Passion Works: A Story of Flying
Passion Works
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Patty Mitchell· David Barba
Interview with Patty Mitchell
Patty Mitchell is the Art Director of Passion Works.
Describe what happens in the studio
In the studio we work on all different kinds of arts projects, visual art primarily, and all of our ideas and concepts come through adults with developmental disabilities. So we focus very intently on what interests are and color choices, concepts, and then do everything we can to support their ideas. And we invite professional artists to come and so that we can work with the best materials, the best ways of applying materials, and building art projects. So we're art studio, fine art studio, and we make fine art and we happen to be in a sheltered workshop and we happen to be working with adults with disabilities, but that's not our focus. Our focus is making fine art.
How did you find your way to ATCO?
I was working with the Ohio Arts Council and traveling throughout the state doing residencies and I was working very hard to be able to live in Athens Ohio and I was spending most of my time outside of Athens and I thought I better look home to see what's hear and what can I do to be able to live at home. And, I did a couple of art projects at ATCO with photography and just felt there was some kindred spirits going on and some people were just absolutely intent on making things. And so we wrote some grants and did some residencies and through those residencies I became very attracted and attached to the idea of building something there, that the parts were there to make something exceptional. And, I have not been disappointed and actually it's happened way faster than I ever hoped or could imagine.
Talk about your first experiences as a visiting artist at ATCO, what was that like? Did you have any preconceived thoughts, or feelings?
Well, I had worked at a mental health center when I was in college and being an art student I would bring, my job was recreation and bringing people out into the community and because it was what I knew it's what I brought into the center. And I found that people were absolutely fearless when making artwork. You didn't have to convince them that it was an important thing to do or it was important. It was just the act of doing it was important. So you got out of, you know, all the criticism or “what if I'm not good enough?” that wasn't an issue. It was the process. So from that experience, I had inkling that this population would also have that kind of interest and adapt well to making art.
Is there one story, or piece of art or whatever in the very beginning that clicked with you that made that transformation?
There's one of the more stunning moment. I was in the studio and we were making tiles with ceramic pencil and everybody was doing something, houses and sun shines and hearts and squiggles and things, and they were fabulous, and there was this big guy and I asked Ed if he would participate and I was very new at this time and for me at the time it was very difficult to understand him. And he's hearing impaired; I didn't know if he was hearing me. But I said would you like to try and he did and he started writing letters on the tile and I'm like “Oh, cool!” we can use letters, that's great, we can use letters and all different kinds of things and he handed it back to me and it said “to whom I am writing there is a strength between our heart” and I looked at him and I just started crying because I realized I knew nothing. He just patted me and just started laughing; and from that day he just wrote poem after poem after poem and he just didn't stop writing. I didn't know he could read or write. I didn't know him, but the staff didn't know either. So people reacted to him differently — there was more in there than anybody anticipated.
How did you direct the name of Passion Works?
At the end of the nine month residency we had a big show of individual pieces/ collaborations between professional artists and a member of the studio. And I was told I needed a title for the show that day, so much of what happens in crisis you know it's like “OK, we have to have it, so let's do it.” So I just sat there and tried to see what the, so many people were involved in it and through the passion of each individual the art came to be and there was so much work involved and the idea of art making and work that way, so Passion Works came to be and then I though “Ooh, well maybe that could be the name for the studio,” and so we changed it to that.
What is your role with Passion Works?
My role is changing slightly. I came in as the Artist-In-Residence — just working in the studio and developing art shows. We were just making art, fine art, and as things started to move and I saw that people were enjoying the work, I knew that if we wanted to keep it going, money was an issue and also employment is an issue. So, I was told when I was in school by a girlfriend that if you have the opportunity to create employment it becomes your obligation. I've always taken that very seriously and I felt it became my obligation — that if I could create employment for people that they enjoyed, it was now my responsibility. So, by creating employment in the arts for people who enjoyed making art, we could have a strong work force and we could also make money for the studio and keep it going so that we could be making fine art. So we're three things that way. We make up fine art, create products, and then break it down to create employment. And the three things chase each other in a circle and they work well together right now.
What are some of the significant changes you've seen in some of the artists over the years?
In terms in individuals and growth, there have been some exceptional people just becoming spectacular at making art. David Dewey is one who in the beginning I had lots of time with. He doesn't have a lot of control over his hands, so it's difficult for him to stuff envelopes or fold paper and things like that. So I was with David six hours a day and on the first day and we just had pen and paper. We started thinking about things in the house and he was drawing refrigerators and stoves and they were fantastic. They were not just refrigerators and stoves, they were dancing, they were moving. And then a few months later, we made a quilt out of all of his drawings that first day because they were just so magic. We've developed his drawings into jewelry, ceramic sculpture, lots of quilts, rubber stamps, greeting cards. There's just a real beauty to his drawing, it's very free and he has a great sense of humor so he went from kind of the guy who hung out to the artist and he comes in wearing a beret everyday. He was in the studio, especially in the winter, he has his beret on everyday and he's known as the artist and if he signs his work it's “Pepe la Dew”, he has an art name and people seek him out. We've had people ask for wedding invitations drawn by him and he's an entity in town now as David Dewey, the artist.

