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Arts of Life: Art that Empowers

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Silvia Ramirez’s interest in an artistic career began when her brother commissioned her to produce drawings for her nieces and nephews, interpretations of pop culture icons, ranging from Batman to the Three Stooges. She is now one of the artists who works with the Arts of Life, a non-profit arts studio for adults with developmental disabilities.

Participants in the program spend 25 hours a week working in their studio, and earn money while doing it. For many, this can mean a transition from a life of compliance and passivity to a life of autonomy and creative engagement.

The organization formed in January 2000 as an alternative to unsatisfactory arrangements with other day programs. Nick Schutzenhofer, community coordinator for Arts of Life, explains that day programs often delegate their participants to menial tasks, where the individual is paid based on “piece work” (how many items they assemble or soda bottles they put into a cardboard carrier, for example). Schutzenhofer said that generally, “you have to assemble twenty five pieces in an hour” at most day service centers to earn a reasonable income.

Christina Zion, who has been producing art with the program since the summer of 2006, said “At my old job, I used to do piece work. It was a real depressing job to do. Now all I do is just paint and draw. It’s definitely an improvement.”

Arts of Life offers a studio in which artists get paid a set monthly stipend to produce art work, and through group discussions, the artists help shape policies and practices within their studio space. “We try to create an environment where people are learning in their own way, and are as self directed as possible,” explains Schutzenhofer, “The people who work in the studio run the program.”

In addition to the monthly stipend that the artists receive, the program offers it’s artists the opportunity to show their work at Chicago-area venues, like the show at the Mercury Café which ran this year from February to early March. In April, Arts of Life contributed pieces to the Annual Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art, part of Art Chicago. Schutzenhofer said, “We have artwork showing at 14 different Starbucks on a continuing basis, we have a few other local exhibitions at flower shops and cafes. We are also linked up with area universities and colleges.”

Arts of Life strives to empower those who participate in the program, and enrich lives through the arts. And it is not just the developmentally disabled that are benefit from the program. The program also benefits the many volunteers who have invest their time into the program.

Schutzenhofer can attest to this himself. He came to the program two years ago as a volunteer. One of his responsibilities was case management and intake. For Nick, the most rewarding part of the job is “ working directly with [the program artists], getting them acclimated to the program. It’s amazing the changes that take place. Their independence and freedom of creative expression really begins to influence other facets of their lives. And I get to be around cool art all day.”

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