ArtMix – Throwing Away Labels


ArtMix_students300x300ArtMix uses art to resculpt lives of people with disabilities.

Emily loves throwing clay. That is, the process of using a pottery wheel to form a ball of clay into beautiful pottery—and her pottery is beautiful. Bright colors and bowls of all sizes make her pottery memorable, but then, so is her story.

Emily is a wheelchair user, a barrier for most hopeful clay creators, but professional teaching artists at ArtMix provide Emily with an adaptive pottery wheel that adjusts to easily accommodate her wheelchair. She has also been taught to throw with her knuckles to reduce pain in her hand; nothing can slow her enthusiasm for clay creation. ArtMix even trained her mother on the wheel so Emily can use the wheel more frequently.

ArtMix, formerly VSA Indiana, exists to help Emily and others with disabilities exercise their creativity. Annually, ArtMix creates an inclusive environment for nearly 6,500 students of all ages and abilities to discover that they can do things they never thought possible; they realize their potential through art. The studios are located inside the Harrison Center for the Arts, as is EnROUTE Art Gallery, a hallway gallery where many of the students feature and sell their art.

“It’s helping to provide enough opportunities so that they can find what they love and then making it happen,” says Linda Wisler, vice president of programs and enROUTE Gallery director. She says ArtMix offers art, music, movement, theatre and more for students to choose from.

ArtMix_pots300x300In addition to community classes, students with and without disabilities, ages 16-22, can also participate in Urban Artisans, an entrepreneurial art program. According to the 2012 census, nearly 77 percent of the disabled population is unemployed, roughly nine times more than the general population. ArtMix addresses this problem through the Urban Artisans program. Participants learn transferable, pre-vocational skills through the making, marketing and selling of artwork in a professional art studio, including enROUTE Art Gallery.

“It really is a great shift in their thinking,” says Wisler, who started the program in 2001. “It gives us a good foundation for saying, ‘This is what a job is.’” Urban Artisans create structured projects to sell, such as holiday ornaments, whereas students in community art classes may create what they wish.

Students in the community classes may also sell their art at enROUTE Art Gallery as well, and anyone visiting the gallery on First Fridays may even meet one of the artists. One student, Josh, hasn’t attended a First Friday showing, but his creations are very popular.

“I always try to make different ones. I never remake it,” says Josh, who added that he doesn’t often hear people comment on his work, but that it’s nice when they do…and even nicer when they like it.

The Americans with Disability Act Turns 25

The inclusive environment that ArtMix has created is life-changing for its students, but despite the large community of people with disabilities in Central Indiana—one in five people according to the 2011 census—Central Indiana is far from being fully disability-friendly.

To raise local awareness and promote adaptive activities for people with disabilities, ArtMix partners with The Indianapolis Civic Theatre to offer sensory-friendly performances and hosts Arts For All Fest, an accessible and public art celebration every July. This July is especially important because it marks the 25th anniversary of The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law on July 26, 1990. The law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities while guaranteeing them the same opportunities as everyone else.

While the laws and culture for people with disabilities have come a long way in 25 years, changing perceptions and erasing mistreatment takes time, dedication and community collaboration. And federal grants don’t offer much support. ArtMix’s sustainability relies on the small commission from enROUTE Art Gallery and grants, including support from The Indianapolis Foundation, an affiliate of Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) and The Glick Fund, a fund of CICF.

ArtMix is transforming Central Indiana into an embracive community with equal opportunities for all citizens one paintbrush, tambourine—or potter’s wheel—at a time. Just ask Emily.

To learn more about creating a Personal Foundation that supports programs such as ArtMix, contact Rob MacPherson at or 317.631.6542 x 199.

You can learn more about how ArtMix is changing the lives of hoosiers at