Artists' Open Studio expands to empower more adults with developmental disabilities through art

The Artists' Open Studio has been providing space for adults with developmental disabilities to express themselves through art since 2004.

In the years since, AOS has expanded from its original location in the Huron County Board of Developmental Disabilities office to a storefront at 32 E. Main Street in downtown Norwalk in 2020, becoming a fully operational studio and retail gallery, tripling its revenue during a year that also saw the facility being shut down for a while during the pandemic.

“At that time, and even to this day, we’re serving anywhere from 40 to 50 artists at a time,” says Lindsey Esker, who took over as executive director of the nonprofit organization earlier this year. “It was really scary because what if we went away and these artists couldn’t create any longer? We knew that if we were going to survive, we needed to be in the community, the community needed to know about us and we needed to have more engagement and more visibility.”

Now 20 years later, AOS is expanding again and will double its space.

“Our (current) space is not big enough,” Esker says. “This is our gallery, retail, studio and event space and it’s not enough. We knew we wanted the space next door so when the Norwalk Reflector left on June 1, we were able to occupy the space.”

The new space, at 34 E. Main St., is connected to the current gallery by a doorway and owned by the same landlord. AOS is in the beginning stages of renovating the location, which will become its studio for painting and ceramic activities, leaving the original space to be optimized for retail, the gallery and events.

“We just found out that the space would be opened in May,” Esker says. “We told our landlord we wanted to rent it, so I have a lot of work to do.

Courtesy of AOSA painting that is part of the traveling exhibit is from Jesse Fields, a disabled artist who works out of the Norwalk studio.“There are other programs around the state that support disabled individuals creating arts but they don’t have a gallery attached, so we are very unique in that way.”

To prove that point, AOS was selected as a host site for the 2024 Accessible Expressions Ohio tour, featuring artwork by developmentally disabled artists from across the state. The exhibit, which features an acrylic painting from AOS artist Jesse Fields, started at the Cincinnati Art Museum and runs through the middle of December with stops in Norwalk, Massillon and Columbus.

As a 501(C)3 non-profit organization, AOS relies on grants, funding, community donations and fund-raising activities. The location also serves as a retail outlet, offering original artwork from the artists working there, as well as selling specialty AOS products.

Artists are paid for their original work, and those individuals who help finish the AOS products that are offered are paid an hourly wage.

“Overall I think income opportunities for individuals who are disabled are extremely poor,” Esker says. “I also think we’re just supporting people and giving them the ability to create fine art and, then, for having that art be seen. This is a group of individuals who are historically not seen by others, they are not included often, so we want them to be seen and we want their art to be seen. We are supporting them to express themselves through their art and to be seen in their community.”

AOS also depends on volunteers to make it all work. Esker started as a volunteer before joining the Board of Directors and eventually being named executive director.

“Typically, volunteers are working our retail hours,” she says. “We have them for retail, we have them helping with our different creative projects. We have them maintaining our space because clay dust and paint take a lot of work to keep clean. We are very reliant on our volunteers and thankful for them.”

Helping disabled adults to be seen is essentially the mission of AOS. The organization was founded by Lynda Stoneham, an art teacher at the Christie Lane School, and her husband Dennis, after Lynda received requests from Christie Lane graduates on places where they might be able to continue creating art.

The studio is open to disabled adults, ages 18 and over, in Huron County and surrounding communities. Travel is about the only real barrier to participating because most developmentally disabled individuals often require special transportation and dedicated caregivers, who are usually their parents.

“We primarily serve Huron County, but we do have an artist who comes to us from Medina,” Esker says. “Her parents drive her here and they walk around Norwalk while she creates. We’re not exclusive at all, but transportation can be an issue.”

Artists are normally referred to AOS through the county boards of developmental disabilities and local hospitals. Boys and girls scout troops have often taken on tours of the facility, which always seems to have a waiting list for prospective artists.

Those artists are asked to fill out an application and go through a meeting with Jackie Hugg, the organization’s program manager and artist. She assesses each candidate for their particular needs, introduces them to the facility and its procedures and then meets with them and their caregiver to be certain the program, which begins with a two-week trial, is the right choice for the artists.

Local artists interested in using the studio are also welcomed and work alongside the disabled artists.

“We offer studio time to anyone who wants to create art,” Esker says, adding that artists are charged for supplies that they require. “It’s just inspiring all the way around. What’s been beautiful about having this space is having open retail gallery hours where people wander in, see something, ask to buy it and then we ask them if they would like to meet the artist. That is such a special thing.”

Studio time, which is on break for the summer, is eight weeks in length for paint or ceramic artists. AOS also offers a variety of workshops, some of which are led by some disabled artists.

“More people who hear about us are coming in to check it out,” Esker says. “Maybe they are doing a community workshop and that’s how they find out. We had a school district that found out about us and wanted their special education class to come in and take a tour, showing the teachers and their students that there is something they can do if this is an area of interest.

“We’ve been working very hard at engagement and awareness.”

The application to participate in the AOS programs is available at www.artistsopenstudioinc.org. Donations to the organization are welcomed and can be made through the website, which has links to shop merchandise from the store, purchase raffle tickets or bid on basket raffles that are part of the AOS fund-raising efforts.

Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Contact the studio at (567) 743-9922 or email at [email protected].

“I am not an artist,” Esker says. “I started working with AOS through different projects and the more time I spent here, the more I wanted to be here. The idea of helping individuals to be seen for who they are and creating a sense of community for people who don’t always feel like they have a community never gets old for me.”