Innovative gallery helps disabled artists achieve professional dreams

Charmaine Jones, Art Enables artist, creates original painting in Washington workshop. (Photo: Art Enables)

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR MEDIA) — The nation’s capital is home to more than 2,300 residents with disabilities whose dreams are identical to those of its 650,000 other citizens.

They see themselves working in retail management, fashion, and the professional art world.

Obstacles, of course, exist, but local leaders and groups are doing all they can to make these special citizens’ aspirations achievable.

Artists blossom

At the nonprofit Art Enables, dozens of local artists with special needs work on their craft and function as professional artists, honing their skills and generating income.

Charmaine Jones, Art Enables artist, creates original painting in Washington workshop. (Photo: Art Enables)
Charmaine Jones, Art Enables artist, creates original painting in Washington workshop. (Photo: Art Enables)

Charmaine Jones lights up when she talks about her artistic endeavors and someday working in the field of fashion retail management.

Jones, one of the staples at Art Enables, has a developmental disability but no lack of ambition.

She spends several days a week with fellow creatives at the workshop in Washington’s northeast region, socializing with friends and churning out splashy creations.

“I kind of go with the flow,” she says of her artistic strategy.

Tony Brunswick, executive director of Art Enables, says of Jones, “Charmaine brings a very bright, vibrant style to her work.”

Jones has an eye for design and says she’s inspired by everything from anime to rural scenes.

Today’s project is a farm hand feeding a carrot to a stabled horse. Jones, refreshingly self-assured as an artist and conversational partner, glowed while sharing that she got to the studio early, wrote down her idea on the sign-in sheet and then started sketching.

The paintbrush was already confidently spreading bright colors across the canvas by 11 a.m. A few days later, Jones’s most recent masterpiece was ready for market.

‘Art Enables’ big dreams

Paintings and mixed media art, like canvas bags, handcrafted coasters and leather bracelets, line the walls of the sunlit work studio, a room which also doubles as an art gallery.

Downstairs, a second gallery hosts rotating exhibitions of the resident artists and those from around the community.

Unframed pieces can run as low as $35 and custom framed products average $150, available in-person and online.

A full 60 percent of sales go to the respective artist, most of whom live on limited incomes due to their disabilities, while 40 percent is returned to Art Enables to cover materials and facility upkeep.

But the operation’s mission goes well beyond art, beautiful as it may be.

“One of the things we do here is try to create real vocational opportunities for artists,” says Brunswick. “It’s hard for anyone to pursue the work that they love – there are barriers to achieving that for all of us – but that’s especially true for people with disabilities, despite the progress we’ve made over the last many decades creating access opportunities for people with disabilities.”

Charmaine Jones of DC works on painting at Art Enables gallery-workshop. (Photo: Art Enables)
Charmaine Jones of DC works on painting at Art Enables gallery-workshop. (Photo: Art Enables)

Brunswick and his four staff members know each artist personally and rejoice in their individual achievements.

“Everyone’s style represents aspects and qualities of the artists themselves,” smiles Brunswick.

Walking through the studio this diversity is on full display.

Some artists excitedly chatter away while others, living with conditions making them less verbal, work solitarily but no less passionately.

D.C. invests in disability services

For that very reason, the District of Columbia is investing in programs like Art Enables at a time when many other cities and states are slashing disability services budgets.

“It’s a real priority because we want to create opportunities for people with disabilities as a way to promote full inclusion, equity, a pathway to independence and better life outcomes,” explained Jared Morris, deputy director of D.C.’s Department on Disability Services (DDS).

With a range of 27 disability services available, ranging from occupational to residential to clinical, DDS creates a custom treatment package for each resident.

DDS staffers typically manage services for 30 clients at a time, coordinating with all the public and private agencies involved in their unique treatment plans.

“We put the person as central to that focus and to that investment,” Morris says, “And the opportunities are really based in their strengths and desires.”

In any given month, DDS refers and underwrites a total of 12 to 16 residents with right-brained inclinations to Art Enables, which is categorized as a day program.

It’s completely voluntary and extremely popular.

For many of the participants, the creation of original art is their most important outlet for self-expression, not to mention gainful employment.

Washington’s leaders are determined to see each resident realize their life’s purpose, and are challenging other state and local governments to do the same.

“The United States has anywhere between 4-5 million people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, so it’s really incumbent upon all states and jurisdictions to remain committed to their success, which will include consistent and continued funding,” Morris stated.

The artists of Art Enables would certainly agree.

Has Charmaine Jones found a sense of pride and purpose in her art? “Yes!” she affirms, with a giant smile.

And if others are struggling to make it in the competitive art world, Jones’s advice is always the same, “They’ve got to keep focusing on what they come up to, and don’t give up.”

To peruse or buy pieces by Art Enables artists, visit their website.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales