Art from the heart: Local nonprofit nurtures adults with disabilities

It’s rehearsal time at the Open Hearts Art Center in West Asheville. Alex Pott dances to ’80s hits, jumping around when he hears his favorite part. Judy Jones sings along to old-school country classics, lifting her hands during the chorus. Then it’s Susie Queen’s turn to share. She’s a newer student, but she’s not shy.

Her electric wheelchair emits a barely audible hum as she positions herself in the middle of the room — center stage at Open Hearts, the only program of its kind in Asheville.

“I’d like to sing a song that reminds me of here,” she says, launching into “This Little Light of Mine.” Slowly, the instructors start singing along, and by the middle of the first verse, students are also chiming in, just swaying to the music if they don’t know all the words. But that’s OK, says Sonia Pitts, co-founder of the nonprofit, community-based art program, which serves adults with disabilities.

“Art helps them explore ways to express themselves and allows them to tell their story,” she explains.

Raw art

“They give themselves completely to the arts, because there is no filter, there is no inhibition,” says “Bryan Octavius,” as his students know him. One of 12 staffers, he works with the roughly 35 students attending Open Hearts classes each day. “But what the arts gives to them is a way to communicate that, unfortunately, most of the time, they don’t get to in their lives.”

That’s a key reason Pitts teamed up with Jessie Francis and Debbie Harris to create Open Hearts, which serves adults with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental or mental disabilities.
“For years, they were kind of pushed aside and shunned, not given as much of an opportunity to make choices, and told what to do,” notes Pitts. “By creating and showcasing their art, it gives them some of that autonomy back.”

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

“It’s a win-win for these students,” she explains, “because it not only allows them to express themselves —and some of our students are nonverbal — but it also allows them to get their work out there.”

There’s a market for “folk” or “intuitive” artwork, notes Pitts, and that’s how these pieces are often classified. Open Hearts artists, she says, “have no preconceived idea of what it’s supposed to be. So [the work is] very uninhibited, it’s raw, and it’s coming straight from their heart and soul.”

A time to shine

On Wednesday, Sept. 19, these artists will share their work during Open Hearts’ annual student talent show/fundraiser (see box, “Strutting Their Stuff”). The event will also feature food, a silent auction of student work, and jazz by Viper’s Dream.

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

Transporting adults with disabilities is expensive, notes Pitts. “We were looking at roughly $1,100 a month for insurance, gas and upkeep.” Students, she explains, often rely on parents, other caregivers or the county’s Mountain Mobility service to get to the art center.

“Be sure that you’re arm’s length apart, so we have enough room to shine,” says Octavius as he leads a group of students through a dance routine. “The talent show is a very, very exciting time here,” he explains, adding, “The enthusiasm is infectious.” But this moment in the spotlight isn’t just for his students.

“It gives them an outlet, a medium to be seen and heard, and a filter for the community to connect with them initially before they connect with them as people. Sometimes, people may look at one of the students here and get really nervous or put off. But if people see the pieces of art they make, and their heart and soul that was put into the art, then they’re more inclined to feel comfortable with them.”

And clearly, for students like Pott, Jones and Queen, the upcoming fundraiser is not about the money — it’s about the moment.


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