Art Reflecting Life

Check out the recent article published in the July issue of Village Living Magazine!

Austin proudly displays his work with watercolors.  Photo by Frank Couch.

Austin proudly displays his work with watercolors. Photo by Frank Couch.

Art Reflecting Life, by Ana Good

Tucked away on a quiet residential street in Irondale, a small art studio is busy providing life-changing services for the often underserved.

Studio By The Tracks, which gets its name because of its close proximity to the web of crisscrossed railroad tracks just outside its door, provides free art classes to emotionally conflicted children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disorders. SBTT is a nonprofit organization formed in 1989 by Mountain Brook resident Ila Faye Miller, the former vocational director of the Allan Cott School for children with autism.

From the outside, the space, a converted auto shop with still-visible garage doors, provides little hint of the magnitude of work being done inside. Within the structure’s simple, white walls, artwork from students of all ages, abilities and inspirations lights up the walls. The artwork from paintings, drawings, ceramic work and collages floods the space with life. 

It’s a reflection, after all, of the students it serves. 

What the studio offers is more than free art classes. It’s a safe haven where “people who have been handicapped by negative circumstances and society’s assumptions about their ability to achieve” can receive a safe and positive experience, Miller said. 

For the adult students who may find it difficult to earn a living through traditional jobs, SBTT provides them with the opportunity to create artwork that can then be sold for a profit at annual fundraisers and seasonal art shows. Sixty percent of the proceeds go to the artist, said studio Director Catherine Boyd. 

Boyd, also from Mountain Brook, began working with SBTT in 1994 and said although some students might not understand the value of the money they earn, they do understand the personal validation they receive from the acknowledgment that someone else values their work.

Some of the students have been attending classes at SBTT for 20 years, not only learning art techniques, but also enjoying the space as a social avenue, she said. 

“I love my job,” Boyd said, surrounded by the artwork of several of the studio’s students. 

She said she admits she isn’t exactly the creative type and had left the studio work for a few years to raise her children. Just as soon as they were old enough, however, she began working part-time again, unable to stay away for too long. 

Today, she’s back to working full time and loving every second of it. 

“Every day is different,” she said. “Working with everyone here is always rewarding.”

The growth she’s able to see in the students has been incredible, Boyd said.

“Their art has gotten better and better,” she said. “Our staff here is so good at unlocking their talents.”

Several of the student artists who were once selling a few pieces for $20 are now garnering thousands per piece, Boyd said.

That sort of validation is irreplaceable, said Executive Director Suzanne Boozer. 

The unfortunate reality is when most adults with autism and other developmental disorders turn 21, there are few places they can turn to. There are few classes and services they can take advantage of, leaving them feeling lost and incapable, she said.

“The studio is a place where they can be 100 percent accepted,” Boozer said. “They can move around and interact in a safe space. I see amazing progress in our students every day.”

If one student is stuck in a particular “mode,” wanting to only paint flowers, for example, Boozer said the instructors at SBTT — many of them professional artists — work with them to expand what they are willing to try. That sort of motivation, has led to self-validation, she said. 

SBTT provides the students the opportunity to show off their talents through their art. For some, it may be the first time they receive public and financial validation for their efforts, Boozer said.

According to the Autism Society, 35 percent of adults with autism ages 19 to 23 have not had a job or received postgraduate education after leaving high school. 

“It’s a thrill to watch them be successful and be lifted up by their own work,” Boozer said. 

And their success isn’t just a few cents in a piggy bank.

One mother recently shared that her adult daughter with autism had about $13,000 in a savings account — most of which came from earnings via her artwork, Boozer said. 

But SBTT’s work doesn’t stop there.

In the afternoons, SBTT offers art classes to about 30 boys ages 6 to 17 who live in residential treatment programs. The boys are in the custody of the state and have little to no contact with family members. The boys who attend classes at SBTT have been identified by the court system or social services as emotionally conflicted or at-risk for leading destructive lifestyles, often involving violence and drugs. Since the studio began, it has helped more than 1,000 at-risk children through its biweekly classes, Boozer said. 

Once a week, SBTT also holds classes for homeless men.

“It’s a wonderful place to work,” Boozer said. 

In June, SBTT hosted one of its annual fundraising events, Art from the Heart, to help further its mission. The 27th annual benefit was June 12 at the B&A Warehouse. Both a live and silent auction were held, featuring artwork from studio students as well as about 200 pieces donated from local and regional artists.