Many have walked down Bardstown Road and strolled past a little art studio called StudioWorks, but few realize the amazing things that are happening inside. All artists in the studio have an intellectual or developmental disability, and all are being trained to work as professional artists while learning life skills along the way. They create their own art in many different media, then show it in the StudioWorks studio. What’s even cooler? These artists get 70 percent of the profit from any sale of their art.

While that may simply sound like a generous philanthropic endeavor, the amount of talent coming from this little artists’ haven is making big news. One piece, created by StudioWorks artist Chimel Ford, was recently chosen to be the 2019 Kentucky Derby Festival poster, a very high honor. “He’s one of our superstars,” says Staci Ray, day-training manager for StudioWorks and LifeWorks, another facility owned by parent company Zoom Group.

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The 2019 Kentucky Derby Festival Poster was created by Chimel Ford, a StudioWorks artist with autism. Image: Kentucky Derby Festival

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Chimel Ford’s work “Aretha Franklin” hangs in the Studio Works gallery.

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Chimel captures the visage of Prince.

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Louis Armstrong as portrayed by artist Chimel Ford

“I wanted the painting to tell a story about how I see our city during the Kentucky Derby Festival,” says Chimel in a press release from the Festival. “It’s colorful, a lot of fun and alive.”

The artists’ studio space doubles as a day-training facility, where participants learn basic life skills. What makes StudioWorks different is that the clients’ main focus is their art. The staff are all direct support professionals as well as professionally trained artists. They help clients find their best artistic medium, teach them about life as a professional artist and teach them valuable independent living skills along the way.

All the work is professionally framed and exhibited just like it would be in any other gallery. “Our job is to try to make the community see that they are professional artists and that [art] is their chosen profession or passion — it’s how they want to spend their time and spend their life,” Staci says. “I think that’s what sets us apart is that we are offering a professional environment.”

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Carol Thorp shows off her embroidery, “Beatlemania.” It sold before she finished it.

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Carol is working on this colorfully embroidered unicorn.

The artists learn how to submit their art to art shows, follow a theme for an exhibit, price their art appropriately and more. “They learn what it’s like to work hard, to submit your piece, to know that if it doesn’t get in, to give them all the feedback so they know that they can push themselves to make their best art,” says Ethan Osman, lead site coordinator. “With that said, we do try to showcase all our artists. As long as they are doing the best that they can, we’ll stand behind them and frame it professionally.”

Learning to price the art is important. Says Staci, “If your goal is to sell your art, then you need to put it at a price where you think someone would want to purchase it,” she says. “So you say, ‘Well, you did a piece, and it was this size and it sold for $75, so maybe you should ask a similar price.’ One of the artists with the highest prices in the gallery couldn’t care less what it sells for. So we work with him and try to make sure he gets the greatest revenue from it.” All the art at StudioWorks is priced at $500 or less so that people can afford to buy the art and enjoy it in their homes.

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This painting by Julie Baldyga, “David and Beverly Having Fun at the Prom,” is for sale for $200 at StudioWorks. It’s an oil pastel on masonite.

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“These are ladies dancing in heaven,” say the artist, Julie Baldyga. She gets a lot of inspiration from women and only paints men if she knows them.

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“Wave” is an embroidered piece by artist Terry B. on display at StudioWorks.

StudioWorks is a nonprofit organization with seven people on staff and 52 artists, though not every artist comes daily. Clients pay through Medicaid waivers, or they and their families can pay for services directly. “At the end of the day, [all the staff and I], we’re not here to make money,” says Staci. “But we need money to generate these services. We don’t use school-grade materials. We use the highest quality, professional-grade materials just like any artist would want to use, and those things cost a lot of money, so finding outside revenue sources is important. We’re always looking for sponsors, donors and ways to generate that revenue so we can continue to give service and support.”

Community engagement is another piece of the StudioWorks mission. “Art is the one real place where uniqueness is celebrated, and our artists all have their unique perspectives,” says Ethan. “When people come in here, I’ve heard many times, ‘I can’t believe I’ve never been here; this is my favorite place; this is the most unique and honest art,’ and it is. You go into any other gallery, you’re going to see people deriving from other artists and trying to be unique, and that’s not the case here. It’s just very honest.”

Staci agrees: “I think that’s why we get so much exceptional artwork here, because each artist’s point of view is so different. Most of the people in our program have been left out and disenfranchised and not really given the boost of confidence that they need throughout their lives. And so they have a different perspective. And that’s what we try to work on here: self-value, valuing themselves as a person.”

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Candace W. shows off her watercolor of a Valentine’s Nutcracker.

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Dorothy stands in front of her miniature sculptures.

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This tiny snowman is a ceramic work in progress by artist Dorothy H.

Artists who come to the program are never judged by their artistic talent. While there is an extensive intake process, StudioWorks is mostly concerned with whether the client likes to make art.

“We have artists here who are essentially nonverbal, they’re not able to communicate through words in an effective way, but they’re able to communicate something on paper, or through embroidery, or through any of the different media we offer here, and I think that’s a really powerful thing to see,” says Staci. “People who don’t have the ability to express the most simple ideas, but they can create a piece that can express the most complex issues of human emotion that can be experienced — it’s an amazing thing to see.”

StudioWorks is located on the corner of Bardstown Road at 2008 Eastern Pkwy, Louisville, KY 40204. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; closed on Sunday. To learn more or to make a donation, visit zoomgroup.org.

The Kentucky Derby Festival poster by artist Chimel Ford officially goes on sale March 14, 2019. The limited edition signed and numbered posters normally retail for $75, and the official poster normally retails for $30. They can be pre-ordered at 1213apparel.com.

StudioWorks is hosting the opening of “Higher Love” today, February 22, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at their location on the corner of Bardstown Road at 2008 Eastern Pkwy, Louisville, KY 40204. It’s an exhibition revealing love and passion within the mind, body and soul. There will be a live performance at 7 p.m. by The Boogie Down Crew, a dance team of entertainers from Down Syndrome of Louisville.

All photos courtesy of Lisa Hornung unless otherwise noted.

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