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ArtMix Aims to Redefine Disability

Writer  /  Joshua Deisler

Linda Wisler stood in front of a kiln, peering down at a broken piece of pottery. What was meant to be an urn had exploded into pieces. After throwing plastic over the hardened clay, her Urban Artisans class began to transform the figures into a snowman.

Linda formed the snowman’s body while a student molded the head. A different student crafted the buttons, and another made the nose and scarf. Soon, the snowman will be sold in the enROUTE Gallery just outside the studio.

“I love that we’re part of something bigger,” says Linda, Vice President of Programs at ArtMix (artmixindiana.org), located at 1505 N. Delaware. The ArtMix Urban Artisans program teams up with local high schools to provide a safe and respectful environment for students with disabilities.

In the Urban Artisans studio, what begins as just a mound of clay is rolled, shaped, fired, glazed and decorated into a beautiful flower pot. Each student contributes to the end product: some run the slab roller while others decorate or glaze. The projects are displayed and sold in the ArtMix gallery enROUTE – a welcomed stop on the IDADA’s First Friday art gallery tour.

“The combination of work and art is critical,” says Linda. “[The Urban Artisan’s program] is based on longevity and seeing a student evolve.” The program recently received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, and Linda and a student traveled to Washington, D.C., for the occasion.

Linda, a sculptor and studio artist, first became involved with ArtMix in 1999 as a substitute teacher. She oversees the Urban Artists program and the community classes offered throughout the year.

Community classes occur throughout the week and are open to all ages. Students spend 90 minutes rotating between two activities which usually involve experimentation with various forms of art from paintings and sculpture to music and drama. Each 8-week session is centered around a theme, and the ArtMix Teaching Artists work together to design a curriculum that fits the needs of students with varied abilities. This session’s theme is “Scapes.”

“It gets down to quality of life. I think that’s where the arts are so critical,” says Linda. She’s proud of the ArtMix group of Teaching Artists. “[They] have a preference for people of all abilities.”

“Disability doesn’t equate with inability,” adds President and CEO Gayle Holtman. “The reality is that most people with disabilities are still capable.” To Gayle, that’s why the Teaching Artists are so important.

The Teaching Artists are first and foremost artists – they are dancers, musicians, painters and sculptors. But even more important, teaching artists at ArtMix adapt their teaching to students with diverse needs. While many are based in Indy, some work in satellite campuses around the state.

A former music teacher, Gayle has also worked several jobs with the Indy art scene. But she found her home at ArtMix. In her first days as a program director, she recalls observing Teaching Artists partnering with classroom teachers. “I’m not really sure what it is we do, but I know it’s good,” she recalls saying.

ArtMix also partners with local schools to bring its Teaching Artists into art, music and even science classrooms. Classroom teachers and Teaching Artists design activities that foster artistic, academic and social learning. ArtMix sends the paint, clay, paper and other supplies, and students collaborate on group projects from murals to creative writing.

“There’s a real sense of pride [and] a sense of ownership. That is important for all students,” says Gayle.

In addition to its presence in area schools, ArtMix sends its teaching artists to Riley Hospital for Children through the Lolly Project, founded in honor of a former special education teacher. A recent activity featured paintings made not with brushes but syringes.

Formerly VSA Indiana, ArtMix recently adopted its new name. After months of careful thought and planning, the organization established its savvy tagline “Art Redefining Disability.”

“We knew we needed a name that would help convey the essence of what we do in a way that was interesting,” says Gayle who works closely with Linda to expand and extend ArtMix community classes. “It’s a secure, safe place for people to be themselves and not fear being further labeled,” says Gayle.

The organization also partners with Butler University which sends its art and education students to work with directly with ArtMix students.

To both Gayle and Linda, ArtMix is more than just as job. For Gayle, the best part of her day is seeing the folks come in and out of the studios: the students, volunteers and artists. “It’s the people,” she says. “You never know what kind of difference you’re making, but you have to believe you are.”

And to Linda, ArtMix is all about the community. She smiles as she remembers an IPS student who spent many days in the Urban Artisans studio. Linda formed such a close friendship with her student that she spent a Thanksgiving at her house. Linda also mentored her student during her pregnancy and even stood alongside for the birth of her baby girl.

“It’s life. The power of [art] is the way people connect,” says Linda. “It’s magical. I think everybody likes magic.” At ArtMix, the magic of art transpires daily as it reaches into Indy’s classrooms, communities and hospitals. As its teachers find the ability in every student, friendships begin that last longer than Gayle or Linda will ever know. And that is the magic of art.

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