In many ways, Jacob Blankenship is a typical 23-year-old: He likes video games and anime, and he works part time at Pizza Hut. For the past four years, however, he’s spent every Thursday at the Open Hearts Art Center in West Asheville, a nonprofit arts education program for adults with disabilities. And one look at Blankenship’s sketchbook reveals that beneath his affable façade lies a talented and focused artistic soul.
With guidance and support from his family and the Open Hearts staff, Blankenship has created his own universe of good and evil, creatures and elements, even a specific language and alphabet, projecting the mystical realm in his head onto paper. In recognition of his feverish productivity, Blankenship has been selected as Open Hearts’ Artist of July. Nine of his drawings and paintings will be on display all month and available for purchase at Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville.
Blankenship is just one of many local artists Open Hearts has helped nurture. And besides contributing to the burgeoning local art scene, the organization and its clients are changing community perceptions about disability and what the differently abled can contribute to our collective culture.
The making of an artist
On a recent Thursday morning, Xpress met Blankenship at Open Hearts and talked about the origins of his interest in visual art. “My mom does realism art — animals and people,” the Candler native explained. “She taught me how to draw like this, and she helps me slow down and pay attention to detail.”
Blankenship’s talent and imagination had caught the eye of several teachers and volunteers at Open Heart, and they’d been talking for a while about a show for him, notes Salley Williamson, head teacher at the center.
A fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Zelda video games and anime illustrators like Masashi Kishimoto, the self-described “speed drawer” decided a couple of years ago to try his hand at creating a similar universe himself. “I wanted to do something like what they did, how they create their own world,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Why not me doing that?’”
The result was Silverstone, a fantasy world inhabited by sorcerers, elves, toadstool people and elemental creatures. Here, the forces of light, led by Lucinda the Good, do battle with the “Wastes,” a legion of undead creatures.
Like the authors and artists who inspire him, Blankenship produces a prodigious amount of material. “I think I did about eight drawings in a week,” he says, using a mixture of pen, markers, acrylics and watercolors to bring his characters to life.
Paired with this visual world are an alphabet and language he created, and in the coming months, Blankenship plans to expand and refine Silverstone. “I was thinking of making a map of the whole entire world, with all the towns, castles, countries and minefields,” the artist says, as well as a comic book based on his creations.
Meanwhile, Blankenship recently completed a separate series of goddess portraits representing natural elements. “I’m fascinated by elemental stuff,” he explains, pointing to one of the acrylic paintings. “I did water, fire, mountains, the air and the ether.”
His latest goddess image was drawn completely freehand. “Usually I sketch out the skeletal structure of the figure first,” he says, but with encouragement from his teachers to “paint whatever comes to your mind,” he decided to forgo that approach in this case. Describing his creative process, Blankenship says, “I get up and ask myself, ‘What am I going to draw today?’ and my mind just plays images in my head. I see it on paper in front of me, and ‘Boom!’ I go at it.”
Heart of the matter
Blankenship is one of many success stories for the art center, now in its 10th year. “Some of our artists make pretty good money selling their work in the community,” says Williamson, who’s worked at the nonprofit for four years.
Founders Debbie Harris, Jessie Francis and Sonia Pitts established Open Hearts after Creative Clay, a similar program where they’d previously worked, shut down. “When we started, we only had six students,” says Harris, the center’s director of clientele and events. “We saw the potential for our artists, the program and the work that we did.”
Inspired by similar programs in California, the three women launched Open Hearts in 2005 on Weaverville Highway. “We were in a small space with all donated supplies, materials and furniture,” remembers Pitts, the executive director. “Even the computers and pens we used were donated.”
Thanks to rapid growth, however, the organization has had to relocate several times. “We have 45 total students right now, and we’re definitely having growing pains,” Harris reports. There are plans to move closer to the River Arts District, notes Pitts, to enable the center’s artists to “organically interact with professional artists and the community at large.”
Like Blankenship, many students come just once or twice per week; others are there Monday through Friday, working in various mediums. “We try and mix it up to keep things interesting,” says Williamson. About four different classes are offered daily, including writing and performing arts as well as visual media. Medicaid covers the cost for many students; otherwise, the classes cost $15 an hour.
Those classes, says Pitts, enable students to express their emotions in a safe and loving environment. “For many of them, this is the way they communicate,” she explains, adding that the program helps bolster the confidence of students whose voices “might never have seemed important before.”
Open Hearts also gives these budding artists professional support, notes Francis, the nonprofit’s director of finances. “Artists without a disability can go get a job to buy the supplies and rent the space to make art. Open Hearts’ mission is to give artists with disabilities the same opportunities.”
In addition to the arts curriculum, the center has a student-maintained vegetable garden, and a recently acquired van helped launch the Boundless Art program, which takes students to places of interest in the area. “They might visit an art museum or go do yoga in the park,” says Williamson.
Open Hearts is supported by private donations, grants and Medicaid payments, though Pitts says the possibility of Medicaid funding cuts is an ever-present concern. To mitigate that, she says, they’re ramping up fundraising efforts. The center also takes a percentage of the revenue from sales of artwork.
Staff members bristle at the idea that Open Hearts is simply a day care program, asserting that the work they’re doing benefits not just students but the entire Asheville community. “Everybody wants to contribute to the community and have a purpose in life,” says Harris. “I think the community at large would look at the students differently if they saw the work they do and read their bios.”
Francis, meanwhile, has a broader vision. “With all the love that Asheville gets from the media, this city has the opportunity to set national trends when it comes to the treatment and inclusion of this population in our country.”
Accordingly, says Harris, the organization is working to enhance its visibility in the region. “We’d love to do more in different restaurants around town and inundate Asheville with our artists.”
In addition to regular exhibits at Woolworth Walk, City Bakery and The Hop, Open Hearts artists recently participated in the Montford Music & Arts Festival. In September, they’ll present their annual talent show at Asheville Community Theatre. ACT’s space, notes Harris, offers a more professional setting, with a stage and a gallery where the work of visual artists like Blankenship will be exhibited during the show.
“It’s important to give individual artists their time in the spotlight,” says Williamson. “A lot of the art is whimsical and uninhibited. It has a lot of energy, and it’s great to see people’s reactions to that.”
Framework for the future
Open Hearts, says Blankenship, has given him greater confidence in his abilities. On Thursday, July 9, he’ll give a live demonstration at Woolworth Walk from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., enabling the public to watch him work his magic.
“I’d really like to finally get some recognition and business going. If I start selling, it just gives me the motivation to do more and more,” Blankenship explains. He’s also considering expanding his goddess series and would like to eventually focus on his art full time.
That’s exactly the kind of long-term outcome that Open Hearts envisions for its students, says Francis. “We’ve had several clients throughout the years who did not consider themselves artistic until they came to Open Hearts. Some of those clients are bona fide artists now — so prolific that we struggle to get all their work out there for sale fast enough.”
Asked to explain how he feels about art, Blankenship furrows his brow. “That’s a tough one,” he says, pondering for a minute. “People say that magic exists. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I like the idea. It’s like being a master of illusions.”
Blankenship’s exhibit, Silverstone, will be on display throughout July at Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St. in downtown Asheville). To learn more about the Open Hearts Art Center, the exhibit and other upcoming shows, or to buy a piece of art, visit openheartsartcenter.org.