“We found this trash can at the thrift store,” says Daisy Winfrey, who works as art director at Studio By the Tracks (SBTT). “We knew it had never been used because it still had the stickers on it, and it seemed like something worthwhile for one of our artists to paint on.
“He started with a version of the recycle symbol, and then I suggested to him that he draw something about a garbage man. So he did that — and you should note that the garbage man has a nametag that says ‘Melvin.’ In fact, whenever Melvin draws people, they always kind of look like him. Anyway, I asked him, ‘What is the garbage man going to say?’ He thought about it for a minute and then said, ‘Reduced. Reused. Recycled.’
“And he drew a cartoon speech bubble, so that’s what the garbage man is saying. It was interesting to me that he had it in the past tense,” Winfrey continues. “Melvin just has a very unique way of putting things. It’s always interesting to engage him while he’s working.”
I myself got the chance to engage with Melvin Roscoe last week, when I spent two days at SBTT, watching about a dozen artists get ready for the exhibit that opens with an artists’ reception from 5:30-8 p.m. on Thursday, April 16. “Reduced, Reused, Recycled” includes original artwork painted and drawn on suitcases, chairs, clipboards, mirrors, wood from dumpsters, scrap metal, a breadbox, trash cans and wastebaskets, tissue holders and sundry pieces of thrift store kitsch. More than a dozen artists will be showing their work; all of them are adults with autism, Asperger’s or mental illness.
History of SBTT
Founded in 1989, Studio by the Tracks (SBTT) is a nonprofit organization with a mission of providing free art classes to troubled children and to adults with autism, Asperger’s or mental illness. The name comes from the building’s proximity to the railroad tracks in downtown Irondale; the trains go thundering by on tracks less than 50 yards from the studio walls. Adults with autism work in the studio five days a week, and children attend classes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. A group of artists from Safe Haven, a shelter for homeless men with severe mental illness, spends Wednesday afternoons at the studio making art.
SBTT founder and director Ila Faye Miller began her work with people with autism more than 30 years ago, as an instructor at the Allan Cott School. That school was started in 1974, in a space donated by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, by the clinician for whom it was named; the first class was comprised of 18 students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and severe emotional disorders. The Allan Cott School was the cornerstone of what eventually became Glenwood, a nonprofit organization now known as the Autism and Behavioral Health Center of Alabama, which educates and treats children, adolescents and adults who are emotionally disturbed or mentally ill and individuals diagnosed with autism. Glenwood now provides support and treatment, including residential care and treatment programs, for more than 2,000 adults and children.
“Some of the artists who come here live at Glenwood, some of them have ties to Glenwood,” Miller explains.
However, Miller is quick to add that what they do at SBTT is not art therapy. The individuals who come to Studio By the Tracks are there because they want to be there. Some have come at the recommendation of therapists; some have come because their parents or caregivers learned about the studio and wanted to get them involved.
“Not everyone who has come to us has had a natural talent,” Miller says. “We have to learn their interests, we have to work with them over time, we have to discover what they can do.
“There’s no way to get what Studio By the Tracks is like unless you come visit,” Miller says. “The atmosphere — there’s such a rhythmic coordination between the staff people and the adult artists who are here. There’s constant movement, constant and consistent working and communication.”
My observation of the staffers, particularly Winfrey and Director of Adult Programming Catherine Boyd, made me realize that their work demands that they be flexible, sensitive, quick-minded, clear in their communication, thick-skinned, good-humored and not easily shocked.
“I’ve taught in classrooms — it’s been several years since I have — but in a classroom situation, you might have 12 people doing the same thing,” Miller says. “In this room, we may have 12 people but nobody’s doing the same things. There will be 12 different styles, 12 different sets of needs and interest, 12 different everything.
“The people who are here are here because they like to be here,” Miller says. “They allow us to interrupt their routine, which is not at all easy for some of them, and being here has become part of their routine.”
“Reduced, Reused, Recycled” will mark the first anniversary of the i.f gallery inside SBTT. Named for Ila Faye Miller, the space was previously used for clay and pottery classes for the children. Miller had the idea to transform the space into a gallery while in San Francisco. She and Ashley Spotswood, who teaches art classes to the men from Safe Haven, were visiting Creativity Explored, a non-profit organization similar to SBTT that was hosting an art show that featured work by SBTT students.
“Creativity Explored actually does shows about every six weeks,” Miller says. “That level was out of the question for us, but we realized, ‘Why not use the space that way?’ Although we have no more land, no more space to add on, we’ve taken part of what we had a created this entirely new use for it.”
Each gallery show has a theme. Prior to “Reduced, Reused, Recycled,” there was a show of “Birmingham Landmarks” and a “Music Show” that featured album covers, portraits of musicians and paintings of instruments and bands. A sports-themed show is planned for the fall of 2009. By adding the gallery shows, the SBTT staffers have challenged the adult artists to produce more work and to explore new subject matter. SBTT’s major fundraiser, titled “Art from the Heart,” is held every year in July, and there’s an annual open house every December. By adding the gallery shows, in effect, they’ve doubled the workload for their artists, but that has also meant doubling the exposure that their work receives and the money the artists earn. A portion of the proceeds from sales goes back into SBTT for supplies, but each artist has created a considerable body of work and gotten paid from it.
“When we started Studio By the Tracks, I had no clue that we would ever be selling artwork and giving these adults part of the proceeds,” Miller says. “That it evolved this way is as remarkable to me. And wonderful. What happened was, people started calling. They’d call and say, ‘I want an Art Horton.’ Or, ‘I’ve got to give a wedding gift.’ Can Linda Cooper do a bride?’
“I’m not trying to make anybody think that these people could keep themselves even for a year,” Miller says. “It’s not that they’re making that kind of money.”
Rather, individuals who might not have otherwise been able to earn a living at all have earned a considerable amount of money.
“For instance, if you talked to Linda Cooper’s mother, I think she would tell you that the work her daughter has done as an artist, the money she has made as an artist, is quite a leap from what her mother ever expected of her.”
And in a way, simply having the gallery is a kind of re-use and recycling.
“Having these gallery shows is a way of bringing the community into the studio,” Miller says. “It’s a way to get people into the studio. People don’t just drop by. This way, many of our adult artists get to meet patrons and patrons get to meet their favorite artists. It’s an opportunity for recognition for the artists that they didn’t have otherwise.”
“Reduced, Reused, Recycled” opens on Thursday, April 16, with a 5:30 p.m. artists’ reception in the i.f gallery inside Studio By the Tracks, 301 20th St. South in Irondale. If you miss the opening but still want to see the art, please call SBTT for an appointment. For more information, call (205) 951-3317 or visit www.studiobythetracks.org.