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Today's story comes from Lori, who wrote about founding Aurora Studio and Gallery to bring arts and creativity to those who might not be able to access or afford it:
At the age of nine, I read “Helen Keller’s Teacher”, I was forever inspired by the relationship Anne Sullivan developed with Helen Keller. Sullivan’s intuitive knowing that Helen could be communicated to and with spoke to me about the incredible abilities of us all.
A few years later, at the age of fourteen, I began volunteering at the Oak Hill School for the Blind in Hartford, Connecticut. Every Saturday, my mother would drop me off and I would spend the entire day playing with children of various abilities, many whom were affected by the Rubella epidemic of the early 60’s.
The children were placed at this residential school by parents, many who were too bereaved to maintain an ongoing relationship with their offspring. I was not enrolled in a formal volunteer program, but through a simple agreement between the school principal and myself. So every Saturday, I would go and play. I continued playing on Saturdays, until the school offered me a position as an aid in my senior year in high school.
After I graduated and moved on to college, I continued to involve myself with children with special needs; tutoring and becoming a Big Sister through the Big Brother/Big Sister program.
While living in Boston, I volunteered with both AIDS Action and the local ARC helping with special events. Then during the twenty years I lived in Vermont, I loved the community that volunteering offered me and worked with several organizations including: the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont; The Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery; The Women’s Film Festival which benefited the Women’s Crisis Center; and The Center for Creative Healing (a program for children experiencing grief).
As I moved throughout the varying chapters of my life, whether it was taking Danny skating in the hallways of the Oak Hill School or planning a surprise birthday party to Dave, my “buddy” who died of AIDS, I was there learning what I could from these interactions. The volunteering for me began with love. At points when times were rough, looking at the bigger picture helped me maintain a greater focus and sense of purpose. All the years of volunteerism appeared to lead and prepare me for my next big move to Asheville, North Carolina.
I transplanted myself in Asheville in 2010. As a counselor, I began working at a detox and crisis stabilization unit for people with Medicaid or who were uninsured. I would have only a few precious days to get to know a person before they were discharged back home (or in many cases to the streets). While holding that position, I was inspired by a woman who was struggling with mental health issues, from trauma and abuse. I observed her artistic strengths as she shared with me the difficulty she was having accessing her art supplies due to homelessness. Over my time in that position and my work with this population, my heart was touched again and again by individuals who shared similar stories of finding comfort through the arts. It took me over a year and a half of serious contemplation, before moving ahead to start Aurora Studio & Gallery. It was through the perseverance and gifts of these brilliant artists that Aurora Studio & Gallery was born.
I developed Aurora Studio & Gallery in order to provide artists with the space and art supplies to explore their personal creativity, which they could not obtain nor otherwise afford. At the urging of a colleague, a pilot was run in the summer of 2013 and was so successful, that the workshops have been running ever since. The weekly workshops are held forty weeks a year, facilitated by volunteers and have been housed at various venues in Asheville, North Carolina. The program works in collaboration with area artists and volunteers (many from the recovery community themselves). Slots are available for up to ten participants for the eight week series, with bi-weekly instruction offered by local artists in mediums such as: mixed media, drawing, acrylic painting, watercolor, landscape painting, pottery and more.
I have found the actual act of creating art as a small community abundantly richer than the original vision I had set out to achieve seven years ago. Meaningful friendships have been formed among participants, who otherwise were isolated and often felt (and may still feel) marginalized by society. Artists with severe depression, have gained greater self confidence through trying out new forms of art; by being exposed to new people and in having their art on exhibit for the community to see. When mental health symptoms have become problematic for several participants, they still show up and are able to get the support of their peers. The continuous support and generosity the artists share with one another is a profound beauty to witness.
Aurora Studio & Gallery scantly gets by thanks to the generous donations, both financial and in kind, from friends and the local community. The program is fortunate to have received grants of up to $2800 from the Asheville Area Arts Council and All Souls Episcopal Church which have helped to cover costs for art supplies, special arts activities and visiting artists.
Seven years ago, I had the dream of a daily workshop opened to artists in recovery, hosted by artists, yoga instructors, poets, and members of the recovery community. A part of this dream has happened, in small manageable steps. Not as a fully funded daily program, but a weekly volunteer one, touching the lives of some of the most sensitive artists in Western North Carolina. In the next few years I will be retiring, my dream remains to see the full plan for programming come to fruition. To quote Helen Keller, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.” I am thankful to my first mentors, Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller for leading me here.