Art studios painting new lives


Participants in the ArtWorks program range in age from 22-70.
Participants in the ArtWorks program range in age from 28-75. Photo by: Tyler McDowell-Blanken/Arizona Sonora News

Art serves as an outlet for many.

For participants in ArtWorks, an art program for adults with developmental disabilities located just off of the University of Arizona campus, the work that they create provides new opportunities for their voices to be heard.

With each stroke of a paintbrush, dreams are shared; each mixed media piece reflects how they view the world. They are artists.

“When you use expressive art as a form of media, it becomes a neutral plate. We can communicate and learn from each other,” Shirai said, expressing the importance of how art acts as an alternative means of communication.

Shirai, a former graduate student of the University of Arizona’s School of Dance program, believes in the ability that art has to bring people together and serve as a means of self-expression. Her passion for the program and everyone involved is evident.

Founded in 1987, ArtWorks is home to 20 students being served by six part-time workers, eight student workers and more than 30 volunteers. University students are able to intern or volunteer at the studio throughout the school year.

“Without young workers we would run out of ideas,” Shirai said. “Having this program on a university campus is great.”

Lorraine Heydorn started working at Artworks in January. Her typical shift starts at 10 a.m. with a snack break for the students, followed by lunch from 11:30-12:15, eventually closing at 3. Her role is to help the artists work on their projects each day while providing encouragement.

“ArtWorks is important to me because I love to see how the artists we serve impact the community and grow as individuals in the process,” said Heydorn, a junior.

Shirai said funding is a continuous battle. The program largely relies on state funding and donations to ensure that as many students can be served as possible. Shirai also looks for additional opportunities such as selling work from the artists themselves. Fifty percent of the proceeds go to the artist, the other half goes toward funding the program, Shirai said.

Yumi Shirai, director of ArtWorks, stands in her office next to a whiteboard with notes answering the question, "What is ArtWorks?" Some of the responses, written by participants in the program, includes "Community Building", "Creativity", "Empowerment", and "Happy".
Yumi Shirai, director of ArtWorks, stands in her office next to a whiteboard with notes answering the question, “What is ArtWorks?” Some of the responses, written by participants in the program, includes “Community Building”, “Creativity”, “Empowerment”, and “Happy”. Photo by: Tyler McDowell-Blanken/Arizona Sonora News

Arizona is one of many states with this type of program, although many vary in scope and size. Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio each have studios that cater to adults with developmental disabilities.

Mary Ann LaRoche, executive director of SEEDs for Autism in Phoenix, is working to grow her own program. The dream became a reality for LaRoche in February 2010 when the pilot program that once started in her backyard with four participants, paving the way for her to get a sense of the practices that would work well on a larger scale.

In June of that year, LaRoche opened her first location in Phoenix.

“We didn’t want to grow fast, we wanted to grow in structure,” LaRoche said. “We wanted to create an environment that was going to permeate success.”

Participants learn the value of patience and craftsmanship while working alongside professional artists.

“You don’t need to speak a language to understand one another,” LaRoche said.

LaRoche was inspired to start the program by her younger brother Paul Foti, who was autistic. LaRoche said her brother struggled with the fast-paced environment of the traditional 9-to-5 job in Connecticut.

Two months after LaRoche opened the Phoenix location for SEEDS, she found out that Paul was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died five months later.

Her goal now is to empower as many as people as possible. She knows that her brother would have been proud.

“I wanted him to have a better place to go to work and be respected for who he was,” she said.

ArtWorks is hosting “Desert Harvest”, an open house for the public to see the work of its artists. The event is on Friday, October 31 from 3-6 p.m. For more information, visit their site at

Tyler McDowell-Blanken is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @tylerjmcdowell.

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