Nathaniel Troppito works on a project at Imagine That! (photo by Jim Barcus)
Artists are Artists at this Innovative Studio for Creators with Developmental Disabilities
“Our focus is on artists as artists, not artists with disabilities,” says Kansas City artist Jillian Youngbird, community outreach and media coordinator for Imagine That! a creative home for nearly 60 area artists with developmental disabilities.
Founded in 2012 by Resources for Human Development, a national human services nonprofit, Imagine That! maintains a multi-faceted space in the Crossroads Arts District, with studios for printmaking, photography, ceramics and fiber projects, as well as a fully equipped music and recording studio.
The goal: to help artists with disabilities realize their creative potential and find inclusion in Kansas City’s larger arts community and beyond.
“These artists are incredible and we’re just here to help facilitate their talent,” says Youngbird, who believes Imagine That! not only opens doors for artists with disabilities but provides equally valuable opportunities for arts audiences.
“When I first started, no one knew about us. Now, our artists are in shows that are inclusive of all artists, and viewers are getting to know them and their work in a different light,” she says.
One of those artists is John Buice, whose work is influenced by historical events and pop culture from the ’60s through the ’80s. This summer, his collage and fiber works were featured in a solo exhibit, “The Future is Corndogs,” at PLUG Projects in the West Bottoms. Buice’s work was also featured this year on one of the Mobank Artboards, a pair of double-sided billboards above Missouri Bank’s Crossroads location that display images commissioned from Kansas City-area artists.
“In Kansas City, we’re moving toward making art more accessible for everyone, and 2018 has been a successful year for integrating our artists into the local community,” Youngbird says.
“Disabilities shouldn’t get in the way of how their art is viewed,” says Kansas City artist Stephen Proski. A writer, painter and Charlotte Street Foundation Fellow, Proski, who is visually impaired, understands firsthand the need of artists with disabilities for recognition and inclusion. For the past two years, he has put that understanding to work as a direct support professional at Imagine That!
“It seems people are finally learning what our artists are capable of,” Proski says. “There’s still a good chunk of the population who turns away and doesn’t care about this group of people, but the voices (of artists with disabilities) are just as valid as other artists.”
In the past two years, support from Kansas City’s creative community has grown, as more artists and galleries recognize the voices of these artists.
This year, Charlotte Street Foundation Resident Laurena Roytberg conducted a collaborative quilt project at Imagine That! studios. In 2017, ceramic artist and Kansas City Art Institute instructor Casey Whittier led the artists in a ceramics workshop. In addition, the group recently received a Rauschenberg grant to support an exhibit at the Juice Box Gallery in Kansas City, Kansas.
In early August, Ted Riederer, founder of New York-based Never Records, attended the group’s annual street festival and pressed vinyl records of performances by Imagine That! house bands, I Threw a Chair and Group Therapy. Riederer also demonstrated how to build an internet radio station and develop programming, so the program’s artists can host their own radio talk shows.
For both Proski and Youngbird, working with artists at Imagine That! has been a mutually transformative experience.
“The artists here have had a huge impact on me,” Proski says. “My work has evolved in ways it never would have, if I hadn’t been working here.”
Youngbird, a Charlotte Street Resident, Charlotte Street Visual Artist Fellow, and recipient of the 2018 Byron C. Cohen award, agrees, and says her success would not have been possible if she hadn’t worked with Imagine That! artists. Currently, Youngbird is working on “Bless Your Heart,” a project funded by ArtsKC, and her life-size bird sculptures were featured in Kansas City’s Open Spaces.
“I would not be where I am without the artists here,” she says. “In art school, I was so worried about what other people thought, and I tried to make work that I thought others would like. Then, I saw the way our artists work at Imagine That! They’re uninhibited and make art just because they want to make it — and for no other reason.
“These artists are part of my life, and I’m committed to make sure they are taken seriously and given as many opportunities as possible.”