The Passion Flower is a burst of color and a story of love and celebration of what is possible. This story is about what happens when the talents and interests of people with developmental differences are followed.
In 1998 I was invited to set up an experimental art studio within a sheltered workshop in Athens, Ohio. A sheltered workshop is a day program for people with developmental disabilities that offers assembly line-like work options (capping pens, stuffing envelopes, bagging items). The work is repetitive with a clear expectation of the end product. I saw people with severe physical challenges matched with jobs that required very fine motor skills. The focus and effort necessary to put a cap on a pen was extraordinary. Imagine, your job match for the next 20 years, capping pens, with a personal capability of being able to cap 50 pens a day. It was like watching a room full of people like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill just for it to roll down and do it again the next day.
In the back of the old factory was a 15’ x 25’ room where I was invited to set up a studio space through a grant from the Ohio Arts Council. This tiny studio eventually became the first home for Passion Works. When people were done with their work quotas they could come back to the art studio and explore. The enthusiasm and excitement that unfolded ignited something in me and I found my passion. This group was magical. They had talent, imagination, fearlessness, cooperation—everything needed to feed the creative process within a collaborative community making experience.
In the studio opportunities responded to the maker. If a person had cerebral palsy and naturally made large expressive movements, then they worked with a large canvas propped up at a comfortable angle. The materials were presented in response to how they best served the person, not the person best serving production. The JOY was evident in the space! People were being celebrated for what they wanted and could do, and the spirit of the makers became evident in the artwork.
In the early days, the Ohio Arts Council supported a Visiting Artist, Kate Kern, to come to Passion Works. She shared her process of paper sculpture and bookmaking. Together we decorated paper, cut pieces into petal shapes drawn by Passion Works Artist Carolyn Williams, stapled them together to make floral designs, and installed them at a local restaurant, Purple Chopstix. One of the things that Kate shared with us, which changed the trajectory of the studio forever, was the technique of the dart. A slit at the base of the petal, then folding it under and securing it, turned a 2-D object into a 3-D object. Kate left us with so much to work with as we continued exploring surface design on paper and making sculpture.
One day a staff member came into the studio with a pile of aluminum printing plates from the local newspaper and said, “If you want more there’s PLENTY where this came from!” So, we started painting the plates and experimenting. We found that the plates responded like paper. We cut petal shapes out with scissors, made a dart, and screwed the petals onto a block of wood. We had a bunch of wood chunks from the local Stewart-MacDonald’s banjo factory and made 3-foot wide flowers that were funky and fun. We had a show at Casa Nueva Restaurant and sold all 12 flowers for $150 each!
We kept going. People wanted flowers and we loved making them. We set up systems for the making of the flowers as an employment option for people working at the sheltered workshop. The artists could paint whatever they wanted on the metal—cats, dogs, polka dots, love letters, monsters—the artists were free to explore. We evolved into making small 11 inch, medium 13 inch, and large 19 inch flowers. We even recently created minis (3 inch) and mini deluxe (4 inch) versions.
Passion Works Studio has moved out of the sheltered workshop and is now a Collaborative Community Arts Center in uptown Athens, Ohio. We make Passion Flowers and all kinds of fine art—giant puppets, paintings, animation, commissioned work, and installations for festivals (Nelsonville Music Festival, Pawpaw Festival). Passion Flowers are the “Official Flower of Athens Ohio” and can be spotted hanging in government buildings, throughout the Ohio University, and in homes and businesses. Flowers can be delivered by local florist Hyacinth Bean. Local tea company Herbal Sage is even developing “Passion Flower Tea.” Local artist Tina Kelsey of Tina’s Tiaras has created stunning tiaras with mini Passion Flowers. The Passion Flower has become a symbol for the Athens community and the studio has sold over 26,000 flowers.
The power of collaboration and working through the beauty that we naturally possess is evident in the Passion Flower. Artist-in-residence projects with the intent of addressing social justice challenges and expanding positive culture is a powerful force for positive change. Passion Works Studio is now a training center for artists, programs, and communities to witness what is possible and to help encourage and support the replication of like programing.
Please visit Passion Works Studio on Facebook, www.passionworks.org and/or contact us to learn more. Creative Abundance Think Tank is a Facebook group sharing projects, ideas, and encouragement with people interested in developing like studios.