Open doors and big windows

Posted: Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Canvas Community Art Studio and Gallery is an inspired artists’ space. Located downtown on the corner of Seward and Second streets, the thriving three-room artists’ studio brings together REACH artists who experience disabilities and other local artists in a new model for successful social integration and inclusion.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

In 2005, Canvas Director Annie Geselle was asked to expand REACH’s small, one-windowed, day-habilitation space. While researching successful facilities in California and New York, Geselle learned that local artists were trying to create a downtown community artist space, and suggested combining forces.

With the help of an advisory board, NorthWind architects and the efforts of many community members and organizations, her vision was carried out.

“REACH has always been dedicated to connecting people who experience disabilities with the community,” said MK MacNaughton, Canvas program developer. REACH, a local nonprofit that provides a range of services to those who experience disabilities, is the third largest employer in the city, after the state and the city.

“There are hundreds of direct service providers who work one-on-one with REACH clients who go out with people in the community. You see them at the pool, at concerts, but this was a different model.”

The Canvas has created daily interactions between Juneau community artists and REACH artists, enhancing their communication, independence and socialization.

“People of all abilities and all ages can create, so it was great thinking on Annie Geselle’s part to come up with it,” MacNaughton said.

Paving the way

The Canvas is one of the first integrated art studios in the country, according to Richard Fagundes, executive director of REACH. MacNaughton said the facility has been a long time coming, and is a testament to the efforts of those in the disabilities awareness movement who have worked to shift the culture from isolation to integration.

“I want to recognize all of the work people in the disabilities awareness movement have invested over the past 50 years. Because of all the work people have done before me, I have the luxury of helping to create this beautiful program,” she said.

“There are adults in this program who grew up in institutions very separate from other people – isolated. That doesn’t happen very much anymore, and it certainly doesn’t happen in Juneau like it did years ago.”

Let there be light

The welcoming space has large windows along the Seward Street side that allow natural light to pour into the studio and gallery, and encourage passers-by to observe the artists at work, but MacNaughton said initially they drew the shades.

“When we first opened, people were worried about the community staring in and we kept the shades closed more.”

That started to change when REACH artist Corrine Jackson was working on a project involving wheel chair painting, where she’d roll paint-covered wheels around on a canvas on the floor to create a design. People watched through the windows as Jackson made tracks with her chair, and she didn’t mind the attention.

“She loved performance art — she loved people watching, and other people who weren’t in wheel chairs wanted to get in her wheelchair,” MacNaughton said.

The artistic process also helped Jackson get used to the chair itself.

“It had been very painful for her to move into a wheel chair and she didn’t like it very much, but through the process of using it as a paintbrush she became really proud of her tool.”

Once finished, Jackson’s art piece hung in the stairwell of the Capitol for a year.

“We never care about closing the shades anymore.”

Art explosion

In addition to becoming more visible to the public, the Canvas has contributed to an art explosion in the community through its extensive schedule of classes that are open to everyone. The facility offers up to three classes a night in the three different rooms, and helps support more than 100 different local artists by hiring them to teach and by hosting gallery nights so artists can sell their work.

Day habilitation and community classes include jewelry making, ceramics, painting, drawing, weaving, mixed media, film-making, culinary art and marimba playing, and REACH artists also have the opportunity to study acting in collaboration with Shona Strauser of Perseverance Theatre.

“There’s a lot of different arts happening, it’s not all just painting and glass,” said Tasha Walen, REACH art teacher. “There’s music and movement and yoga and theater and weaving, we cover pretty much everything.”

Music and movement

The current exhibit at the Canvas is “Music and Movement,” a joint show by REACH artists in the day habilitation program. On a recent afternoon at the studio, REACH artist Amanda Savikko furiously shined up a mosaic she’d been working on for more than a year, using tile shards from the pottery studio.

“It has stars and a couple of word stars and a bear,” said Savikko, who was inspired to create the image after studying a black and white picture of a saxophone.

Another artist, Melanie Adams, was finishing her Rock Banjo mosaic.

“Every day I create art in this space, painting, drawing, pastels, beads, pillows —everything. I love music and I have some of it for sale too,” she kidded. She says she puts half her money in the bank and half in her wallet.

Niall Johnson was making a pillow for his father for Christmas. He also plays the guitar, banjo and electric guitar, and is a mask maker.

“I do my own face in a mask, and Flash Gordon,” he said.

In addition to MacNaughton and Geselle, the Canvas has a handful of studio assistants on staff and often invites local artists to lead day habilitation classes.

Chelsea O’Neill, a Jesuit volunteer from Chicago, said she loves her job as an assistant.

“It’s great, I brag all the time that I have the best job,” she said. “(The REACH artists) are all very excited for the show to show their art to their friends and family and they’ve worked really hard. It’s really inspiring — they are so creative and they don’t hold back. It’s empowering to watch.”

REACH artist Avery Skaggs had a solo show this past fall, and Ed Parish will have one in February.

“Our culture has changed but The Canvas goes even a step farther by getting to truly celebrate talents and expressions, and I think people come in here and see work that is really beautiful,” MacNaughton said.

• Courtney Nelson can be reached at nelsonfamily@acsalaska.net.




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