Published December 4th, 2023 by Benjamin Merritt
A Fresh Eye Arts Facilitator takes us inside one of several programs fostering community among developmentally disabled artists and showcasing the amazing art they're making
In the final year of my undergraduate program, I watched an Art21 episode that featured Judith Scott and the Creative Growth Art Center. Judith Scott worked at the Creative Growth Art Center and produced vivid, texturally intricate textile work at the studio. The Art21 episode highlighted the wide breadth of incredible work that comes from a studio like Creative Growth — studios called “progressive arts studios”.
To borrow from Disparate Minds, a progressive arts studio is “a fine art studio environment where adults with developmental disabilities can pursue and maintain lives or careers as artists.” I spent four years seeking a Fine Art degree, and it wasn’t until this episode that I knew studios like this existed. Work by disabled artists in the artistic canon is slim, let alone the contemporary art world and market. The Art21 episode showcased artists at their finest, working on their craft. I started to look for opportunities like this locally after graduating.
Enter Fresh Eye Arts and MSS. Fresh Eye Arts is a progressive arts studio in multiple locations in the Metro area, as part of a local non-profit organization, MSS, that has supported individuals with disabilities for 75 years. In 1999, MSS started engaging participants with the arts in their programming. The studio program started in 2018, at the Eagan MSS location.
I started working with MSS three years ago, in an attempt to find jobs like I had seen on the Art21 episode. I began as a Direct Support Professional, helping individuals with daily needs and engaging them with enriching individualized programming. Early on, I left for a month and a half to go to Chicago for an artist residency. There, I met Tim Ortiz, one of the founders of Disparate Minds, a project dedicated to the visibility and celebration of the arts in disabled communities. He showed me around Arts of Life, a progressive arts studio in Chicago. I led a workshop with participants from Project Onward, doing a collaborative collagraph workshop with the artists. I brought this experience back with me to my Direct Support Professional role, continually seeking out ways to include art in the lives of people I was supporting. After two years at MSS, I began my role as an Art Facilitator as MSS rebranded their art program as Fresh Eye Arts.
Fresh Eye Arts' Saint Paul Studio
I work in the Saint Paul Studio, serving artists by assisting them with a variety of things like applying for grants, portfolio building, organizing meetings with peers, critiques, or learning new techniques. I am just a tiny part of the team; which includes multiple Art Facilitators at other locations, Arts Employment staff, Direct Support Professionals, and many more. I work with twenty-five different artists Monday through Friday, all of whom work in a wide range of media: woodworking, weaving, ceramics, and more. Each artist has their own art station, access to a variety of media, and the opportunity to independently work on what is meaningful to them. Working with these artists has taught me so much about what it means to be an artist in a community, and to truly take creative risks and push myself as an artist. It’s what they do each and every day.
This is a vibrant workspace — the artists’ studios are covered with drawings of friends and family, sweet notes from peers, funny pictures of their favorite people. As artists trickle in each morning, the studio gets louder with conversation and laughter — people truly happy to be surrounded by other artists who love their creative practices as much as they do. The studio quiets down as artists begin to settle into their studio spaces, ready to work for the day. The artists reach out to each other for help, and offer their hand when necessary. One artist, Ken Bowling, who loves woodworking, will gleefully create anything for his peers; within half an hour, he created a wooden jig to hold a loom for his colleague who struggled with the weight of the loom.
Mazin Hasabelrasoul, a Sudanese-American artist, has spent the past ten months creating a series of drawings of his favorite cartoons and movie characters, with the occasional political cartoon (right now he’s drawing Donald Trump as a baby, pacifier and all). Mazin has limited use of his hands, and to draw he will cradle a drawing tool between his middle and ring finger and move the end of the tool with his other arm to create marks. After immigrating to the US from Sudan as a child, Mazin tells me that all he wanted to do was watch the new cartoons and movies that he found on the TV. He practiced English by watching TV, and now spends time drawing the same characters. His drawings have a distinctly scratchy, loose quality of line that gives them a unique character. I spend lots of time with Mazin, and he is perhaps the funniest person I know. With art, his confidence and personality have grown larger and larger. Two years ago, he swore he could never draw without help, and now he comes to the studio eager to draw new pieces independently.
Henry Wenzel uses his time in the studio to practice naturalism with his heavy attention to detail. His drawings are careful observances of his daily life: coffee mugs, plants from home, close friends. It’s rewarding to listen to Henry talk about what he’s drawing and why he chose it, as he generously shares details of his life and the world around him through the drawings of specific objects and scenes. When he isn’t drawing, Henry is talking to one of his friends about weekend plans and nature, or telling me all about music theory, magic, or modular synthesizers. While talking with me about the program, Henry mentions that he finds inspiration in the variety of media and ability levels present.
Top: Mazin Hasabelrasoul drawing Sonic the Hedgehog. Bottom: Dede Decker with her cat rug.
