In 144-point gothic type Rothkoed to within an inch (make that two) of its liveliness, that three-letter term graces the website of the Maplewood nonprofit Artists First – and nothing could seem more emblematic, in multiple contexts.
Above those three letters appears the phrase “We believe in”; below them, a trio of handily acronymic terms, namely “acceptance,” “respect” and “trust.”
Artists First characterizes itself as an “open art studio fostering independence through self-expression,” according to its website. The nonprofit “provides aspiring artists of all abilities access to quality materials, expansive studio space, respectful guidance and a friendly, supportive community” and serves “adults with disabilities, youth with and without disabilities, and current and former armed services members.”
Sheila Suderwalla – herself an award-winning artist and social worker – serves as executive director of Artists First.
“Although we focus on adults with disabilities, adolescents and veterans,” she says of the organization, which received its 501(c)3 status seven years ago, “we also consider bringing art into the community by means of integration, healing, support, working together and finding common ground to be an important part of our mission.”
Beyond furthering “the personal and financial growth of over 200 disenfranchised individuals annually,” Suderwalla touts Artists First for “spearheading initiatives such as interactive public art, community art exhibits that promote understanding and inclusion, and also through diverse partnerships with other art organizations, educational institutions and social service agencies locally and nationally.
“We also welcome some of the artists who are turned away by other arts organizations because their needs require not only the attention of art facilitators but also the guidance of professionals with intensive backgrounds in working with diverse populations.”
Often, the website suggests, growth and achievement of the artists entail considerable effort and attention. The website’s bio of multimedia artist Ricky Douglas, for example, identifies him as “an adult with autism” who has involved himself with Artists First for several years. Dave Walter’s bio, similarly, states that he “came to artmaking to rehabilitate his fine motor skills after suffering a brain injury” – and that his work serves as a reminder “of what he has lost and gained.”
Emphasizing the nonprofit’s inclusiveness, multiple slideshows on the website also spotlight the splendid creative diversity of Artists First’s participants. Paul Stanton’s simple paintings exhibit a cartoonish bonhomie, for instance, while Julie Hart deals in abstract miniatures whose intricacies of line and color demand months of effort; Angela Gee, meanwhile, has attracted considerable attention with her playful, untitled multimedia works. Lindsay Haupert creates astonishingly lovely 3D paper art, Billy Drope specializes in leathercraft and Nakia Jones leans toward jewelry. (One Artists First participant, it bears noting, has even enjoyed separate earlier coverage in Ladue News: Jasmine Raskas, in the August 2017 Art and Soul, with Powered by Light, a 30- by 40-inch abstract acrylic on stretched canvas in whose presentation Raskas last year sought to bridge the sometimes seemingly incompatible worlds of art and science.)
Suderwalla takes a moment to project, with hope, the nonprofit’s near-term future, in which both volunteerism and tax-deductible donations likely will play prominent parts. “In five years, I hope that Artists First has the financial resources to continue to grow and implement innovative programming for our community’s disenfranchised and underserved members,” she says.
“I hope, through our efforts to raise our visibility in the community and also market our artists’ work more effectively, that we can ensure that our artists are respected as serious artists and their work will be valued and collected.”
Ultimately, with a certain understandable pride, Suderwalla dwells at length on some of the nonprofit’s brightest points since its founding. “On a daily basis, I’m reminded why we do what we do because in all honesty, Artists First is truly a labor of love,” she says. “There are many successes that are directly related to the programs at Artists First, be it the one homeless artist who earned enough from his artwork to obtain and maintain an apartment; the veteran suffering from [post-traumatic stress disorder] who would not leave his home until he found Artists First; the artist diagnosed with autism who was mostly nonverbal before he became a part of the Artists First collective; the artist with developmental disabilities who started at Artists First with low self-esteem, which often led to her being exploited, [but] became a confident woman who advocates for herself and feels for the first time in her life a sense of worth and belonging.”
Suderwalla concludes her recitation by mentioning an “artist who cried tears of pride when she saw her artwork published, stating, ‘My whole life people told me I couldn’t learn and I was stupid, but now I know that’s not true!’”
Artists First, 7190 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314-781-4440, artistsfirststl.org