Jessica Clapp is a multifaceted artist who works out of a studio in downtown Napoleon, Ohio. The 31-year-old loves to draw, and she has been commissioned by a local brewery to design a Halloween beer can. She has also designed her own T-shirt, painted at festivals and taught art classes. 

“It’s really a blessing in my life,” she said of the studio. 

While her vocation might not seem unusual, her creative home is: Soaring Arts Studio. An adult day service of Filling Homes, an ELCA-affiliated social ministry organization, the studio gives those with developmental disabilities an opportunity to not only create and explore art, but to be compensated for their work. Artists receive a 40 percent commission; 60 percent goes to the studio. 

Clapp and roughly 30 to 40 additional artists have found unique ways to express themselves at Soaring Arts Studio. “It’s giving them an opportunity to learn something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, and it’s also an employment opportunity,” said Lori Siclair, Filling Homes director of mission advancement. 

When the studio opened in 2009, it sold canvas tote bags displaying its artists’ creative work. As the artists learned new skills, new merchandise was created: wall art, dog treats and custom drawings, paintings and sculptures. The artists even have been commissioned to create lasting pieces that the entire Napoleon community can enjoy. 

It’s a process that’s benefited all. “The artists are making individual names for themselves, and people learn their abilities,” said Tonya Wagner, the studio’s community arts coordinator. “People really feel like they’re really valued as artists. And our community is pretty supportive.” 

Roots of faith 

Filling Homes, which will celebrate 60 years in 2019, serves those with intellectual and developmental disabilities in four counties in northwest Ohio. There are 42 Ohio and Michigan Lutheran congregations supporting the organization with financial gifts, prayers and hands-on volunteer work. 

Filling Homes, and thereby the studio, stands apart from similar organizations because of its roots, Siclair said. “[It] is faith-based … and because of that there’s a different way of doing things here, and it’s always about the people we’re serving,” she said. “We’re meeting them where they need to be met, and we’re finding—as all of society
is finding—that people with disabilities can do a lot.” 

Providing artistic outlets for those with disabilities has been Filling Homes’ goal since 2009 when the organization secured a grant from the Ohio Arts Council to hire an artist-in-residence. Patty Mitchell spent two weeks teaching staff members different artistic techniques and, perhaps most importantly, how to adapt equipment for any budding artist. She taught the staff how to adjust the process so everyone can participate in some way, Siclair said. 

In 2015, the studio opened a storefront in downtown Napoleon with the intent of not only continuing to engage its artists, but to become a viable business. Today it is: revenue increased threefold over last year, noted Siclair, from almost $2,500 in 2017 to $11,500 in 2018. 

“It feels like we’ve been really gaining ground the last year,” she said. “I’ll attribute that to Tonya. She’s always posting on Facebook, even videos of the artists at work.” 

Recently, a city revitalization group asked artists to create banners that will hang from light poles throughout the downtown. Four murals are already displayed in a city park. And a local winery commissioned the studio to create 12 banners for its outdoor seating area. “They turned out fantastic,” Siclair said. “The winery loved them; they want more for holidays.” 

Such commissions are real-life experiences that contribute to one of the studio’s missions: to open the world of creative expression to people of all abilities, Wagner said. “We all have abilities and we can equally create things,” she said. “[We’re] just exposing creativity in any way that we can … and then going out and sharing those with people … sharing the gifts and strengths and abilities any way that we can.” 

Engaging the community 

To encourage and further develop the studio’s artists, Wagner has brought in local artists to teach pottery, sculpting, acrylic painting, henna tattooing and more. Sometimes a new technique gels with a studio artist, which is exactly what staff hopes will happen. “It’s been really neat to [see] people find their niche,” Wagner said. “When someone finds something they’re really good and passionate about, we try to have them teach others.” 

Clapp, for instance, has taught drawing classes at the studio to her fellow artists and community members. It’s an opportunity she’s thankful to have, and it’s another way that art has made an impact on her life. 

“Whenever I have a stressful or bad day, I come up to Soaring Arts and put on music and draw … it pretty much relaxes me for the rest of the day,” she said. “And the teachers and staff here have been like a family to me. I’m speaking from the heart: it’s the most wonderful place to experience art.”  


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Stephanie N. Grimoldby
Grimoldby is a freelance writer living in Antioch, Ill.

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