With a focus that silenced the chaos around him, Josh kept eyes down the canvass and his hand steady as he painted the outline of Isaac.
“He’s my mom’s dog,” he said after coming up for more paint and a breath. “And Isaac is my dog, too. He’s a Cocker Spaniel.”
Josh beamed. Laying down his brush temporarily, he pulled out his cell phone. Thumbing through his photos, he grew more and more excited to show off a snapshot of himself and his canine companion. He shared the photo, then promptly returned to his painting.
Across the table, Barrett was concentrating on drawing the pair of cowboy boots just inches in front of him, while Elaine was adding color to the petals of her watercolor flowers.
At another station, Ray was perfecting the curves in his drawing of a Vikings ship and Tom was painting a canvas white. Tom was planning to add colorful manger characters to it later.
Jonathan added a coat of Mod Podge to a new set of coasters with maps on them, and Sylvia assisted by cutting and putting pins in a cloth item.
The plethora of art projects, different personalities and varying ability levels is common in the SoHo Arts Studio.
And while it may seem a bit chaotic, it’s all about being creative.
SoHo Arts is a Range Center program that introduces individuals with both physical and cognitive disabilities to a world of communication through creative expression.
The program was founded in 1997 and continues to flourish. Today, there are 23 artists and a waiting list.
“It really has been successful,” said Shelly Tahija, creative arts manager at SoHo. “I think back to Cora (Culbert), who was so instinctively creative and generously shared her talent with people. She helped build the artists’ confidence, and also helped me build mine so that I could say, ‘yeah, I can do this.’”
The continued support of the Range Center and the ongoing interest in people wanting to participate in the program make the program possible, Tahija noted.
“When folks come in here, they don’t feel like they are going to ‘work,’” she said. “They look at is as, ‘hey, I get to go to SoHo.’ It’s not only a blessing for us as staff to work with the artists, but it’s also a nice change and opportunity for the artists to do something different.”
While participating in the SoHo Arts program, artists with disabilities learn to draw, paint, use various printmaking techniques. They have also done pottery, string art, made coasters and sculpted figures, among other artforms.
“Right now we’re working with shredded paper, almost like a pulp version which is very similar to using clay,” said Tahija. “We’re also doing some repurposing. One artist is transforming a wood crate into a storage shelf. Some are doing paint projects. Some are doing tile coasters with maps. Some folks are doing needle work and fabric art. It’s really wide open.”
Artists are actively involved in the decision making process for their program, including interviewing/hiring the art instructor, choosing which form of artistic endeavor they wish to pursue and how many days per week they wish to participate.
Artists work in the studio between once and up to three times a week, depending on their schedule, said Tahija. They are transported to and from Range Center.
Many of the SoHo Artists’ finished products are displayed in the gallery and retail portion of SoHo Arts, located at 2310 First Ave. The downtown Hibbing building was purchased in 2002 with grant money awarded to Range Center.
The business involves the artists directly in the sale of their goods. As an artist-owned business supported by Range Center, they are dedicated to providing courteous service and high-quality products.
Profits from artwork sold in the store is meant to promote independence of individuals with disabilities. Artists also work with several commercial endeavors including retail sales.
“Everywhere SoHo Artists display their artwork and products, people are amazed by the creative interpretations and high-quality products these artists have to offer,” said Tahija.
SoHo artists have been featured in many venues, including an art exhibit at the state capitol. Artists have joined former governors for a joint press conference, a SoHo Artist illustrated a children’s book, two artists were selected and attended the National Art Conferences in Washington, D.C., and several newspapers and magazines have promoted SoHo Art and personal stories of the artists themselves.
Closer to home, SoHo Artists have been part of the community by participating in grant-funded art projects and art events.
The SoHo Artists love to share their work, and Tahija enjoys supporting them as they work. Being witness to the blossoming personalities and emergence of unique viewpoints and abilities of these artists through artwork has been her reward.
“I always strived to get to know people, even if I wasn’t forced to interact with them directly. I thought I knew people well, but this has taught me so much,” said Tahija, noting she’s been with Range Center for 37 years. “This created a whole other avenue and form of expression for these folks. It was a way for what was inside them to come out for other people to see. It’s astounding.”
That type of transformation was – and still is — eye-opening, she said.
“By doing art, they are not limited by their disability,” she added. “They use it as a form of expression and communication, and that really opened up a lot of people.”