Thrilled about the exhibit that will run through july at the Nichols Berg Gallery are, from left, St. John’s Community Services (SJCS) Pennsylvania State Director Nicole Buckley, Sam Benitz, Program Coordinator Melinda Jaeb, Aaron Brown, SJCS Chief Operating Officer Genni Sasnett, Lisa Konzzyk, and Team Leader Deborah Fine. (Photo by Jim Harris)

by Jim Harris

The opening reception for “Urban Jewels,” an art show and sale by emerging artists with disabilities, will be held on Friday, July 1, 5 to 9 p.m., at the Nichols Berg Gallery, 8611 Germantown Ave.

The exhibit is billed as “A photographic journey of the hidden treasures of The City of Brotherly Love,” and features work by participants in the St. John’s Community Services “Community Participation Program.”

St. John’s Community Services (SJCS), based at 520 N. Columbus Blvd. in the Spring Garden neighborhood, is a nonprofit, human service agency. Their mission is to develop creative ways to support people with intellectual, developmental, physical and other disabilities, as well as the communities in which they live.

SJCS was founded in 1868 by the parishioners of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. In addition to their home office in the nation’s capital, they also have branches in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Tennessee.

Genni Sasnett, St. John’s Chief Operating Officer, said that the closing of many human service organizations in the late 1980s made things even tougher for many people with disabilities. “In 2000, SJCS was invited to come to Philadelphia by the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services,” she said. “Our main service is to help people find jobs by teaching them skills in a functional environment.

“We’re most grateful to Mr. Berg for taking us in. We’re all very excited about this exhibit. A lot of people from our Pennsylvania organization and from the D.C. Office — board members, senior officers, volunteers, employers and donors — are coming to the opening, along with the artists themselves. We’re even trying to get Mayor Nutter to attend. It’s not confirmed yet, but we’re working on it.”

According to Nicole Buckley, SJCS State Director in Pennsylvania, “SJCS helps people to try different things, find out what they’re good at and what they enjoy doing. Our aim is to get our people involved in giving back to the community and ultimately to move on to employment.

“They’ve found jobs doing everything from working with animals to helping feed the homeless. A number of businesses right here in the Northwest have hired our people — places like Weavers Way, Cosimo’s Pizza, Germantown Deaf Services and The Chestnut Hill Hotel.”

Melinda Jaeb, coordinator of the Community Participation Program, explained how the photography project came about. “Part of our day was often spent going to art galleries,” she said, “and our people started asking ‘Where’s OUR art?’ I replied, ‘Our art is in our own eyes, I suppose,’ and the idea for taking pictures just took off from there. The project began in October 2010. We just started shooting whatever we saw in our travels.

“Some of our folks had never even used a camera before. One gentleman’s hands were so shaky that the others had to help him steady the camera and push the shutter button for him — truly a group effort. So we built a collection of photos, but we didn’t know what to do with them until we just happened to visit the Nichols Berg Gallery one day. I asked (gallery co-owner) Steve Berg if he knew anywhere we could show our photos, and he told me to email some to him. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into.”

Steve picks up the story from there: “When Melinda sent me the photos, I noticed that a lot of them were of stuff that might be considered ‘found’ items or things that people throw away. Then Scott (Nichols) said to me, ‘We have a whole collection of art that was made out of things found in dumpsters and disposable items.’ So we came up with the idea of a show that would include both the photos of the SJCS folks and also found art and art made of found objects — Urban Jewels!”

The “found items” part of the show will include work by local artists Sue Finch, Ellen Benson and Patti Wilson, among others. Seventeen SJCS artists will be represented, showing three photos each. All sales of their photos will benefit the people in the SJCS Community Participation program.

The show and sale at the Nichols Berg Gallery will run through July 30. Gallery hours are Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  For more information about the exhibit, email or call 267-297-0605. For more information about SJCS, call 215-451-5053.