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Gallery creates beauty in art therapy

Developmentally disabled artists hone creative skills and boost self-esteem at the Incredibly Cool Design House Gallery.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

DOWNTOWN -- As the Dixie Chicks crooned from a CD player, artists at the Incredibly Cool Design House Gallery found their rhythm.

Andrea Bell, 48, colored with crayons, fleshing out the image of a mermaid riding a dolphin.

Glen Nash, 48, sketched a muscle-bound super hero.

"How we doing, buddy?" instructor Renee Thompson asked Craig Conaway, 36, who was brushing white paint on two black umbrellas. "You need to get more paint on there."

On first glance, visitors strolling past this Kennedy Boulevard storefront might not see anything out of the ordinary.

But the Incredibly Cool Design House Gallery isn't populated by misunderstood artists with big egos.

These artists are developmentally disabled. Some have physical disabilities, too.

Yet here, they hone creative skills. And through art therapy, boost self-esteem.

"If they're doing something wonderful, they are wonderful," said Rick Thomas, the gallery director. "And the more they believe that . . . the more confidence that will build."

This isn't play art.

Some of the work is for sale in the gallery. And there are plans to use artist-generated designs for greeting cards and T-shirts.

The gallery occasionally holds open houses so the public can see the work. The next one is Oct. 31, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"We're trying to create an industry for them as opposed to just sweeping floors and bagging groceries," Thomas said. "Some people think that's all they can do."

Thomas, 44, has been leading therapy sessions for 10 years. He, too, is an aspiring artist.

His metal sculptures and funky furniture-as-art pieces are on sale next to the work of his students.

Altogether, Thomas oversees 30 students in two centers: One at Scott and Jefferson streets; the other at 914 W Kennedy.

Art isn't all the students do. Every artist needs inspiration.

So the students visit museums, malls and the airport. They bring back sand from the beach to use in their work. They get ideas from other galleries.

"They bowl, too," Thomas said. "They're the bomb."

Most of the students are referred by support coordinators for the Department of Children and Families. The cost, $25 to $50 per day, is paid by a Medicaid waiver program.

Each student strives to meet certain goals, said Thompson, the instructor.

Some work on social skills, such as handling emotional outbursts. Some improve motor skills.

Often, the students sing while they work, led by Thompson, who studied opera for 10 years.

Christina Alvarez, 31, danced while she painted.

"It helps me have a creative mind," she said.

James Begley, 49, glued colored beads to a cigar box. His scene: sun and surf, with a postcard-worthy palm tree.

Sometimes, the gallery's works are collaborative efforts, with Nash making initial drawings and the others splashing on color.

"I draw anything," Nash said matter-of-factly.

The wall behind him provided the proof.

One painting showed an angel with swirling, multicolored wings. The sky-blue background was dotted with yellow and orange stars.

Thomas and Thompson are trying to get his work displayed in another art gallery.

"It's substantial," Thompson said.

Bell started art therapy a year and a half ago.

She likes it much more than a previous program, where she got hurt teaching people to sew.

"Don't ask me to do that . . . again," said Bell, whose Shirley Temple curls and dark freckles match her sassy attitude.

Bell's mother, Rilla Bell, said her daughter has grown sure enough of herself to dispense advice to friends who call.

"She's like a psychologist," Rilla Bell said.

One of Andrea Bell's works is a replica of a picture she cut from a magazine. The picture shows a boy fishing.

In her painting, the boy is a man: He has a dark beard.

But he still has the straw hat, the patch on his overalls, the look of wonder in his eyes.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or

To learn more

For information about the Incredibly Cool Design House Gallery, call 250-3803 or 785-6941.

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