Art Enables in DC gives developmentally disabled artists chance at professional career

WASHINGTON — Walk into Art Enables during the week and it seems like any other art gallery.

The walls display artwork of various genres and material – this one here is of shoes, glitter sparkling behind the glass. This one is an acrylic on canvas of Mona Lisa as a chicken. Another is a colorful scene of different figures surrounding a baby in the womb, done with marker on paper. Here, a city scene in watercolor.

Everywhere you look, there is color, from the art on the walls to the paint-splattered sink in the back.

Seated at the tables are the artists who create these pieces, all of whom have developmental disabilities or mental illnesses, from schizophrenia to autism to Down syndrome to trauma from a car accident.

These artists can create and sell their art – the whole creative process, right at Art Enables. The second Saturday of every month, doors are open to the public for everyone in the community to make art at Art Enables’ Second Saturday workshop.

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Nonja Tiller’s “Moments in Nature” on display at a Second Saturday workshop. | Photo by Hallie Smith

“I love the art. It’s powerful and complex and whimsical and provocative. It stands on its own in the folk art community,” said Tony Brunswick, Executive Director of Art Enables, located in DC’s northeastern quadrant. “It’s less about the fact that it was made by an artist with a disability and more about the fact it was made by an artist with talent.”

Brunswick has been with Art Enables since Nov., but has had artwork from Art Enables on his walls for more than 10 years. They moved to their Rhode Island Ave location in 2011, but they were founded in 2001, originally operating out of just a classroom.

Brunswick said Art Enables is unique in that it is not an art therapy program, but rather a vocational employment program that provides a professional pathway for artists with disabilities to have creative opportunities.

That’s not to say that the art doesn’t provide therapy.

‘“When you get to do the work you love, there is a real therapeutic gain,” said Brunswick.

Art Enables also works with any aides or therapists that work with their artists.

“If an artist is seeing a speech therapist and has a goal they are working towards, we want to know and do what we can to help,” said Eric Gordon, Service Coordinator for the program.

Gordon stressed the importance of the opportunities Art Enables offers their artists.

“You can be an artist and have talent and be an energetic person,” said Gordon, “but you need opportunities, need materials, space, positive support and a venue to sell your art.”

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Art Enables tries to provide the best variety and quality materials for their artists. | Photo by Hallie Smith

Brunswick said it is a “tremendous honor” to work with artists and see their creative process, as well as give them a professional experience.

Artists sell their art here, and because that is usually the artists’ main income, the art on the walls must go through a jury selection process.

Only the best of their best is displayed to give them the best chance to sell.  About 10 to 15 percent of the art makes it through the jury process.

The extra art goes home with them, though some of their better pieces are stored in their drawers and are still available for sale.

Art Enables further provides a professional art experience by using the downstairs gallery, Off Rhode Gallery, a nod to their Rhode Island Ave location, to showcase emerging artists in the area. Brunswick said this is done so Art Enables artists can meet new people and see how a professional gallery operates.

Art Enables artists can also meet new people because the gallery simultaneously functions as a studio.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for people in the disability community to meet people outside of the disability community,” said Gordon. He told the story of one woman coming in to purchase artwork and being able to have a conservation with the artist.

“[The artist and the buyer] had a really positive connection,” said Gordon, “and [the artist] really got high fives all around from everyone in the room.”

During the week, when artists are creating their art, they have the opportunity to talk with each other about their creations. One artist, Raymond Lewis, is exceptional at this.

“Raymond is the social glue,” said Gordon. “He goes around the room during studio time and says hello to everyone.”

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Some of Shawn Payne’s work in his art drawer. | Photo by Hallie Smith

Lewis said he likes coming to Art Enables and has been coming for years because he likes “all the people.” His artwork is intricate and often features characters from DC comics, one of Lewis’ passions. Gordon says he has a piece of Lewis’ art at home on his wall.

The topics of the art and the types of materials know no bounds. Artist Nonja Tiller prefers markers to create her scenes that often act as a commentary on society, whereas Shawn Payne designs shoes and dresses with acrylic, rhinestones and glitter.

“I don’t know anything about shoes, but we have shoe aficionados come in and they always love his pieces,” said Gordon of Payne’s work.

Payne has big dreams about his work: “I want to be an international superstar like Andy Warhol.”

With Art Enables providing the materials and venue, that dream may just be possible.


Featured photo: Art Enables storefront in DC. | Photo by Hallie Smith


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