SHE SITS ALONE IN THE ART STUDIO long after
everyone else has left. Before her on the table lay dozens and dozens of very small
irreguarly shaped pieces of paper which she continues to glue one-by-one onto a large
sheet of art paper. The only thing that one of her artists could or would do this
particular day was cut pieces of paper into tiny shapes and she was determined to find an
artistic way to present them. Helping her clients find and then express their artistic
gifts is Patty Mitchells job, but is has become far more than that. Her clients -
her artists as she rightfully refers to them - and using the power of art to enrich
their lives, have become her passion.
Mitchell is the program director and artist-in-residence for Passion
Works Studio, a program which provides art opportunities for people with mental
retardation and developmental disabilities (MRDD), artists, and other community members.
Funded by grants from the Ohio Arts Council and the Athens County Board of MRDD, Passion
Works is a part of ATCO, a sheltered workshop and training center for people with MRDD in
Athens (pop. 25,000), a small college town in southeastern Ohio and home of the Ohio
She came to ATCO nearly two years ago to share her diverse artistic
and people skills within their training program funded by a three-week grant. Pattys
initial 3-week program was so successful that ATCO applied for an additional 6-week grant
the following year. The OAC and ATCO knew a good thing when they saw it and those first
nine weeks were followed by unprecedented, back-to-back nine month grants to continue her
From the very beginning the ATCO-Mitchell duet was a study in
contrasts, "an interesting dance" as Mitchell puts it. And in this relationship,
as it so often is with people, opposites do indeed attract.
ATCOs focus was helping their clients develop vocational
skills - working skills and training that would allow them to live and work as fully and
independently as possible - and this almost entirely took the form of routine, repetitive,
assembly line work.
Pattys goal was the opposite of routine, repetitive, and
assembly line in nature. This is by no means "paint by the numbers" type of art.
Original, vibrant, soul-touching works are created by amazingly talented, insightful
artists...most, if not all of whom, had no idea that they had beautiful art inside of them
until Patty Mitchell showed them how to find it and to believe in their ability to use it.
"(ATCOs) whole mission is to allow people to take part
fully in the community they live in," Mitchell explains. "And that means to
live, to work, to socialize, to be part of the very fabric of community in any way we can
empower. A lot of the focus has been in vocational training over the years. But were
also saying that people live longer lives now...and were trying to offer things that
enrich peoples lives and give them a greater sense of enjoyment as well as
"Passion Works," she continues, "really allows our
clients, in many ways to have a voice uniquely their own. To me, that is one of the most
wonderful things that the art has been able to do: be a vehicle for people to express
themselves in new ways and be heard, recognized, and respected by the communities
they live in as people who have valuable gifts to contribute."
Dave Barba is the manager of ATCOs adult program and
administrator of the grant which funds Passion Works. Interestingly, one of the reasons
that Passion Works has been so successful, in Barbas opinion is that, while Mitchell
has advanced degrees in art and is an accomplished artist herself, she has no background
in social services.
He explains, "People with disabilities are so often seen as
people either to be pitied or sheltered as they have been in the past. Its very easy
for people to focus in on "the differences" - someone using a wheelchair,
perhaps their gait is not perfect, or they have trouble with their speech pattern. She
wasnt looking at the viewpoint of needing to fix these people. What is really
lovely is that Patty builds (on) peoples abilities, not disabilities and, as
a result, the community gets to see these people as being much more like themselves
"What Passion Works is very well suited for," says
Barba, "is to highlight the inner strength and beauties of people and present
MEET ED. HE IS A TALL, BURLY, GENTLE, bear of a man in his early
30s who never goes anywhere in a hurry. He had been an ATCO client for many years
before Patty Mitchell arrived. He was obviously a very nice man but not very communicative
and generally viewed by others as a rather one-dimensional personality. Ed had some skills
and abilities but didnt seem to have a lot to share with others in terms of
interests. He never caused any problems and was very quiet and introverted. "(He was)
so quiet, in fact, that he was probably overlooked to some degree," Patty admits.
People in the ATCO program had never been asked to be creative but
one day Mitchell brought Ed into the studio and encouraged him to draw on a tile.
"He didnt draw a picture," Patty recounts, "he
began to write letters on the tile. I was surprised he could write letters. No one knew Ed
could even draw letters because he is almost deaf as well as developmentally disabled, so
its a little bit more difficult to communicate with him. When he handed me the tile,
he had written: To whom I am writing, there is strength between our
"I was so astounded that I began to cry," Mitchell says.
"Ed just patted me on the shoulder and gently laughed. Now he is writing poetry...and
he is a really funny man!"
DAVID DEWEY IS ANOTHER PASSION WORKS ARTIST. A very slight, 29
year old wisp of a man and, with his thin mustache and ever-present French beret, he looks
every bit the well known Athens artist that he has become. He is a very kind and joyful
man with a great sense of humor. While he doesnt drive one himself, he has a
daydream love affair with motorcycles and always wears a pair of leather, fingerless,
David has very weak hands. He cannot pick up even a piece of paper
or do any of a wide variety of other things that would be useful on the ATCO assembly
line. Consequently, something that Dewey had on his hands - besides his motorcyle gloves -
was a lot of free time.
"One day early on," Mitchell shares, "he was in the
studio doing a pen-and-ink drawing...and he drew some washers and dryers and a
refrigerator. I tell you, I almost fell over they were so beautiful! I realized then and
there that he was really talented."
