Arts therapy center gives students the opportunity to fuel their creativity through collaborative art programs and public galleries.
By CHEANTAY JENSEN
FEB. 8, 2017
As a quiet rain falls gently from an overcast sky, Long Beach feels grey and muted despite the usual morning bustle. One brick wall stands out, coated by a bright mural filled with abstract faces, hand painted shapes, and quirky patterns — a colorful contrast to the gloom of the morning showers. The mural marks the entrance to Able Arts Work, an arts community center for disabled adults.
The artists are in the middle of a sing-along led by their instructor, Helen Dolas, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing to her students. She encourages those who can to sing along, together their voices resonate throughout the building.
Dolas, found of the organization, created this artistic space 35 years ago when (under the name Arts and Services for the Disabled), these classes were a little quieter. In a short biography video provided by Able Arts Work, Dolan explains:
“We started Able Arts Work in 1982 at a Parks and Recreation building in Long Beach. It was myself, another music therapist, an art therapist, and five students.”
Now, with four locations in Long Beach, Gardenia, and two more in Hawthorne, Able Arts Work offers four daily programs with classes that can have up to 20 students in one class alone.
While time has stretched the stature of Able Arts Work, one quintessential aspect has remained: their resounding belief and motto, “Love Before Learning, Learn For Life.”
“Before someone can learn, they need to feel loved, feel safe, and feel cherished,” explains Jason Triefenbach, the arts exhibition coordinator at Able Arts Work. “So I think our program really starts with that as it’s base and then from there we can provide learning for the students, and also for our staff to learn from them.”
In Triefenbach’s four years here working as a nurse, then instructor, and now exhibition coordinator, he’s seen the student’s creativity through a multitude of mediums: painting, drawing, performing arts — such as singing or dancing — and even videography.
Aside from the joy it may provide a student, or the experience they gain from being introduced to new objects like paint brushes, clay, musical instruments; they’ve seen first hand how valuable these activities are at also providing valuable insight into their personalities — especially for those who are largely nonverbal.
“The visual art and music can really be a language or a tool to find out more about someone who can’t, in the literal sense, speak for themselves,” Triefenbach adds. “It’s definitely a way to see their personality come out in very simple ways, such as the color and shapes they might employ also over time.”
As a form of personal expression, art is undoubtedly a great tool for anyone. But for Able Arts Work students, being able to channel their emotions in a visible way is especially relevant. Many of their pupils (some fresh high school graduates) come to their program closed off socially and emotionally. So many of their activities are collaborative or designed to help students identify their feelings.
“We have to be able to name a problem or an issue before we can overcome it,” Triefenbach explains. “So our teachers can really, through different types of art projects — whether it’s music or visual art or journaling — they really try and instill a bit more of a precision in terms of how someone can think about how they are feeling. And that really does wonders in terms of letting them vent or letting them process through how they are feeling.”
The range of affect that music and art have, Triefenbach adds, extends into the physical. While their facility may not employ licensed physical therapists, their staff has noticed the subtle effect many of their activities have on exercising student’s motor skills and range of motion.
“Some of our paintings are the result of stretching exercises, yoga routines, or dance routines,” Triefenbach says.
They can also be as simple as a student reaching his or her arm out to paint a sharp line onto a canvas, or press a key on a computer keyboard.
However, these personal triumphs are confined to the walls of the facility. There is this “breadth of variety” from the students that continues to surprise Triefenbach and his fellow instructors; but because so few get to see it, he understands why people tend to shy away from interacting with those less capable.
“I think as humans we all have certain things that unify us and make us apart of a certain group or whatnot, but I think the public might tend to, through no fault of their own, associate certain stereotypes with someone with a disability,” Triefenbach explains.
Increasing the visibility of their students and their work not only challenges those preconceived notions, but also benefits student’s social skills, self-esteem, and autonomy.
About 12 to 15 times a year Able Arts Work takes the artwork that students create and puts it up for sale in galleries, pop-up shops, and art walks. Some are small scale and hosted in their onsite gallery, while others are bigger and more elaborate, with artists from all over the city invited to collaborate with the students.
The pinnacle show, however, is in the core exhibition that’s been held in the fall for the last 12 years. The magnitude is one of the most notable differences, ranging from 50 to 100 artists from across the globe who submit their work.
What truly sets this gallery apart is its inclusiveness: every year the show invites a juror and curator whom identify as living with a disability to help run the show.
“It gives it an aspect that we’re not providing a service for people with disabilities, this is something that they are involved in every aspect,” Triefenbach notes. “It’s really rewarding in that way because it’s not a matter of you know, providing for a certain population or talking down to anyone, it’s really from the ground up, powered by people within that community,”
Plus, he adds, it feels pretty damn good when a piece sells.
“They get super excited, completely thrilled like anyone would,” Triefenbach says. “I think it really gives them a sense of pride. A lot of these people rely on others for their needs, so I kind of call it like the pride of the paycheck in a way.”
In a society that tends to marginalize and alienate the handicap, Triefenbach says he is happy knowing that that Able Arts Work is their little carved-out piece of the world. In the future he hopes to see these walls (metaphorically) knocked down and extended out to the rest of the community.