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Jonathan Velasquez performs music from his recent album, Jonathan del Norte, available on NIAD’s new record label, NIAD Sound Recordings.

Richmond art studio helps people with disabilities stay connected

on November 20, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has upset nearly every facet of life as we know it. But for Deshawna Kinard and other people with developmental disabilities, the closures and stay-at-home orders have posed some unique challenges.

To stay connected, Kinard now logs onto Zoom to take part in her classes and other events offered by Nurturing Independence through Artistic Development (NIAD), which isn’t a typical art studio. Founded in 1982, NIAD combines an exhibition and studio space for artists with disabilities seeking to create and sell their work.

Before COVID-19, NIAD offered classes ranging from textile sculpting and mixed media sculpting to drawing, ceramics and fashion making. It also offered bingo, cooking, journalism, jam sessions, meditation and movement classes. Even now, NIAD has found a way to incorporate all of these classes in an online format.

Although Kinard likes the fact she doesn’t have to get dressed every morning for her online classes, she said she misses her daily visits to NIAD. “It’s fun but it’s different in person,” says Kinard, who has been at NIAD for over a year now.

Amanda Eicher, the executive director of NIAD, acknowledges that it’s been tough on Kinard and others who relied so heavily on the face-to-face interactions with other artists, staff and the community.

“One of the big challenges is that the best feedback for most artists but especially for ours, comes from that in-person engagement with other people around your work,” she said. “It has been really important to acknowledge that there’s no substitute for that feeling.” 

The NIAD building on 23rd St. in downtown Richmond, Calif. used to be a car repair place. Now, it’s a vibrant and cluttered studio and exhibition space.
Photo credit: Isabella Bloom

How things work under the coronavirus pandemic

On a recent Friday, Kinard attended a Mail Art practice circle, which focuses on art that you can fit in an envelope, made from materials NIAD sends to its artists. But really, artists can create whatever they like, and they do so while listening to jazz. 

As Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts played out on computers throughout the Bay, some of NIAD’s artists sat in their homes drawing, sewing or painting. One artist, with his laptop on mute, spent the entire session playing a Mexican-flag-decorated accordion, then switched to electric guitar, and then back to the accordion again. 

NIAD serves 67 artists who come from the Regional Center of the East Bay, which serves about 22,000 adults with disabilities. Since the pandemic began, not a single artist has dropped out. Alongside sister organizations Creative Growth in Oakland and Creativity Explored in San Francisco, NIAD was forced to temporarily shut down its physical space in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

Although some artists at NIAD may opt out of the Zoom classes, the studio staff are in contact with all of their artists in some way, such as via text or regular phone calls. 

“We made a really rapid turn to shelter in place and a virtual studio,” Eicher said. “In two weeks, we had all of our artists engaged in virtual activities, whether that was phone call check-ins or we provide six hours a day of circles of practice on Zoom.” 

But now things are different. The artists who work as staff at NIAD got involved with the program to engage with other artists. They want to be physically present with each other and the materials, not interact over a computer, sitting at their desks. 

Liam Golden, a studio manager at NIAD, started working there six years ago as a volunteer. He’d recently moved back to the Bay Area after studying art in college and was working on a food truck when he met the former NIAD studio manager. To Golden and others who work there, NIAD is a family. 

The one-on-one engagement is foundational to NIAD, says Golden, and artists being in that studio space together, making art together, allowed for communication in “infinite different ways.” 

This is difficult to replicate on Zoom. Online platforms, for people with developmental disabilities as well as everyone else, can be unconducive for speaking up. 

“Video conferencing is so limited — it doesn’t really allow the same kind of group listening, group feeling,” Golden said. “It privileges certain kinds of communicating.”

Despite the fact that they can’t meet in person, artists at NIAD and Creative Growth are finding ways to feel connected virtually. 

At Creative Growth, executive director Elizabeth Broderson says they’ve found ways to incorporate not just art classes but the social activities they used to have in the studio that artists miss since the pandemic began.  

“There was always incredible energy, noise, love, hugs, appreciations, just a beehive of artistic activity,” she said. But once the closure order came, it became “very analog.” 

After several months of adjusting and reconfiguring their entire program, Broderson said they now have “an incredible slate of offerings in all different media.” 

At the artists’ request, they’ve found a way to bring back yoga and tea time. They even have a dream class, which starts with a guided meditation and inspires dreamy, surrealist artwork. 

The switch to a virtual art studio has revealed other unexpected benefits for some of the artists with disabilities. For those who face difficulties with mobility, the absence of commuting to art classes has been a welcome change. 

Rebecca Jantzen, who’s been at NIAD for about five years, said she likes that NIAD is online right now because she’s been having health issues. 

“It’s easier for me to be online right now because otherwise I’d be having to miss so many days of NIAD,” Jantzen said. “I’ve been able to take care of myself as well as be able to do my art still.” 

The NIAD studio is a big open space divided into five areas by medium, but there aren’t any partitions so artists can hear each other working simultaneously.
Credit: Isabella Bloom

The virtual studio also enables members of the NIAD art community to remain connected no matter how far. 

“We’ve had staff members in the pandemic move to different states and they didn’t have to leave our community,” Golden said. “They’re still teaching. I think that’s really exciting.” 

Although Golden says the overwhelming majority of NIAD artists would prefer to be back in the studio, the switch to a virtual studio during the pandemic has supported some artists like Jantzen better than before. 

Eicher says that NIAD is going to take what it’s learned during the pandemic and apply it to changes going forward, including offering both in-person and virtual studios to accommodate a range of artists’ needs. 

“We really are learning so much as we reinvent ourselves this year,” Eicher said. “You know the future is very unpredictable but we’re going to do our best … because we have a community of a hundred artists to support.” 

(Lead Photo: Jonathan Velasquez performs music from his recent album, Jonathan del Norte, available on NIAD’s new record label, NIAD Sound Recordings. 
Credit: Julio Rodriguez)

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