COLUMBIA — A plastic tub mounded high with stamps of different imprints separated 15-year-old Austin Hein from his mother, Lugine Hein. Over and over, Austin pressed the stamps into a slab of gray clay. When the slab was covered with stamp imprints, Lugine took it and pressed it into a bowl, then put another piece of clay in front of her son.
This team, with Austin as the designer and Lugine as the constructor, is part of a pottery class for children with special needs at Access Arts, a program operating within the nonprofit School of Service in Columbia. With a mission to make art education accessible to everyone, Access Arts offers an environment where people with disabilities can interact with those who do not have disabilities.
More about Access Arts can be found at accessarts.missouri.org or by calling 875-0275.
"It opens one another’s eyes and makes them more understanding and sensitive to others," said Chris Sharp, the program's executive director.
When the Heins learned about Access Arts in 2004 through a newsletter and started coming to pottery class, Austin could walk, talk and see. Now, he uses a wheelchair and can neither talk nor see. His mother said he is one of three people in Missouri diagnosed with Batten disease, a rare neurological degenerative disorder.
Over the past five years, mother and son have taken lessons under several instructors and have made many projects. The therapy and social experience the program provide, however, have remained constants in their lives.
“You can never have too many bowls,” Lugine Hein said, laughing.
Coil-makers and 'SpaghettiO bowls'
On this early spring afternoon, the Heins were in the basement room of a pale yellow building, one of three that make up the Access Arts campus. Shelves were lined with old yogurt cups, and spray bottles, hand brooms and dustpans were set under a window looking out on McAlester Street just west of Old 63. On a lower shelf, ordinary objects such as forks, rope, seashells and a small white light bulb filled a bin. They are used as tools to make imprints in the clay. On the opposite wall, more shelves held pottery that had survived the fire of a kiln. Mugs and bowls glazed in jade green and lagoon blue, and even a small pink clam, waited for their creators to take them home.
Amy Dove, who has taught at Access Arts for a little more than a year, has prepared the clay for her pottery class for special-needs children, the same class in which Austin and Lugine Hein participate. By the time class started at 5 p.m., Dove had welcomed four teenagers, two parents and someone's 4-year-old sister and gathered them around a cloth-covered table next to a bank of pottery wheels.
The wheels sat unused because, on this day, they were making a type of coil pot, which Dove introduced with the kid-friendly nickname “SpaghettiO bowl.” The students used their fingers to roll out skinny logs of clay and then molded them into a shape that looked like the spiral of a snail’s shell. Beginning at the bottom of the bowl and working their way up around the inside, the students pressed the coils one by one into a mold about the right size for morning cereal.
Over the next hour, the teens worked diligently on their SpaghettiO bowls. They laughed and talked, and every so often Dove offered advice or encouragement.
“You are a natural coil-maker," she told one of them. "Look at you.”
Later, another Access Arts staff member would fire the bowls, then the students would paint them with acrylic or glaze and take the pots home.
A more social therapy
Like the bowls, Access Arts was formed from the bottom up. In 1971, Hurst John, a Columbia architect who had a child with cerebral palsy, founded the School of Service to provide assisted living to people with disabilities. When organizations that could better provide assisted-living needs were founded, such as Freedom House I and II, the School of Service switched its focus.
In 1983, Access Arts began as an arts education program and today still functions as the School of Service's major program. Now, with an annual enrollment of 2,000, Access Arts provides extensive arts education to a wide variety of students. Classes are divided into children and adult sections, and the program provides learning experiences to students with mental and physical disabilities, to those from low-income backgrounds and to those who neither have a disability nor are financially disadvantaged.
Sharp, who has overseen Access Arts since 2005, said that about 60 percent of students there have a disability or come from low-income families.
“A major focus is helping those with disabilities and those without work together," Sharp said. "It’s a good way to normalize their situation, and they learn a lot from one another.”
Lugine Hein said Austin comes to Access Arts to use his hands and to create things that make him proud. He also gets to be around other children.
