A unique art studio on the Kalamazoo Mall shows that creative talent sometimes comes from unexpected sources.
MRC ArtWorks is both a classroom and a gallery open to the public, and its artists are adults with mental or emotional disabilities who work with instructors to create art in various media, including drawing, painting, collage and pottery.
ArtWorks participants learn social skills as well as artistic techniques, and they make a 75 percent commission on the sale of their works. Along with these benefits to the individuals, ArtWorks “shows the community that people with disabilities have talents just like anybody else,” says Chris Zeigler, CEO of MRC Industries Inc.
ArtWorks is overseen by MRC Industries, which serves individuals with developmental or learning disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, emotional impairments and mental illness through a variety of programs, using funding from Kalamazoo Community Mental Health.
MRC’s slogan is “putting abilities to work,” and its oldest and largest program, McKercher Services, of which ArtWorks is a part, provides job training and placement services. Some ArtWorks artists, along with other McKercher participants, also learn skills and earn an income through work on contracts with local businesses to provide bulk mailing and other packaging and assembly services.
Artists come to ArtWorks with various levels of ability, and some have previous art experience. They work in separate groups, each led by an instructor. Staff members will sometimes teach a group about a particular technique or medium, but most often they provide one-on-one guidance to individuals working independently in the media and subject matters of their choice.
Danielle Fales explains that she and the other teachers provide technical and artistic instruction and encourage artists to pay attention to art trends so they can create “sellable artwork” that will bring them a paycheck. “When something is really trending or really popular, we’ll show them, ‘This is what’s selling right now,’” she says.
The artists also practice sales skills, including greeting customers, writing receipts and making change. “We’re not only doing the artwork here, but we’re teaching them the skills they need to eventually get a job of their own,” Fales says.
“Social skills increase when artists have an opportunity to interact with our customers,” Ziegler explains. “We have seen so many positive interactions between our artists and community members who stop in the gallery.”
Artist Junenette Bradshaw is proud and grateful to be a part of ArtWorks. “I’m glad I’m in this class (because it’s) something to do with my mind. I love to do stuff with my hands,” she says. “You know, I don’t like to sit around with nothing to do. You can’t stay home and sit by the TV all the time because you won’t make (any) money like that.”
ArtWorks is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays as well as during monthly Art Hops so that the public can “see the artwork and also be able to meet our artists, see the work that they’re doing and get to know them a little bit too,” Zeigler says.
“Many times the comments I hear are, ‘I had no idea the creative talent that someone with a developmental disability has until I came and saw the artwork that they’re doing, and I just was totally amazed.’”
Ziegler says selling a piece of art can mean more than just a paycheck to an artist. “To be to able see somebody else likes this enough that they want to purchase it gives them a sense of self-worth,” she says.
In addition to purchasing something from the gallery’s varied offerings — including many practical and decorative items, such as birdhouses, journals, jewelry, keychains, coasters, magnets and notecards — patrons can also commission a piece by an artist whose work they like.
Public awareness of ArtWorks — and MRC — increased when the gallery moved from the Park Trades Center to its current location at 330 South Burdick St., more than three years ago. “Even though this is really our smallest program, since it’s so visible and so many people come through for the Art Hops, now it’s become really well known,” Ziegler says. “The downtown area has been so welcoming to our artists and made them feel a part of the whole downtown community.”
Artworks artists’ work also has been shown at other venues in Southwest Michigan, including Food Dance Cafe, Portage District Library and the retail stores Sticks and Stones and Bookbug.
One MRC artist’s work will be shown at this year’s Grand Rapids ArtPrize. Meghan Matthews won $500 and an exhibition during the three-week citywide art show through the Legacy Trust Award Collection competition for Michigan adult artists with disabilities. Four winners were selected, including two by popular vote. Matthews’ piece Singing Bird (2) was the judges’ choice.
“To win the juried award at the Legacy Trust award contest and gain an entry into ArtPrize is quite an honor,” Zeigler says, “and is really symbolic of the multitude of talents that individuals with disabilities possess.”
For more information about MRC ArtWorks, call (269) 978-0028.