Sara Lige: The Art of Cool
Bringing Fine Arts to Special Needs Adults in the Community A little over four years ago, artists, art educators, special needs adults and family members held a brainstorming session. They discussed forming a group to bring fine arts opportunities to adults with developmental challenges living in the Central Okanagan Area. The message was clear there was a need in the community and the time was right for such a project in Kelowna.
Although some handicraft-type classes were available in the Kelowna area, developmentally challenged adults had virtually no avenues to pursue expression through the fine arts. The adult basic education program at Okanagan College (OC) offered an innovative course entitled "Express Yourself," which taught expression through the arts. However, once a student finished the program at OC, no similar opportunity provided the same sort of arts experience. And so, Cool Arts was formed.
As one of the founders, I am able to relate some of the background to the formation of Cool Arts. My son, a young adult, is developmentally challenged and has enjoyed drawing and painting since childhood. I am an artist myself and our home has always been "art-friendly." When Jordan reached high school, his art teacher accepted and valued his work as equal to any of the other students; allowed him to pursue his own projects; and even commissioned him to produce a painting. Jordan did indeed create some wonderful images at that time a large painting still hangs in our family room. This teacher's attitude opened my eyes; I saw what was possible when others' expectations cease to dictate and confine a disabled person's creative progress and ability.
A little later, I came across a group in the Vancouver area called the Society for Disability Arts and Culture (S4DAC), which facilitated drama, choir, dance, music and visual arts for people with a wide range of various disabilities. S4DAC put out a call for a visual art show, and with my help, Jordan sent in a proposal and was accepted in the group show. To my amazement, he was paid an artist fee in keeping with the rate schedule for professional exhibiting artists, exhibited with the group two more times, and sold a piece. Providing exhibitions and performance opportunities for the artists validated their work, enhanced their self-esteem and increased the public's awareness and understanding regarding the artistic abilities of people with a disability. What S4DAC was doing was very exciting and I wondered if there was a way to see something similar happen in the Kelowna area.
After investigating online, I found like-minded groups in Toronto, Edmonton and the Sunshine Coast all somewhat different in organization, but similar in vision. In Los Angeles and the eastern US, larger groups are doing groundbreaking work in bringing communities, the arts, and disabled individuals together. In particular, the National Institute of Art and Disabilities (NIAD) in the San Francisco area represents an outstanding example of an art centre dedicated to providing an art environment for people with developmental disabilities
Today Cool Arts workshops are held one Saturday a month, as well as involvement in community events. All instructors are professional artists and arts educators from the community who volunteer their time, as do the workshop assistants. Workshop themes vary according to the instructor's choice printmaking, painting, three-dimensional pieces, music, rock carving, and more. We are currently looking for individuals who would teach drama workshops on a volunteer basis.
One requirement for the artists is that they must be able to work independently, or bring a worker/family member with them. Some new participants bring a family member with them until they feel comfortable with the group and activity. We strive to keep the workshops relaxed and purposely plan the day's schedule so that the art-making can be done at a leisurely pace.
Part of our mandate is to exhibit and seek involvement in the larger arts community. Cool Arts has participated in various events including Kelowna's Life & Arts Festival and the Lake Country ArtWalk and seeks to increase our profile in the community. This also addresses one of our greatest challenges reaching potential artists. Many development-ally disabled adults, particularly older individuals, are fairly segregated. To get the word out about Cool Arts can involve a gamut of social workers, support workers, family members, group homes, and day programs to reach a potential artist. However, we have seen a slow but steady increase of numbers at Cool Arts. We are now addressing the possibility of outreach programs during the midweek in order to offer services to individuals in day programs.
It is often necessary to clarify that Cool Arts is not art therapy. Art therapy provides a valuable and valid resource, but is not what we seek to accomplish. Our goal is to give opportunity for expression and to facilitate that expression by advocating, supporting and encouraging. Our general teaching philosophy is to allow the artist to accomplish as much as possible on their own. If they ask for help, then we assist.
Finally, it is important to note that Cool Arts began as a grassroots local movement and has stayed an autonomous group. Simply put, we saw a need, and some people scraped together some art supplies and invited others to come and make art. Cool Arts is not supported by any other organization or government ministry. We have been able to set our own agenda and direction. In summer 2004, we became a registered non-profit society; and in summer 2005, Cool Arts achieved Canadian Charitable Tax Status.
The directors of Cool Arts Society are very proud of what has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time. Feedback from participants, caregivers and professionals has been enthusiastic and positive. It has been gratifying to have various community groups show interest in our activities and reaffirm the need for such a resource. With a solid start behind us, Cool Arts looks forward to a future of growth, possibilities and creating!
The first accomplishment of the newly formed Cool Arts Society was to establish their mission statement:
Cool Arts Society is dedicated to providing fine arts opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities living in the Central Okanagan.
Our vision is
We believe everyone should have the opportunity to express themselves through the arts.
We believe that disabilities should not interfere with this choice