Shared Lives Studio: A Stroke of Genius

Toledo Local Features  |  03/24/2010 7:00 am

A few dribbles of green. A puddle of pink.

"Ok, go!"

Jennifer is off, dragging her wide painter's brush across the canvass. Streaks of blue and turquoise and tangerine. The artist stopped to inspect her handiwork.

"Wow!" she shouted for the whole room to hear, pleased with what unfolded before her. Jennifer is just one of many artists at the Shared Lives Studio, an affiliate program of Lott Industries that helps those with developmental disabilities turn their artistic flair into a supporting paycheck.

"We find out what everyone's abilities are and put that to use. How those relate to sellable art," said Lori Schoen, art director for the studio. Some artists create entire canvass paintings, while others can only weave strips of material, but what prevails is an overwhelming sense of beauty and color. Tropical flowers, landscapes, funky clocks and glass mosaics line the hallway outside the studio. Inside, bright personalities match the bright paint splatters that dot most flat surfaces not already occupied by a past or present project. When a creation is finished, it is then showcased and sold at art fairs and gallery spaces. Proceeds then go towards running the studio, but also to the artists themselves.

One such opportunity to check out these fun and affordable pieces happens this weekend at the Toledo Botanical Garden. The studio's gallery event "Insecta Botanica" will display the group's work and make those pieces available for public purchase. The opening reception begins Friday, March 26, 2010 and runs through that Sunday.

"My favorite thing to say is, 'Art is a great equalizer,'" said Lori. "Everyone can do art. It comes from within. There's no right and no wrong." The warm environment encourages creativity and allows the artists to express themselves through their chosen medium, thus allowing them to share themselves with the community. She also explained why public exposure at shows like the one this weekend is an important facet of what Shared Lives does. "[People] would be amazed at the talent. It breaks down preconceptions of what people think of disabled people. Again, 'The Great Equalizer.'"

Art wasn't always on the minds of the studio's artists and volunteers. Lott Industries largely contracts with companies that need light tasks completed not easily done by machine, including assembling parts for some of the top automotive industry names. Lott even worked closely locally with the ill-fated Maumee Ford Stampting plant, which halted production in 2007.

"It wasn't a good day. It was very, very sad," said Craig as he painted a lavender background around his drawing of a man. He said he used to work on the assembly floor at Lott Industries fitting metal clips into round pieces of plastic for Ford. When economic downturn caused automotive companies to pull the plug on such partnerships, organization heads knew they had to do something to keep their workers employed.

"We'd seen others succeed and create jobs with this idea. We had to explore the creativity in our own assets," said Lori. Shared Lives Studio opened in July 2008 and today employs around 20 of Lott's workers, like Craig, who alternates between the assembly floor and the studio. His automotive work has since been replaced with other tasks, but Craig found his place immortalizing the people he knows with the stroke of his brush. Each person he paints is unique, except for one characteristic: Their wide grins.

The same infectious smiles that flash across the studio.

"It's a blast. It's always joyful. Makes you appreciate who you are. I get a hug every day. Someone says 'I love you,' every day. How many people are happy to go to work? I am," said Lori.

"Happy work!" said Jennifer, as a helper turned her bright canvass so she could paint the corner.

"This is genius," another painter affirmed to herself as she painted a bright yellow sunflower, turning her brush to create its pointed petals. "I paint what I see sometimes, and sometimes I make my own flower, like this."

You'd be hard pressed to find a day when Bianca wasn't creating gardens of roses, poppies, and the occasional landscape. Her style speaks to that of Vincent van Gogh and her other hero, the late Bob Ross.

"Happy little trees live right here," she joked, pointing to a spot beside a mountain stream. Next to that, a canvass with her interpretation of Van Gogh's 'The Wheat Field.'

Bianca also works on the floor at the South Toledo Lott Industries location, but takes the bus specifically so she can paint in the Shared Lives Studio. She wasn't sure when she discovered she liked art, but she has a hunch where her creativity comes from.

"Daddy was an artist. I seen him draw. Guess it's in my genes," she shrugged, turning back to her sunflower to draw a light green leaf.

"I like painting. That's it." She cleaned her brush.

Across the room, Jennifer placed one last dab of hot pink near the bottom of her canvass, and brushed it up into a patch of blue. And when she was satisfied, she tipped her brush up in the air.

"Tired hands," she said. "Tired happy."

Shared Lives Studio 'Insecta Botanica' opens Friday, March 26, 2010 with a reception from 5 p.m to 8 p.m. in the Toledo Botanical Garden Conference Center. The exhibit continues Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information on Shared Lives Studio or 'Insecta Botanica,' visit