Another artist, Dede Decker, creates beautiful latch hook rugs of abstract color fields where glimpses of animals appear from the background. Dede has been at MSS since the mid 1980s, and she regularly goes to community job sites to earn money. In the past year, she has chosen to work less, and to spend more time in our St Paul studio. Dede’s rugs feature many cats and dogs rendered in a wonderfully abstract manner, their four legs jutting out underneath their bodies, eyes rendered with one strand of yarn. She chooses these animals based on people and animals she knows — her Aunt’s cat, her niece’s dog, her sister’s pet hamster. She hangs these rugs in her studio and each day will make sure the animals are doing well, asking if they need anything. Dede surrounds herself with things that matter to her, and while doing this, creates wonderful visual art.
In the studio, the artists organized meetings every other Tuesday to get together and share updates on their life and progress in their practices. Every month they have art share events where artists ask for feedback on anything they are making. These gatherings are a chance to engage with their peers and build a sense of artistic community. I strive to have a peer-to-peer relationship with the artists; we are all artists in community, and I bring things from my practice to them just as they bring things to me. It’s a mutually sharing relationship built on professional respect for one another. Jessica Williams, one of the artists, talked with me about past programs she has attended where this relationship was absent. She told me that for her, the important thing in our studio is that the artists “have control over what we make, you give us space to create what we want.”
The work that is created in this studio is varied, but it shares this feature: it’s fun. The artists all draw from their personal backgrounds and interests, using the things they love to guide their creative practices. It is an enriching and essential part of their day to day, where arts access is key to creating a meaningful web of connections with their peers.
To say their work is fun is not to say this work should not be taken seriously. Often, artists with disabilities are discounted in the art world, their work being talked about as unskilled or as if it was a by-product of therapy or a charitable arts engagement activity. The work that these artists create, the dedication of their practice, and the creativity and skill they hold, deserves to be celebrated and taken seriously. The Fresh Eye Gallery, another aspect of the program, gives artists ownership over a place where their work exists in the local artistic conversation. The gallery “showcases work by artists with and without disabilities side by side in an effort to create a more inclusive community for all.”
The gallery, located on Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis, has been active for almost three years now and has shown a wide array of exhibitions. Most of the exhibitions are curated and feature a combination of artists from the Twin Cities and beyond, as well as Fresh Eye artists. Some of the exhibitions to highlight are The Bed Beside Me curated by Drew Maude Griffin, Spellbound, their “Eye to Eye” exhibitions and programs, and The Land Within Us, curated by Alondra Garza. Fresh Eye Artist Jessica Williams curated Bona Fide, an exhibition that celebrated the unique identities that artists show in their work. Jessica’s work is humorous and exciting, working in a variety of media including sculpture, painting, found object collage, and design.
Lynda Mullan and Nina Robinson in Lynda's studio.
Collaboration and community involvement are a large part of Fresh Eye’s mission. The yearly event Eye To Eye encapsulates this by pairing Fresh Eye Artists with local artists in the Twin Cities to create a collaborative piece of work. Two years ago, Fresh Eye artist Lynda Mullan was paired with Nina Robinson, who have since continued their artistic relationship and have created a blossoming friendship. Nina often visits the studio for a couple hours and they will talk and collaborate on new work. Nina, a textile artist, uses fabric that Lynda paints and draws on to create sculptural textile objects. Aside from having a fruitful artistic collaboration, this opportunity gave both artists the chance to meet a new friend. In 2024, Lynda and Nina will have an exhibition together at the gallery.
A benefit of the programming that Fresh Eye facilitates with artists is that it gives them links to a wider artistic community. Some artists have lived in congregate living environments for most of their lives or have had restricted access to creative outputs. The studio is a setting where artists can create meaningful work, independently. It’s an environment where the artist has total control, making all the decisions, something that is not always reflected in other aspects of their lives. Independence means different things to different individuals in different circumstances. For some artists, independence means having a modified mobility aid or piece of adaptive equipment to help with drawing. It could mean being in an environment where they feel trusted enough to make their own decisions; if someone knows they can make artistic choices confidently, they can take that confidence in advocacy home.
Top: Work by Henry Wenzel. Bottom: Henry working in his studio.
Programs like Fresh Eye are all around the country: Interact, another studio here in the Twin Cities; Project Onward and Arts of Life in Chicago; Creative Growth in Oakland, CA; and more. All of these programs share the goal of fostering confidence, independence, and ownership for artists with disabilities over their creative practice. The work that comes out of these programs is joyous, creative, boundary breaking, and exciting.
The best part of working in a studio like Fresh Eye every day is that I get to see growth, creativity, and the blossoming joy of artists who truly belong in a community where they have ownership over what they do. I get to spend every day building relationships with artists who teach me about what it means to lead a creative life. The work created in this studio is a beautiful expression of many different views of the world. Individually, the artists’ creative practices evolve as their unending curiosity leads them in unexpected directions with wonderful results. As their peer, I find joy in witnessing their creativity grow and am lucky to be a part of their artistic journeys. I find myself taking this trust in creativity to my own practice, too, and become more willing to play outside of my comfort zone the more I work with these artists. When I first saw the Art21 episode about Judith Scott, I imagined the possibilities and excitement that everyone involved feels when they see people have the space to be who they want to be. In spite of numerous systemic barriers that exist for artists with disabilities, I was inspired by the teamwork, creativity, and passion that gave individuals space to thrive on their own terms. Now I get to live this reality each day. ◼︎
Mazin Hasabelrasoul's finished drawing of Sonic.
All images are courtesy of Fresh Eye Arts.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
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