The quiet stretch of East State Street between Court Street and Stimson Ave. houses what is perhaps the most important institutions of the Athens art community – Passion Works Studio.
Passion Works is unlike any other studio, gallery or store in town because it serves as a “sheltered workshop” – a supportive work environment for men and women with disabilities. Three days a week, two artists-in-residence collaborate with Athens community members to create an impressive breadth of work that includes everything from jewelry, home accessories and art prints. The studio, which just recently moved from its location on Elliott Street, is not only a place for these artists to convene and create art together, but an art gallery and store as well.
Here is a video that illustrates the concept of Passion Works quite well, from the Passion Works web site.
And another video that my friend Aaron made about a particular artist’s vision:
The idea to create a studio with the intention of bringing community members together was thought up by Patty Mitchell, a local artist and field representative for the Ohio Arts Council, which is an organization that uses grant money to develop artist residencies throughout the state.
Patty Mitchell, founder of Passion Works Studio
“Folks with developmental disabilities are absolutely fascinating and really responsive, and interested in working and like being around people who like to work,” she says. “I had a brother who passed when we were both really young and he had a developmental disability, and ever since I was a little kid I decided I’d live for the both of us. If I see someone in that sit who needs some more support to be successful, I just have this urge to respond to that.”
Mitchell came to Ohio University as a journalism student and started taking art classes just for fun. However, the notion of using art as a mechanism to foster the community did not occur to her until she was offered to live at the Mental Health Center at the Ridges during her sophomore year of as an undergraduate. In exchange for room and board, Mitchell would engage in recreational activities with the patients and started to incorporate her knowledge from art classes.
“People who were really withdrawn and not speaking really opened up during the process of making work,” Mitchell recalls. “So in that moment of that period I wanted to someday make a community-based studio where people who are living on the fringe of the community would be the center of the project.”
And shortly thereafter, this dream materialized into concrete plans to make Passion Works a reality. When Mitchell joined the Ohio Arts Council in 1994, she learned how to do community-based art making in hopes of starting a sheltered workshop. In 1998, Passion Works opened in the ATCO building at the corner of Elliott and Campbell Street, a work-training center for adults with developmental disabilities. But Mitchell saw a potential problem with how the workshop was functioning.
“What was noticeable was that there wasn’t a lot of work for people,” she remembers. “So in order to keep the art going I came up with a product – the Passion Flower. I designed the product so it would create as much work and labor as possible and then it really changed the culture of the sheltered workshop as to what ideal work could be.”
This vivid, multi-colored flower birthed from scraps of sheet metal quickly became the icon of Passion Works as well as the community itself. It is the official flower of Athens and close to 20,000 have been sold throughout the country.
Every passion flower is a unique work of art.
Currently Mitchell is back in the studio for a residency that involves pairing Passion Works with OU’s Aesthetic Technology Lab in Putnam Hall. The lab, which has many high-tech resources to give a new dimension to Passion Works art, has donated $1,500 dollars to create works for a show that will be displayed in January.
“They have all the technology and need the ideas to make the best of what they have,” explains Mitchell. “We have all of these ideas, but we need the tech to really emphasize what’s going on. Together it’s an interesting partnership.”
The result of the collaboration will be mixed-media pieces that involve photographs, illustrations and the juxtaposition of many images within one work.
A collage made during the collaboration with the Aesthetic Tech Lab.
And this collaboration is the heart of what makes Passion Works successful.
“I think art connects all of us, the process of making something I can know more about you,” says Mitchell. “You can’t help but share a little bit of you whenever you make something. It’s about having a conversation and connecting.”