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Seattle Washington USA

 

PATTY MITCHELL: THE ART OF LOVE
by MarkReiman
photos by AnnTormet

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Patty Mitchell (right), pictured with Dave Barba, manager of ATCO’s adult program. She is the creator and Artist-In-Residence of Passion Works.

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 Mitchell’s 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 University Bobcats.

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. Patty’s 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 work.

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.

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Debbie Kesterson, Painter

ATCO’s 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.

Patty’s 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.

"(ATCO’s) 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 we’re also saying that people live longer lives now...and we’re trying to offer things that enrich people’s lives and give them a greater sense of enjoyment as well as control."

"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 ATCO’s adult program and administrator of the grant which funds Passion Works. Interestingly, one of the reasons that Passion Works has been so successful, in Barba’s 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. It’s 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 wasn’t looking at the viewpoint of needing to fix these people. What is really lovely is that Patty builds (on) people’s abilities, not disabilities and, as a result, the community gets to see these people as being much more like themselves than different."

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Carolyn Williamns, Quilter

"What Passion Works is very well suited for," says Barba, "is to highlight the inner strength and beauties of people and present them."

MEET ED. HE IS A TALL, BURLY, GENTLE, bear of a man in his early 30’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 heart.’"

"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!"

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David Dewey, Painter

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 doesn’t drive one himself, he has a daydream love affair with motorcycles and always wears a pair of leather, fingerless, Harley-Davidson gloves.

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 others.

"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 didn’t 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 didn’t even know existed."

"Simply put, they are being seen in a whole new light."

WHEN THE LIGHT CAME ON IN PATTY MITCHELL’S HEAD that she wanted to be an artist, it wasn’t 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.

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Irene Bailey, Painter

Patty says, "That’s 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 school’s yearbook, an extremely labor intensive and time consuming job, that she would do for two years.

"My yearbook sponsor was incredibly supportive, telling me literally every day that he thought I was a great photographer. Before working with him I didn’t know you could make a living as a photographer...didn’t 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, I’ve been surrounded by people who appreciate the arts, and it’s 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, that’s what I have been able to do."

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Nancy Dick, Painter

She may sound a little like a pro baseball player issuing the standard team-playing talk about, "I’m 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. It’s 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.

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Poet 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 Univeristy

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 man’s paper was so emotionally moving that, with the student’s 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 Down’s 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 don’t like or that they think don’t 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 can’t do this...No! you can’t do that. Then one day Patty asked her friend, "What’s his Yes? He has so many No’s in his life...what is his Yes?"

"She stood there and looked at me, then finally said, ‘I’ve never thought about it that way.’ Her son is doing better now...and so is she."

"That’s what I like to do," Patty Mitchell says. "I like to find people’s Yes!"

Editor’s 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.

passionworks_logo.jpg (11489 bytes)You can visit the Passion Works website at http://www.PassionWorks.org.

Email Patty Mitchell at: passionworks@eurekanet.com

 

 

 

mark(staff).jpg (11747 bytes)Mark Reiman is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Incredible People Magazine. You can email him at: mark@IncrediblePeople.com

 

  

Hope      Courage     Determination      Compassion
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