nonprofit with Debbie Harris and Sonia Pitts.

Work by Open Hearts artists hangs in Woolworth Walk art gallery, the dining room at HomeGrown, as well as at local festivals. And when a piece sells, says Pitts, the artist gets 50 percent of the money; the rest buys more art supplies for the nonprofit.

Now, the center's co-founders say they want to add a new Boundless Art program, which will help create more opportunities for their students.

“It's a way for us to take our artists that are here [at Open Hearts Art Center] and go out into the community where they can volunteer, where they can go to the galleries,” Harris explains. “It's a way for them just to be immersed in our community and to learn from other people.”

Earlier this year, for example, students witnessed a glass-blowing demonstration at the Asheville Glass Center in the River Arts District. However, as Francis notes, it's not a lack of care that limits trips like these for the nonprofit. Instead, she points to a laundry-list of costs.

“Because of our population at Open Hearts, I think it's around $1,000 a year for insurance to transport them. Then, it's about $100 for each time we want to fill up the van to go somewhere. We've got taxes and other expenses. Then we have those unforeseen costs, like our tire's broken on the van right now,” she says.

And transportation, Harris points out, can often be a huge barrier for adults with disabilities. She says that most of the students who attend programs at Open Hearts rely on parents, other caregivers or the county’s Mountain Mobility service to get to the center.

“We have a client right now, but he's not coming because his mom didn't have money for gas or he didn't make the bus on time. He loves the program, but he just can't get here,” she explains.

According to Pitts, being able to get students to the center can make all the difference in the quality of life that these adults have each day.

“Many of them have tumultuous lives outside of this very structured organization,” Pitts says. “And for a percentage of them, we are the family that they know. We are the safe place for them to be.”

These days, it's rehearsal time for the annual Open Hearts’ annual student talent show/fundraiser. On Saturday, Aug. 24, these artists will share their work through both the visual and performing arts. The event will also feature food, a silent auction of student work and a raffle.

Like last year, the center hopes to raise $15,000 for its Boundless Art program. The money would fund monthly field trips to local galleries exhibiting students’ work and expand both community outreach and transportation for those who couldn’t otherwise get to the center.

According to Bryan Ottiviano, who works with students at Open Hearts, this is the center's most special time of year.

“Everyone brings something different to the table. There are artists who really love to paint abstract paintings with colorful designs that express their emotions,” he shares. “The students who aren't as much into the visual arts want to dance and sing to songs by Billy Ray Cyrus or Michael Jackson. Some students who aren't into the visual or performing arts come here and they're just really caring and sweet and want to connect with everybody.”

He smiles and adds, “Everyone is here for their own different reasons to have their light shine.”

This chance to shine, Pitts explains, is at the heart of the center.

Thinking about the day when Scott Arthur first enrolled at Open Hearts and how he arrived at the moment when he sat in the gallery beneath his painting, Pitts shares, “When we first started working here, I remember what it was like when students had never held a paintbrush and they started learning to practice their techniques. As we've evolved and the program has evolved, now the Boundless Art program has evolved. We've moved from them just holding their paintbrush to being exposed to supplies to, now, watching them see their artwork in a venue for the first time.”

She adds, “It kind of brings it full circle to me.”

— Send your health-and-wellness news and tips to Caitlin Byrd at cbyrd@mountainx.com or mxhealth@mountainx.com, or call 251-1333, ext. 140.


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