Cincinnati is not a desert region, but it does include a little-known oasis of affirmation called Visionaries and Voices.
Art and acceptance partner at this unique studio and gallery to bring a life-changing impact to local artists who are mentally and/or physically disabled. Since its inception in 2003, Visionaries and Voices has trained, nurtured, and celebrated over 300 artists, many of whom have been helped to create, market, and sell their works.
Visionaries and Voices was founded by local artists and social workers Bill Ross and Keith Banner. In the course of visiting clients, Bill and Keith came across persons with disabilities who were making art in the privacy of their bedrooms, basements, and garages. Inspired by the abilities and determination they witnessed, the two decided to take on these artists and their art as a cause.
Each artist is helped to pursue his or her own vision and interests. Educational Coordinator Victor Strunk explains. “When somebody comes to the studio, we figure out what they want to learn, what they’re interested in. I either teach that to them, or find other people who can; (we’re) developing people’s goals and fulfilling them. If someone has an idea, we never tell them no.”
The studio serves people with a wide range of disabilities, which can sometimes lead to challenges. Says Strunk, “There are a lot of people with different degrees of mental retardation. We have a group that comes (in which) everybody’s afflicted with cerebral palsy. Schizophrenia, Down’s Syndrome, just about anything you can think of. They come in as a person who wants to make art, and (if) they can’t hold a paintbrush in their hand, then we may put it in a helmet and put it on top of their head. Visionaries and Voices is a good example of building something from the ground up around your clients’ needs. That’s always the first priority.”
Included in the day-to-day activities at Visionaries and Voices is a lesson for the community at large. “Everyone’s disability stops at the door,” says Strunk. Co-founder Keith Banner agrees. “When you’re here, you don’t get ‘fixed,’ we try to work with what you can do and make that into a celebration as opposed to thinking, well there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with people here. I think that’s a feeling of freedom, and relief, for a lot of folks that come here. They feel empowered by it.”
The studio and the opportunities presented make a personal and professional impact on the artists. “They kind of own the place,” says Banner. “(For many) it’s the first time in their lives they’ve had an actual sense of ownership of something. A lot of people, before they come here they’ve been isolated, they didn’t know they even had the ability to talk to people and make friends.”
“Probably ten of the artists have become leaders of outsider art,” Banner says. “The main guy we began with, Raymond Thunder-Sky, passed away in 2004, but his work is being collected by major collectors. He also had a piece taken by the Cincinnati Art Museum.”
“One of the guys, Robert Boremski, is getting a reputation for being a folk artist, kind of an outsider artist,” Banner continues. “He’s selling, he’s going to the openings, and he’s teaching kids how to paint. Before he came here, he was kind of silent, and now he talks more. He’s able to express a lot by talking about something that he can do. I think that’s big for a lot of people here, they never have really been offered a chance to show what they can do.”
Visionaries and Voices also gives their clients the chance to get out into the community. “We have a program called ‘Same Difference’ where some of our artists go into elementary schools,” says Banner. “They show their art and they help the kids make art. A lot of people that come here have never thought they could actually teach something to somebody. That’s been gratifying to them.”
Mike Weber is one artist who teaches these classes. He appreciates the feeling he gets when someone wants to take home a piece of his art. “It feels good, and it shows me I can do more stuff than I think I could do. Visionaries and Voices is a great place to grow. I get respect for my art, and respect from other people. I just love it.”
Essex Studios at 2515 Essex Place, Visionaries and Voices’ Walnut Hills location, holds a Gallery Walk on the first Friday and Saturday of every other month from 6 to 11 p.m. “There are about 150 studios in this building. They serve hors d’oeurves and wine, sometimes a jazz trio is playing. It gets really happening,” says Strunk.
To see artists’ works, get information about volunteer opportunities, and learn more about the art of changing lives, visit the studio’s website at www.visionariesandvoices.com.
Originally published at Queen City Forum (qcfmag.com)