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An Artist First

An Artist First


Emily B. King


Published in The Strip, 3/10/10 web and print


1672 words


Everyone an Artist Gallery was absolutely buzzing with excitement on the opening afternoon of their most recent show, appropriately named, “Surprise!” It could have been the energetic theme of the show, but most likely it was due to the enthusiasm of the artists. Instead of sitting around and sipping glasses of wine while waxing philosophic about technique and metaphors, the artists actively engaged the audience, grabbing them by the hand and telling them, “I did this!”


Reasons abound why Everyone an Artist Gallery in Lawrenceville seems different than the other Pittsburgh galleries that line the streets of the city’s eclectic neighborhoods. The most obvious difference arises from the fact that all of the artists live with some type of intellectual or developmental disability. Everyone an Artist exists as part of Milestone Centers Inc., a nonprofit human service organization serving people of Western Pennsylvania with behavioral and intellectual challenges. The gallery also features art from Milestone’s deafness program.


Milestone Centers Inc., emerged in 1969 as a result of the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Mental Retardation Acts of 1966. The 1960’s fostered tremendous changes in the setting of mental health in Pennsylvania and the rest of the world. Up until this time, Pennsylvania and other states had placed persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in institutions, away from their families and robbed of their independence.


Advocates exposed the deplorable state of many of these institutions in the form of literature and photographic exposes, like Burton Blatt’s collection of photographs that documented the atrocious conditions of The Willowbrook State Center in New York. Reports of up to one hundred patients sharing the same sleeping quarters, the use of cages and cattle prods all shocked America. Following the publicity, the issue finally held the spotlight instead of being ignored.


In 1963, President Kennedy ordered the gradual release of the thousands of patients living in institutions across the country. He introduced legislation that integrated institutionalized patients back into society and family life. These laws mandated the creation of services to help these people live healthy lives.


Up until the mid-60’s, very little assistance existed for anyone suffering from intellectual and developmental disabilities. Finally, in 1966, Pennsylvania passed the Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act. The act mandated provisions to be made that provided people of the state with services and programs that assisted them with special needs. The new legislation promoted the belief that people with these disabilities should have every right and opportunity to live their life with the same basic freedoms and opportunities as the rest of the population. This meant providing support and services that could help those people reach these aspirations. People who were once destined to be institutionalized and isolated from their families relished the opportunity to function and flourish in society.


The passing of these laws initiated the creation of Milestone Centers Inc. They now celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary. Today their programs and services include residential services like home care and supportive housing, day treatment centers, clinical services, senior care and vocational and employment assistance. Milestone also works in conjunction with area school districts, helping participants to thrive in the educational system.


Everyone an Artist, one of the day programs of Milestone Centers, makes a difference in the lives of its participants every day. The gallery opened at 4128 Butler Street five years ago. Kirsten Ervin has acted as curator of the gallery and studio since 2007. Milestone refers participants to the program who have been diagnosed with a developmental or intellectual disability. Private insurance and government programs like Medicaid fund the program.


Though the participants experience therapeutic benefits, Everyone an Artist ultimately teaches art. The studio encourages the participants to explore and challenge their artistic skills. An artist herself, Kirsten creates a structured environment where she can challenge the artists to learn new techniques and let their art evolve and take on new forms.


“I’m not just giving them paint and letting them finger paint,” says Kirsten. She structures her lessons with the exploration of different techniques and materials. She also provides a still life arrangement for the artists to draw inspiration from. Whether the artist creates a representational image of the still life or thinks about it in terms of color or form, the still life serves its purpose. Kirsten encourages free artistic expression, but also challenges the artists with questions about their art.


“Someone might draw a picture of a dog. Maybe I will ask if they are going to draw a tail for the dog. If they don’t want the dog to have a tail, that’s fine too,” she says. The point is to challenge the artist’s thinking and encourage them to explore the possibilities. This is an environment where the person has a choice. They can choose to draw a dog without a tail if they want.
“This is a very much a teaching field,” says Kirsten. Other aspects of treatment for intellectual and developmental disorders don’t provide the same opportunity for decision-making.


The programs at Milestone teach participants correct behaviors, how to tie shoes, how to communicate, how to work at a job. Opportunities like the classes at Everyone an Artist compliment these teaching programs by allowing participants an outlet where they can make their own decisions and rules. In an environment where they are constantly learning the right way to do things, they value the opportunity to make their own decisions, mistakes and revelations. Kirsten can give the participants the tools they need, but ultimately their artistic choices are up to them.


Art can also forge a sense of identity. “It makes them an artist first, not a person with a disability,” says Kirsten. Kirsten structures the art program with clear lessons, skills improvement and even shows and gallery openings. The participants relate to each other and members of the art community in Lawrenceville, not as people with disabilities, but as artists.
The Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville has provided the perfect community for Everyone an Artist. The area has experienced a resurrection in the last few years, changing its reputation as a seedy neighborhood into that of an artist community on the rise. Many of Pittsburgh’s newest art galleries emerged along the storefronts of Butler Street and Penn Avenue in recent years.


“We have experienced so much support from the people of Lawrenceville,” says Kate Bayer, Director of Development and Communications at Milestone. They often arrive at the studio in the morning to find boxes of anonymously donated supplies. Residents of Lawrenceville regularly donate whatever they can. Frames have been donated by a frame shop, paper and other supplies donated by local artists.


They don’t just share supplies; the community of Lawrenceville also time, knowledge and ideas. The artists in the program regularly attend field trips all over the Pittsburgh area. After all, being an artist means more than just putting paint to paper. They have studied the masters through books and trips to the Carnegie Museum, made soap at Jay Soap and Design, sifted through beads at Crystal Bead Bazaar and learned how to frame and display their art. They toured the Framery as well as the costume shop at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. A group of senior adults visited a museum for the first time in their lives. These trips help open their eyes to new artistic possibilities and also make them a vital part of the art community in Pittsburgh.


Kirsten’s enthusiasm nearly rivals that of her participants. She admits that she entered the field because of the excitement that art creates. This excitement clearly makes changes in the lives of her participants. Though Everyone an Artist doesn’t consider itself an art therapy program, art tends to be therapeutic nonetheless.


Julie Suber has noticed the positive influence that the program has had on her daughter Latasha, a participant in the program. “I now have an art gallery in my home,” she says. As Latasha’s art has progressed and evolved, a sense of pride has emerged in her. She was even honored to have her design grace the front of the studio’s annual Christmas card. She has found an identity as an artist.
Others beside Latasha have also progressed throughout the program. Assessments and comparisons that are conducted periodically show dramatic evolutions in the artists’ work, particularly through their art journals. Participants who once only managed a few scribbles can now draw objects, shapes and patterns. Artists with impaired motor skills can receive tools like a paintbrush with a ball on the end to grip. As their art improves, so does their confidence, pride and independence. Many artists have produced art for the gallery to sell, in the form of postcards, pillows and other gifts. They can also choose to sell their works of art at the gallery openings. They make money from these sales and in turn gain a bit of independence and self-sufficiency.


Kirsten emphasizes that the participants have full control over their art. Though she guides them and makes them question their world, the artists have the ultimate control. Though they have to face significant hurdles in their health and daily life, they may have a distinct artistic advantage over the rest of the population. The participants have a lack of inhibition that makes their art honest and direct.


Kirsten explains: “Artists see the world differently: so do they. Their work doesn’t lie.”


Everyone an Artist studio is located at 4128 Butler Street in Lawrenceville. The gallery hours are from 8:30 am until 3:30 pm on weekdays, by appointment only. Make sure to check out the gallery store, as all proceeds go to the artists and the benefit of the program.