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Creating an inclusive arts space

Local art studio offers welcoming space for people with disabilities

Steve Quattrocchi was a teenager, fresh out of high school, when he signed up for art classes at Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver. It was the late `80s, and Quattrocchi, who was legally blind with no depth perception, was pulled aside by an instructor who suggested he drop the classes.

"He was basically saying because of your unique situation, you would be better off pursuing self-study than going into formal education," Quattrocchi says.

The talk was by no means meant to be discouraging. The instructor liked Quattrocchi's work; he was simply suggesting a more suitable path for someone who was visually impaired and passionate about art.

"I approached things in a very Cezanne-ish way," Quattrocchi says. "Because of my eyesight, I can't do a lot of detail work."

Quattrocchi then had to teach himself formal anatomy and perspective - things he would likely have struggled with in a conventional art school class.

"Artists go to art school to learn how to develop their own methods, and I had to do that all along. I think that's what the prof was getting at," he says.

Quattrocchi stuck with it, and by the late `90s, he had a successful show of landscape paintings at the Burnaby Arts Council. That's when two people who worked for BACI, the Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion, approached him suggesting they set up an inclusive art space that was welcoming for people with disabilities, and that's how Artists Helping Artists was born.

"They didn't want it to just be a place, like a therapy site, because one of the things we are not is art therapy," Quattrocchi says from AHA's new storefront studio on Royal Oak in Burnaby's South Slope area. "We put on professional art shows, we do the place up, we try to approach it as an artists' run centre, as a professional art studio as opposed to a therapy thing. The original idea was focusing on the art, just for art's sake, and (to) give people a chance to be creative without worrying (if they are) achieving therapeutic goals or anything."

Quattrocchi now manages Artists Helping Artists, a drop-in artists' centre open to people with varying levels of ability. Artists pay nominal fees to use the space, and while people are encouraged to bring their own supplies, there are some available for general use. Artists Helping Artists fundraises for supplies, and BACI covers the operating costs. The centre holds two major art shows a year. There are 40 regular members, and 10 to 15 people usually show up each day to work in the studio. There are a couple of people on hand, like Quattrocchi, to help the artists if need be.

On a recent weekday afternoon, several people are at the studio, working on art with classical piano playing in background. One woman named Deb is in a wheelchair and paints alongside her support worker, both working in watercolours. Deb has an easel fashioned to her wheelchair so she can paint on her own. There's a small side room where two regulars are working on paintings. Everyone seems to know each other, and the main room is full of chatter and laughter.

Burnaby resident Diane Martin heard about Artists Helping Artists through BACI, and she comes by twice a week to listen to music and draw.

"I like coming here Wednesday and Monday mornings because they are good teachers. They help me out if I need them. That's what they are there for, to make me happy and proud. They make me laugh, too," she says.

Melody Forseth is another regular who has been coming to the studio weekly for the past couple of years. The 22-year-old mostly paints in acrylics and watercolours, and she has epilepsy, so she avoids strobe lights and lasers, which can bring on seizures. Forseth describes the studio as a warm, welcoming environment, where people help each other out and socialize.

"It's a great way to express myself," says Forseth. "They don't force you. They just ask you to try, and if you can't, you just go home, (but) at least you tried."

Quattrocchi says he sees growth in people as artists because they get to pursue their own goals with support.

"If they want to learn how to paint a water colour sky, we have people who can show them. We try to offer workshops and things, but we try to only direct people if they want to be directed, and we find that freedom people have tends to stimulate their creativity and they tend to go in directions they don't normally go," he says.

Artists Helping Artists has been at the Royal Oak location since October. Before that, the studio was at BACI's headquarters on Norland Avenue, and before that in the Burnaby Heights Resource Centre, an old school that community groups were using before it was torn down in 2010.

Quattrocchi prefers the new space on Royal Oak, as it's more accessible to street traffic. He's hoping Artists Helping Artists will become a staple in the community.

"Because we are just in the new location, we are still developing that, but our goal is to be a place where people can drop in and have a cup of tea and look at the art and chat, and to be a resource centre for the community as a whole, rather than just our members," he says.

Quattrocchi's experience of being visually impaired and pursuing art helps him help other artists.

"It really helps me in this job because I've had to do it all myself, adapt methods to my own disability, my own ability. It gives me a new perspective because everyone who comes here approaches things differently. And even someone who doesn't have a disability mentally might approach things differently. Everyone has to develop that, so for me having to learn my own ways of doing things allowed me to approach it with a flexibility in terms of methodology."

Artists Helping Artists is at 7724 Royal Oak Ave. Hours are Monday to Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit