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Art that Empowers

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

A look at The Arts of Life not-for-profit studio

By Brandon Kosters

Bobby Verran celebrates his birthday at Arts of Life. Photographs by Ya-Chi Hsu

Bobby Verran celebrates his birthday at Arts of Life. Photographs by Ya-Chi Hsu

“It’s not all kung-fu fighting,” Kris Schenkel said while discussing his role model, Superman. “It’s not all about being able to see through certain things people aren’t supposed to see through. [Superman] teaches you what it means. He teaches you what kids are looking for in the world. He has great respect towards everyone.”

Schenkel is an artist at The Arts of Life studio on the Near-West side. He does drawings with pencil and marker, and also paints. The Arts of Life focuses on facilitating art-making for developmentally disabled adults, providing participants with a monthly stipend.

Artists come in during the day Monday through Friday to work on paintings, music and performances with the assistance of volunteers from the community, many of whom are students.

Standing over his drawings of Superman, Schenkel spoke about his previous job changing pillowcases for the airlines. “They’d bring a shipment of pillows. We’d take 25 pillows and put them in a bag. Take the old cases off, put the new ones on …”

“[Being here] is not about getting paid,” Schenkel said. “It’s about looking at how you feel with yourself and the picture. It doesn’t have to be precise in the picture. It’s something you can look at and feel good about.”

Arts of Life is celebrating its 10th year while mourning the loss of its founding artist Veronica Cuculich. Affectionately known to many as “Grandma,” she passed away on January 1 and would have been 80 years old in April.

Cuculich started the program in 2000 with current Executive Director Denise Fisher. The goal of the organization is to honor the beauty and wisdom of a group who are all too frequently denied their forum for personal expression through fostering creativity.

Ryan Shuquem, Art and Music Director of the program, works in the studio as both a visual artist and musician. For him, a reward has been “seeing the changes in each person individually after four or five months, and seeing how they transform once they realize they call the shots,” he said in an interview with F Newsmagazine.

Shuquem said that the program does a service to the community in helping to “dispel misconceptions of what these individuals have to offer.”

Outreach Coordinator Tim Sarrantonio has been with the organization since May of 2009. Within that time, four artists have been added to the program, and the center moved from 2110 West Grand to its new location at 2010 West Carroll Avenue.

Kris Schenkel at Arts of Life Photographs by Ya-Chi Hsu

Kris Schenkel at Arts of Life Photographs by Ya-Chi Hsu

A studio has also recently been started in Glenview, with five artists producing work. These five artists are all also represented in group shows and benefits that The Arts of Life organizes.

Sarrantonio said that The Arts of Life is invaluable to Chicago, for three reasons:

“Number one, it represents a clear and uplifting alternative for adults with developmental disabilities who do piece work in factories where they are actually valued at a lesser rate than others.”

“Number two, from an art standpoint it’s a valuable part of the outsider art community in terms of the purity and non-bullshit that our artists represent.”

“And, number three, it represents an excitement for other people coming in here. It may remind other artists why they do what they do.”

Mission Statement:

We are an artistic community that provides adults with developmental disabilities an environment to experience personal growth.
Volunteer Opportunities:
Volunteers play a critical role in our success by assisting the artists with their projects, working on active committees, teaching new art skills, designing databases, planning special events, assisting in grant applications, and much more. For more information please email
Upcoming Events:
Arts of Life is Panache boutique’s “Charity of the Month” for the month of April.
A cocktail reception will be held April 14, 6-9 p.m. Mention Arts of Life and 15% of sales will benefit the organization.

Panache Chicago
2252 N. Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 477-4537

The Arts of Life
2010 West Carroll Avenue
Chicago, IL 60612
(312) 829-2787

One Response to Art that Empowers

  1. […] Here’s an article we published on Arts of Life a year ago. […]

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