By Emily Williams
A Studio by the Tracks class feels much like any other school art class, filled with colorful works and students who are eager to show off their latest projects or simply bicker with their peers.
The only visible difference is that the students are adults with mental disabilities.
Since 1989, Studio by the Tracks has been devoted to providing free art classes to troubled children and to adults who suffer from autism spectrum disorders and mental illness. The class projects seek to provide students with a positive outlet to channel their frustrations and anger.
Staff members are constantly encountering outbursts of frustration, a common struggle for individuals with autism
As the class works on paintings, one student finds a flaw in his painting and begins to criticize himself as he points the problem out to one of the art teachers. Just as he begins to lose his temper, both he and the teacher start to repeat a mantra to remind him not to sweat the small stuff. As he firmly shouts the last words of the mantra, his temper has dissipated and he’s ready to continue working.
“Isn’t it amazing?” said Ila Fay Miller, the studio’s founding director. “I say this all the time, but people could really learn a lot watching these students deal with their anger.”
Though Miller is retired, Executive Director Suzanne Boozer said the staff is happy to see her walk through the doors most days to lend a helping hand.
“When we started this studio, I never had any idea that we would wind up with a place like this,” Miller said. The idea for an art studio that served people on the autism spectrum was born from her experiences teaching at Glenwood Behavioral Center’s Allan Cott School.
“I noticed that some of the students were just innately talented and I wanted to give them an opportunity to grow,” she said.
The studio still incorporates twice-weekly art classes for children with severe behavioral disorders who are in the custody of the state, but much of the day-to-day programming is geared toward adults. In addition to classes for adults with behavioral disorders, the studio also partners with local shelters such as The Firehouse Shelter to provide classes for homeless men with mental illnesses.
“All of our students just so enjoy the atmosphere here and you can tell,” Boozer said. “They also get 60 percent of proceeds for any artwork that they sell, so that added level of income is something that is really important to them.”
According to Miller and Boozer, many of the adults who participate in classes don’t have the ability to make any kind of income and often don’t see any validation for their talents.
“There is really nothing better than seeing the parents’ reactions when they see what their kids have accomplished,” Miller said. “Speaking as a parent, one of the most important things is seeing your child valued by others. Some of their children are 50 years old and have never been given any kind of recognition.”
At the studio’s annual benefit Art from the Heart, an entire room of the venue is turned into a “cash and carry” art sale. With artists and their parents often in attendance, it gives the families an opportunity to see just how many people appreciate the students’ works.
“On the day of the event, people will line up outside of the door to the sale,” Boozer said. “I always tell people, if you want something in particular, you better get there fast.”
Over the years, some of the students have even collected fans who collect their works. Some of the most impressive and popular student artwork is included in the silent and live auctions at the fundraiser.
“One of our students, John Michael, had a piece auctioned off in the live auction and he got to go up on stage with his piece,” Boozer said. “It went for a ton of money … and when he turned around to face us, he had tears in his eyes. That was his reaction to seeing just how much people value his art.”
Students aren’t just gaining recognition from community members, local business are increasing their support of the students’ works. One of the studio’s loyal students, Linda, is commissioned to create artwork and is currently represented by Gallery 1930 in Mountain Brook’s English Village. Additionally, the Grand Bohemian Gallery recently held an open house to showcase student artwork as well as a work day May 26 to help the studio prepare for its upcoming fundraiser.
“Throughout the years, there was never really a time when I sat down and said to myself, ‘This is what I want my legacy to be,'” Miller said. “It is the community that has really shown us that we have value.”
The studio’s 27th annual Art from the Heart benefit will be held June 12 at B&A Warehouse. The event will begin at 6 p.m. with a live auction starting at 7 p.m.