by Craig Stover
In 2008, my wife and I had a chance to see a gallery exhibition at the Allens Lane Art Center in Mt. Airy of sculptures from their Vision Thru Art program. It was our first visit to the Center but definitely not our last. Since I had not heard of the program before that night, I was not sure what to make of the sculptures on display other than there was a wide variety of beautiful forms and techniques for us to discover. We looked at all the works in the gallery and were really delighted by the exhibition, but it wasn’t until 20 minutes later when we discovered that all the artworks were made by blind and visually-impaired artists in the program.
As it turns out, Allens Lane Art Center has offered this unique sculpture program for almost 30 years, and it’s truly one of the hidden gems of Philadelphia. Once we realized what we were looking at, we were completely blown away by the work that these artists created.
I now look back on my memories of that first exhibition with great joy as I enter my 10th year as the Executive Director for the organization. The program itself has always been a very important part of the center’s identity as the artists, instructors and small army of volunteers are more than just participants; they are family. I’ve come to realize that this weekly sculpture class, which runs from September through May each year, is so vital to so many of the participants.
Thus, learning that some in the program were no longer able to afford it became unacceptable. With more than half of the 40 participating artists on fixed incomes, it prompted us to change the program to make it completely free for all those enrolled. It just made sense for us to do whatever we could to support such a worthwhile cause.
The program’s lead instructor, Adrienne Justice, loves her students and is able to use her amazing background in ceramics and sculpture to both challenge and develop each student’s artistic vision while managing a team of enthusiastic and committed volunteers. Our dedicated faculty, staff and volunteers help the students express their inner vision through a variety of media including clay, wood, mosaic, stone and other mixed materials. Students are encouraged to work at their own pace while enjoying the class’ easy-going social atmosphere.
Aside from all of this, what really makes the program so special is the way we approach it. It’s not what people assume. It’s not art therapy. It’s a sculpture class for people who happen to be blind or visually-impaired. That approach makes all the difference because we are trying to help these artists bring out their inner vision. “The Vision Thru Art program has changed my life. I never thought I had the ability to be an artist,” student Frank Madison has said.
Our success is seen in the stunningly beautiful works students create and the smiles on their faces when they arrive each week for class. Those in the program have told us repeatedly that it’s the highlight of their week to come to class, to catch up with their friends and have a creative outlet tailored just for them.
It’s now 2018, and this year the program will be having one of its busiest years. Most artists in the program offered their works for sale during our annual Holiday Art and Craft Sale in December; some artists have their work on display in the Art in City Hall program in Center City, and we just opened an exhibition of the artists’ works at the center through April 20. There will be a special reception for all the artists on Saturday, April 14, 7 – 9 p.m., that will be free for all to attend.
Sadly, however, there is a chance that the program could be coming to an end. Some of the generous funding we received in the past for the program has finished, and we are now desperately seeking support to keep the program alive. Our goal is not only to raise the $10,000 we will need in order to run this program next year. Ultimately, we’d like to raise far more than that and create an endowment to offer this extremely important program indefinitely.
To that end the center has embarked on a fundraising campaign to not only support the program next year but for years to come. The art center has created a Kickstarter campaign that is linked to the center’s website at allenslane.org. Visitors will learn all about the program, what an enormous impact it makes in our community and how anyone can help make sure it will continue for the next generation.
This program means so much to so many people. We need your help to make sure we can continue offering this life-changing program to the blind and visually impaired community. If you would like to learn more about the program or arrange for a visit while a class is in session, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-248-0546. We look forward to your help in making our Vision Thru Art program a success story for years to come.
Craig Stover is the executive director of Allens Lane Art Center.