Many more David Dewey drawings followed which soon led to a
collection of greeting cards which Passion Works now sells featuring the art of Dewey and
"His work is now literally in demand because people appreciate
his take on things", as Patty puts it. "He simply has a unique way of looking at
things and transfering that to paper."
Dave Barba, as well as the entire community of Athens, sees powerful
results from the Passion Works program." Many adults in the ATCO program are from
this area and still live with their parents. (Growing up), many of these people were
overlooked and sometimes mistreated by those who didnt understand them. Now the
community,...even their own parents, are seeing a side of these talented people
through their outstanding gifts and abilities that they didnt even know
"Simply put, they are being seen in a whole new light."
WHEN THE LIGHT CAME ON IN PATTY MITCHELLS HEAD that she wanted
to be an artist, it wasnt any ordinary light, it was a camera flash. A visiting
artist/photographer had come to her 6th grade class one day armed to the teeth with
plastic cameras. They talked about photography and picture design...and then took pictures
and developed them all in the same day. She was hooked.
Patty says, "Thats when I knew what I wanted to do
with my life. For years I gave kids cameras, taught them how to take good pictures and how
to develop them. I wanted to share that because (art and photography) made my life, and saved
my life, in the sense that it has given me so much joy."
Then in high school, she became the editor of her high schools
yearbook, an extremely labor intensive and time consuming job, that she would do for two
"My yearbook sponsor was incredibly supportive, telling me
literally every day that he thought I was a great photographer. Before working with him I
didnt know you could make a living as a photographer...didnt know you could go
to school for that kind of thing. He encouraged me to do just that. My family never
discouraged or even questioned my career choice. I have been very lucky, Ive been
surrounded by people who appreciate the arts, and its become a way of life."
"There is nothing better," Mitchell declares, "than
being able to take the thing you love and have a passion for, and somehow be able to make
a living doing it. Luckily, thats what I have been able to do."
She may sound a little like a pro baseball player issuing the
standard team-playing talk about, "Im just glad to be here with the team and
help them win some games." In reality, the kind of collaboration that Mitchell
practices is not the usual stuff of artistic life. Traditionally, artists work alone in a
studio. "I could never do that," she states. "I like a crowded room and a
lot of action. Its definitely a special relationship going on (at Passion Works) and
finding the right fit is extremely important."
You see, Patty Mitchell is a lot more than just a talented artist,
an inspiring teacher, and a rare collaborative coach. What were actually doing is talking
with a very real, flesh-and-blood kind of hero that has changed the lives of the people
she works with and in the wider community as well. I spell that Hero with a capital H.
The truth is, when Patty Mitchell began showing her new-found
artists that beautiful art existed inside of each them, she simultaneously showed them
that real beauty itself existed inside them, too. Something dramatic touched these
special artists and it is now overflowing into the town of Athens. Here are two examples:
1. One well known business owner has turned his place of
business into a virtual gallery of and for Passion Works artists. He has gone to the
incredible lengths of leaving "the store" unlocked 24 hours a day so that
people can come in at any time and see the art he is currently displaying...seven foot
flowers hanging over tables and animals flying everywhere. Not continually open for
business, but continually open for the love of people and the love of art.
Deni Naffziger wrote "A Story of Flying". The poem was read to over 25 art
workshops in the community. Participants made a paper mache animal in response to the
reading. In all, over 450 people were involved in this project creating 250 flying
creatures. A Story of Flying, here displayed at The Kennedy Museum of American Art at Ohio
2. Recently, the Kennedy Museum of Art was hosting a
showing of Passion Works art entitled The Story of Flying. The first day of the
show was an overwhelming success and broke all attendance records. A professor at Ohio
University had her class view the The Story of Flying and then write a paper about
their experience. One young mans paper was so emotionally moving that, with the
students permission, the professor shared it with Mitchell. He wrote that he had
lived and grown up in the Athens area next door to a boy who had Downs Syndrome. As
they grew up together, the writer recalled that he had not really considered his disabled
neighbor a real person with real feelings of any kind. He used to, "...beat him
up" physically, verbally, and emotionally. After he experienced the Passion Works
show and saw the joy in the art created by the very person he had treated so terribly, he
cried with the remorse he felt for what he had done. From that day forward, he vowed, he
would treat disabled people with respect.
"THINK OF COMMUNITY AS A KIND OF TAPESTRY," explains Dave
Barba, "...the fabric of our lives all woven together. If people start to pick out
the threads they dont like or that they think dont fit, then the whole
thing unravels. The beauty of the tapestry is the difference built into it. The moral of
the story is, everyone has a story."
Mitchell sums up with a story about a friend of hers who has an
autistic son who had many very difficult behaviors. He was constantly being told No!
you cant do this...No! you cant do that. Then one day Patty asked her
friend, "Whats his Yes? He has so many Nos in his life...what
is his Yes?"
"She stood there and looked at me, then finally said,
Ive never thought about it that way. Her son is doing better now...and
so is she."
"Thats what I like to do," Patty Mitchell says.
"I like to find peoples Yes!"
Editors note: In November of 1999, Jimmy and Susan Shie, a
husband and wife artist team who specialize in "fabric art", spent two weeks
with Patty Mitchell and the Passionettes (as Susan refers to them). She provides a
fascinating and very touching account of their visit to Passion Works, filled with
excellent photos and descriptions of their projects. Go to http://www.turtlemoon.com/trax/1-3-00.htm and scroll down
a little to find their story.
can visit the Passion Works website at http://www.PassionWorks.org.
Email Patty Mitchell at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Reiman is the
co-founder and editor-in-chief of Incredible People Magazine. You can email him at: mark@IncrediblePeople.com