Mary Alice Woods is another one. I knew her for two years before she would even come into the studio. We had a field trip with high school students, and for some reason that was enough for her to come in. She was kind of a sad angry person in a sense and I just couldn't get close to her. And now, oh my God, we're like sisters. When she is making art, she is so happy — she beams, absolutely beams. And when she's not making art, if she can't get into the studio, get out of the way because she just expects it in her daily life. I want to make it more available to her because she's just an extreme case of watching this translation into this person who's functioning on a level of serenity.
How does Passion Works connect with the community?
Passion Works is the community. People with disabilities are so often, by nature of accessibility, transportation, stereotyping, not part of their own functioning community They're in a sheltered workshop, they're sheltered from the community, typically, and the effort is bringing people into the community. So, through the studio, one of our efforts is just to get people out there. And through the artwork, it's a seamless transition. The artwork is our vehicle to move into the community. Whenever there's an opportunity to do a public art piece, we take advantage of it. Like the Athens' County Christmas tree. We asked if we could do it one year, and they said yes, so we did and this is our forth year and every year we do something absolutely, outrageously silly and fun. Last year we had 22 events in our community, and ranged from creating props for a play for elementary school, doing the homecoming parade, having the studio open and Art Nights [and] having field trips. It's almost non-stop.
So what do you envision of the future for Passion Works? What are your plans?
My plan is for the studio to be outrageously successful, in the sense that we can show our work on a national level and that people can see what our artists are doing. And I also want our success because I don't want this to be an isolated case. I know there are other organizations that have art and are working with people with disabilities. I know that's going on, but it's a very, very small number compared to the population of people with disabilities. And we need to take what we're doing and use it as a model, create a structure so that other organizations can use it, and be successful. I want art to be involved in other communities and in the lives of people with disabilities. I want to get out of the sheltered workshop, have a community art center where our people are working in a beautiful space, have a beautiful gallery and that the community naturally filters through, where people from out of town will come because we're there, and that they can easily see the art work being made, and um, have it available for purchase.
What suggestion would you have to other communities that would be trying to get something like this started?
The major thing is that it is, first, a fine art studio. It's hard to convince people in the field that that is the way to go, because pockets of money aren't necessarily there for the arts — they're there for physical therapy, or art therapy. [But], if you're actually making fine art and you're focused and you're impassioned by it, all other things happen- communications skills get better, you use your body more, you want to communicate with other people. So those things that happen in therapy are naturally just part of making art. And not only do you get those things that are therapeutic, but you get art-real fine art.

I don't really talk about the art therapy thing that much. Just because people with disabilities are making art, doesn't mean they're having art therapy, it means they're just making art. And I tell people, “There's nothing wrong with us; we're all just fine. We're just here making art work. (laughs) You know, we're not in therapy today, we're just fine.”
How do we break down the barriers and try to educate the community about people with disabilities?
I always think it's breaking down barriers for the community to understand the potential in anyone. But if you're out to educate, I think the last thing you want to do is lecture. One of the components of what we are doing is educating our community [about] the potential of people and human beings and the human spirit. So, by making these flowers, creating this jewelry, by putting on art shows, we're not telling people, “You should have people with disabilities in your community doing all kinds of different things because they're people too.” No, we're not saying that, we're doing it. We're doing it.
What makes this program unique from the programs found in other sheltered workshops?
I believe what makes this program unique from other sheltered workshop programming is that I don't see it as programming for a sheltered workshop. I see it as an art studio. We're following the abilities and the interests of the people that we work for in the creation of fine art. So the interests and abilities of these people is the centrifuge-they are the core of what happens, and it is my responsibility to make the best use of those talents. If somebody draws circles and they love making circles, then I got to find the best place and home for those circles. So the whole dynamic is not in the task, it's in the discovery, and that's also very exciting.

You use such quality materials in your paintings and things like that, and that must be extremely expensive to run the studio. It is, financially it's very expensive in providing the best quality materials for our artists. I would say it's even more expensive not to in the idea of losing what's there just because people didn't have the right materials to express themselves with. You know, traditionally crayons and construction paper are used because they're the cheapest things and that, then they're thrown away at the end of the day. And then new ones are provided .so it's the activity of the drawing and using time rather than valuing the artwork that's being made and seeing it as precious. I see the artwork that our artists are making as precious and that is the gold; and the vehicle needs to support the gold. So we are dedicated to creating opportunities where people use the finest materials we can offer; and anybody will tell you it's going to liberate this work to another level. We use Sterling silver in all our jewelry, the best glass beads we can find, the finest drawing papers, and we have a beautiful etching press. All these things support our mission in creating the finest artwork we can. And, it is expensive, but it's totally, absolutely worth it and it makes's one of our formulas for success, absolutely.