Artfully reframing perceptions
The framed images adorning the gallery on Detroit’s east side could have been the work of artists years into their career.
The vibrant pastel skylines, kaleidoscopic street scenes and detailed depictions of local landmarks such as Eastern Market all resulted from hours dedicated to perfecting techniques and honoring traditions.
But those behind the pieces are not professionals. They are a wide range of participants involved in Services To Enhance Potential, a nonprofit that aids individuals with developmental disabilities and mental issues in Wayne County, who attended classes for the group’s Art in the Market program.
The aspiring painters’ efforts are publicly displayed for the first time during “What Color Do You Want to Start With?” The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 1 at Playground Detroit, features some 100 works from 70 students.
As an outgrowth of an initiative to provide area residents living with challenging conditions the chance to enhance their communication and work capabilities, the presentation strives to paint a different portrait.
“It’s rewarding to be able to show off a hobby or be included in the community,” said Brent Mikulski, the STEP’s president/CEO. “This is just one way we’re trying to encourage more folks to understand that these individuals have a place in our community and what they’re capable of doing. This can lead to other conversations about the ability these individuals have.”
Shifting perceptions has long been the objective at STEP, which was formed in 1973 through the blending of four community-based programs, according to its website.
Today, the group serves some 1,300 people with disabilities and mental health issues in Wayne County, aiming to grow how many work and volunteer in their communities, officials said. Services include skills training and job placement.
Art in the Market started in 2014. Taught at several locations across the county each week, the effort schools hundreds of participants on concepts aspiring painters, designers and illustrators might learn, such as color theory.
However, the intensive sessions revolved around skill-building and “there’s a lot of emphasis put on art as a communications tool,” instructor Ray Ackley said.
That guided the question he often poses to pupils when launching a new lesson: “What color do you want to start with?” Eventually, the query informs creativity and self-sufficiency, the art teacher said. “If they’re telling stories with colors, they are understanding stories better, which helps with their personal navigation.”
For the participants, the courses are both a creative and personal boost, said Peggy Carter, a STEP skills trainer who has worked with them and recalls being astonished by their output. “They are just so proud.”
The classes have been fruitful enough to spawn calendars featuring student art, Mikulski said. As STEP leaders hoped to highlight their work on a larger scale, an opportunity emerged through a partnership with Playground Detroit, which has long showcased area artists and last year opened its gallery on the city’s east side.
After meeting with STEP and witnessing its impact on participants during a tour at a group facility, collaborating on an exhibit seemed natural, co-owner Paulina Petkoski said.
“It’s really important for us to be able to provide a platform for a range of artists in the city and recognize how important art is to everybody in their lives,” she said. “Regardless if they’re a studio artist who’s practicing full time or someone who uses art in other ways to enrich their lives.”
The gallery’s white-walled space off a bustling thoroughfare allows visitors to hone in on the exhibited works, which focus on cultural icons and architecture in Detroit.
The pieces impressed Kevin Ward, who lives nearby and browsed during the opening reception Thursday evening.
“I couldn’t do any of this stuff,” he said while sitting near the works. “I’m very surprised.”
Victoria Demetriou, a College for Creative Studies student from Northville who also visited, was stunned to learn the artists were not professionals.
“I would never have known,” she said before eying a portrait of a colorful car. “It’s a lot of beautiful moments.”
“What Color Do You Want to Start With?”
Runs through Feb. 1 at Playground Detroit, 2845 Gratiot Avenue. Gallery hours are 12-6 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, and noon-4 p.m. Saturday