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Local arts studio empowers adults with disabilities

Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 02:12

otl studios

Kyra Sturgill / The Tufts Daily

Just off the Tufts campus, located behind Bello Field, is Outside the Lines Studio (OTL), an art studio devoted to providing a space for adults with intellectual and physical disabilities to engage in activities focusing on creativity, vocational training and wellness. Both artists and volunteers are involved in programming, including opportunities to show and sell artwork at local festivals and fairs. Some OTL volunteers have been Tufts students, demonstrating their commitment to both the arts and the local community.

Entering the Outside the Lines warehouse feels a bit like falling down a rabbit hole. In the main community room, art is everywhere — on tables, on walls and behind every door. There are large, comfortable chairs and games, colored pencils and markers, cloth and glitter. Sculptures of Frankenstein, bats and other papier-mache creations line the walls like a 3D funhouse.

Staff member Diana Rice, an artist who teaches classes at OTL, orchestrates programming such as daily cooking classes and two dance groups hosted by Third Life Studio, a center for performing and healing arts in Somerville, every Monday.

Through its activities, OTL tries to build a sense of community among its artists to provide a sense of empowerment through its artwork in a supportive community, according to Rice.

“The arts give people a way to exercise their will,” she said. “And people with disabilities don’t have a lot of choices.”

OTL was founded in 1995, according to Rice, as an alternative environment for adults with what Rice described as challenging behaviors, but it soon became a mecca for creative work.

“Initially it was sort of a way to keep their hands busy, but then they became more self motivated and more interesting in drawing,” Rice said.

Using art as therapy as a model of positive reinforcement, the alternative program evolved into a studio that has been able to change some maladaptive behaviors into adaptive behaviors, according to Rice.

“We started an alternative day program for people with challenging behaviors but then after a while they noticed that people were doing drawings and actually enjoying it,” Rice said. 

Senior Alma Rominger began volunteering at OTL during her freshman year to expand her extracurricular interests. She became involved with the Best Buddies program, organized through Tufts’ Leonard Carmichael Society, which pairs a volunteer with an adult who has an intellectual or developmental disability.

She said she visited once a week to spend time with Alice, one of the artists at OTL.

“We would usually just talk or draw. She is a wonderful card maker,” Rominger told the Daily in an email.

She added that she and Alice often went on walks and participated in the studio-organized cooking classes.

This past summer, Rominger said she worked as an intern at OTL, where she was able to engage with even more artists. She spent a lot of time hanging around the studio, helping other staff organize projects and facilitating the cooking class. 

The hierarchy of the staff, volunteers and clients is intentionally blurred at OTL. That way, everyone is on more equal ground, according to Rice. OTL extends this philosophy to its art instruction as well, trying to avoid a set of preferred hierarchical types of artwork.

“Instead of trying to get them to fit some sort of idea of what art is supposed to be it’s really getting to know the individuals on their own level, meeting them where they are, finding out what they’re really into and building on that,” Rice said.

Every Thursday morning, OTL has a community arts group where volunteers and both emerging and established artists join the OTL community to help make crafts that can be sold at local art fairs.

According to Rice, the community arts group gets clients of OTL excited about artists or volunteers taking part in its classes. She pointed out the positive contribution of volunteers and visiting artists to the atmosphere of OTL.

“I think that that means a lot to our folks because they’re used to just having relationships with staff who provide them with direct care, and they’re conscious of that,” she said.

Rice discussed the simplicity of these relationships in tasks like participating in discussions or working on client’s individual portfolios.

“It doesn’t have all of the baggage and the implications that are implicit in the relationship with direct care person or of someone who works there,” Rice said. “It’s good for them to have that experience of that kind of relationship.”

Adults with the kind of disabilities to which OTL caters have historically been unfairly excluded from society, according to Rice.

  “People should not be hidden,” she said. “They should be out in the community with everybody else.”

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