“The social aspect is really awesome,” Lugine Hein said.
While Access Arts enriches Austin’s life, Austin, in return, uses his pottery to help others. The Heins have hosted trivia nights at which they auction off his pieces and donate the money to the Batten Disease Support and Research Association, an international organization for families affected by the disease.
“People who know him are excited to have his artwork,” Lugine Hein said.
Two other students in Dove’s pottery class with Austin, sisters Mercede and Cheyenne Blackston, have been coming to Access Arts to create pottery for about six years. On the day the group made SpaghettiO bowls, they were there with their mother, Gayla Palmero, and younger sister, Aysha Palmero.
For Mercede, 18, and Cheyenne, 16, who both have Down syndrome, Access Arts provides the same kind of social benefits, but it has also replaced their occupational therapy.
“When they did do occupational therapy, they played with clay, but they didn’t make anything,” Palmero said. “Now, they see the results of their work.”
Six years' worth of projects have resulted in a home flush with picture frames, bowls and animal figurines. Pottery holds toiletries such as cotton balls and toothpaste in their bathroom. The sisters smiled when asked about their favorite pieces: Cheyenne likes making figurines of horses, pigs and sheep, and said that one time, she got to push clay through a strainer to make sheep’s curls. Mercede's favorite is a clay crocodile.
A grass-roots operation
Although Austin Hein and the Blackston sisters take only pottery classes, Access Arts offers classes in weaving, jewelry, writing, sculpture, drawing, mixed media and photography. An eight-week class costs on average about $75, or a little more than $9 a class, Sharp said.
Access Arts also awards an average of 400 annual scholarships, which are provided through grant money from entities such as the city of Columbia and the Missouri Arts Council. A partnership exists between Access Arts and nearby Benton Elementary School, in which about 250 students from kindergarten through sixth grade walk over to the school for pottery classes twice a year, free of charge.
Access Arts relies mainly on word-of-mouth or free media to advertise its services, but it also participates in art festivals to promote itself, illuminating its status as a grass-roots organization.
In 2008, about 40 percent of its $132,000 operating budget was paid by class revenues. Donations from individuals, groups, businesses and foundations covered about 27 percent of the budget. Access Arts also holds an annual holiday fundraising sale, at which certain students and instructors sell their art and donate all of the proceeds to the organization.
The recession appears to be an additional burden. Sharp said that though the ratio of children to adult students is normally pretty equal, enrollment has dropped noticeably in the children’s classes; the adult classes, however, are thriving. Sharp attributes this to families needing to trim their budgets by cutting activities such as Access Arts for their children, while adults seek creative outlets during stressful times.
Katie Carollo’s pottery class for adults with special needs has a mission similar to that of Dove’s class. Students make things they can use around the house while learning about art and interacting with others. In another yellow building across the street from the children’s pottery studio, Carollo’s class was making 5-by-7 picture frames out of the same type of gray clay used to make the SpaghettiO bowls.
Along with Carollo and a couple of student helpers from MU, the small group sat around a long wooden table cutting out their picture frames with a template that Carollo had prepared before class. The students worked intently, making shapes with cookie cutters to attach to their frames.
Carollo’s students have different ability levels, so she never makes a project ahead of time and expects them to copy it. She’s open to innovation and allows the students to create their own interpretations of the project.
“You can do whatever you want,” Carollo told the students at the start of class, encouraging them to be original.
Kailee Houston, who moved with her family to Columbia in November, made a picture frame with the help of MU student Paije Davidson, using cookie cutters to spell out her name at the bottom and a tool to imprint designs into the frame.
“Try it again,” Carollo urged when Houston, 18, stamped down into the frame a little too hard.
Houston, who has Down syndrome, had at this point been coming to Access Arts for three or four weeks and found it both fun and therapeutic.
“She can’t communicate well with other people,” said her father, John Houston, when he came to pick her up after class. “But Kailee likes doing art and seeing people.”