Imagine Art for Everyone
Words by Erin McWilliams Photos by Eric Morales
Vibrant art covers the walls and tables of the Imagine Art gallery. Stepping into the colorful studio, one can expect to be greeted warmly by artists and volunteers alike. Among the art mediums offered by the studio are paints, ceramics, and mixed-media collage. To use the space, an artist must apply, interview, and present a portfolio; once accepted, they can take advantage of free supplies to begin creating endlessly.
Twenty years ago, Imagine Art’s founder Debbie Kizer could not have foreseen the transformation that her community art studio would undergo since its humble beginnings within a classroom. Now, Imagine Art resides in a spacious warehouse near East MLK. The energy of this space is different than most galleries; it is inclusive and relaxed.
Imagine Art is Austin’s only free, public art studio. Its purpose is to transform the lives of artists with disabilities by creating a place where they will lead to demonstrate the power of art to create an inclusive community that invites artists without disabilities. But, Imagine Art is more than just a studio; it offers unique services to disabled artists and their families who are choosing community-based services over segregated services. Kizer and her team creatively leverage public dollars, such as Medicaid, providing support services that empower these artists to thrive. Additionally, Imagine Art organizes art shows to sell the art produced in the studio. Artists receive 75% of the profits made by their art, significantly more than they would make displaying their art at most other studios.
Years before Imagine Art’s foundation, Kizer was diagnosed with a mental illness herself and dreamed of joining a community of artists where people with mental and physical disabilities were welcomed. “My main reasoning for starting the organization was that I wanted to personally access the arts,” she remembers. “I had built a life surrounding myself with people with disabilities, and they were my safe place.”
After weighing her options, Debbie decided that she would forge her own way into the art world by creating her own inclusive community. She began by providing scholarships to artists with head injuries, helping them attend art classes in the community with her support that provided accommodations, like setting up their palettes and easel. Within the first year, her concept had grown significantly and has been growing and evolving ever since. Dreams don’t come easy though. As a group primarily operating from earned revenue and government contracts, the price of space has always been a challenge. “We’ve operated out of my closet before,” explains Kizer. However, she is quick to offer that “God has always made a way for Imagine Art to thrive.”
Imagine Art has been at its Real Street location in East Austin for eight years and is ready to expand. They hope to eventually transition to a live-work community of artists who not only contribute art but also contribute by assuming responsibilities like gardening, cooking, and taking out trash. This will provide an alternative to segregated living through a supported housing model that offers independent living with attendant care and support, while also promoting a sense of real community as artists live, work, and serve alongside one another. For Debbie, Imagine Art has been a place of healing and acceptance, and she hopes that expansion means it can be that for many others, too.
Did you Know?
Art allows people with disabilities to express themselves creatively when they might not be able to otherwise, and it is proven to increase self-esteem and communication skills.
East Austin Studio Tour: launched November 11 and is running through December 11.
Abstract Works: A three-man show with Chris Schroeder, John Molina, and Carl Smith is on exhibit December 15 – January 8.
Seeing Beyond What’s Real: will be on display from January 8-31, showcasing the collaborative surreal works of Lawrence Jolly, Daniel Davis, and Iain Neberman. The Artist Reception will be held on January 19, 6-8pm.