East Austin art studio a refuge for disabled artists

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Lydia Ward, who suffers from Schizo-Affective disorder, works on a self-portrait in the studio. The Imagine Art organization provides a stable space for disabled artists to complete their work and train as professionals.

Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

Among the hundreds of galleries in the East Austin Studio Tour is a small, inconspicuous church on Real Street. The church is a shared space, home to a Congolese refugee church, community kitchen and an outdoor vegetable garden. 

It also houses a collective studio called Imagine Art — a community where physically and mentally disabled artists can access resources and hone their professional skills. 

The East Austin Studio Tour gives opportunities to smaller studios such as Imagine Art to be seen by a much broader audience, allowing its artists a window into the business side of the art world. Debbie Kizer, executive director and founder, said Imagine Art wasn’t always in such an established space.

“When I started [Imagine Art], it was really simple,” Kizer said. “It was basically 10 people and I was their attendant, helping them go to art class. And in the process, I learned about art. Then we kept growing and growing, so we finally decided to move to a studio.” 

The sounds of lively French and Swahili sermons drift through the gallery space as artist Nicole Cortichiato prepares for day two of the local arts tour. Cortichiato has been a part of Imagine Art since 2009 but has been doodling for as long as she can remember.  

“It wasn’t until I came here that I really painted,” Cortichiato said. “It was intimidating. I came here and saw all the other work, and when I had my interview I thought they were never going to accept me. You’re in this very loving environment, but there’s no time to feel sorry for yourself.”

When diagnosed with narcolepsy at age 19, Cortichiato said she became active in educating people and expressing her independence, despite her disability. This idea is expressed in the bulk of her colorful sketches, which she explained are influenced a great deal by her day-to-day experience with narcolepsy. 

“I’m totally connected to the creative forces of sleep,” Cortichiato said. “The average person takes an hour and a half to sleep but I take two minutes, so I wake up and I remember my dreams much better than most people.” 

Imagine Art also gives disabled artists the opportunity to use their talents in a career-oriented atmosphere. Artist John Howard MacPherson, a Texas State fine arts graduate, said he was faced with a challenge of overcoming mental and financial burdens. 

For a time, MacPherson was homeless and struggling to find work while keeping his disability benefits. Now in charge of the vegetable garden on the property and a former kilnmaster in the ceramics studio, MacPherson found a position where people can come to him for help and expertise. 

“You can hear as soon as I open my mouth that I’m an art teacher,” MacPherson said. “So I substitute teach and get paid for it. But because I’m on disability, I’ve got to watch very closely how much I make, where I make it. I’ve got to be extremely careful of that.” 

Imagine Art is funded partially by grants and donations, but it mostly maintains its facilities by redirecting the spending of state disability dollars.

Kizer explained that the dollars tagged for personal attendant care are redirected toward establishing disabled artists as professionals and allowing members of Imagine Art to access supplies, attend receptions and display their work in galleries.

“They’re still getting their needs met, but we’re really serving them as an artist,” Kizer said. “We’re taking the state dollars and making sure they’re leveraged to pursue the arts.” 

In a studio environment as productive and encouraging as Imagine Art, it is no surprise that all the members feel as though they have found a place where they’re capable and are understood. “We know it really benefits our community to just have more artists and more creatives in our space,” Kizer said. “It’ll help keep a balance and make us all healthier.” 

The Imagine Art studio is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will be featured in the East Austin Studio Tour on Nov. 23 and 24 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.