My first visit to Art Outside the Lines was sensory overload—a beautiful mess.
In every nook and cranny of the Livingston Ave. storefront, there were canvases and paints, tools and hardware, mammoth sculptures of yarn and wood, a drum set, and artists at every station creating with intentional vigor. Pretty much everything on a wall or a shelf was for sale, and I instantly fell in love with a piece that was simply a 2×4 painted robin-egg blue, on a centered cardboard rectangle that read, “I’m going to get a tattoo for Christmas.”
I can happily say that I became the proud owner of a Kelsey Hafer original for the cash in my pocket.
As I write this a year later, it’s days before Hafer’s eagerly anticipated first gallery show at Art Outside the Lines. She’s easily one of my favorite artists in Columbus…and she’s also an adult with a disability.
While Art Outside the Lines welcomes all ages and skill levels through their doors to receive drawing lessons, take yoga classes, or attend concerts and gallery openings, the entire operation is managed and operated by adults with disabilities. It’s the only art studio in America of its kind, and though Mehri Davis is the founder and facilitator, she’s all but handed over the reins to her incredibly talented staff.
How Mehri Davis came to be at the helm of Art Outside the Lines was by pure accident. At 14, Davis blindly applied to volunteer at a summer camp in Colorado. It wasn’t until the night before that Davis bothered to read the paperwork, only to find out that the camp served kids with disabilities.
“I freaked out,” says Davis. “I had helped with Special Olympics that past year, but had no idea how to work with this population. I arrived. I remember walking down the hill toward the cabins and seeing kids everywhere, some doing the things I was used to seeing kids do, and some doing very strange, much more interesting, things. I looked around and remember saying to myself, ‘I want to hang out with these people forever.’ And I did.”
What at first was a shock became revelation and eventual passion for Davis. At 16, her dissolution with the art world, the egos, the hustle, inspired her to make a career in art that wasn’t about herself. It was going to be her dream to realize and exhibit the talent of a forgotten population, and through her self-designed major at Ohio University, she acquired the know-how to work with adults with disabilities and aligned that with her love of art. It took a lot of patience and bureaucracy, but in 2016 Art Outside the Lines opened their doors.
I recently spoke with Davis about her mission at Art Outside the Lines, and the misconceptions people have about adults with disabilities, especially in the stuffy world of art.
I want to prove to the world that adults with disabilities are more than drooling wastes of space that cannot do anything for themselves. Does that sound harsh? You would be surprised how many people think this. I want to prove to the world of art that there is a level of creativity and imagination that artists with disabilities have that NO ONE with typical needs will ever reach. I want to make my artists famous. The work created by some of my artists should be in the Smithsonian, the Wexner Center, the Met.
Are you at all worried about your artists being exposed to the same disillusionment that you felt?
I think there is a chance. But the reason I prefer to work with these guys is because most of the time, these guys really don’t care about things like that. The other thing is that while I think the art world is a little ridiculous, [it] becomes less ridiculous when you’re “in.” So, to me, getting their work into big places would actually put them on the top. They would be the heavy hitters of the art world, and it wouldn’t be like it is now because the people at the top, my crew, wouldn’t be like that.
What are your thoughts on the term “outsider art?” Are you at all worried about exploitation, or are you the buffer between your artists and that happening?
I certainly take it upon myself to be the wall between my artists and a lot of things, this being one. People who work with vulnerable populations learn to be very weary and afraid of the world and how it will react to the people they serve. I am no exception. I educate myself to take away the fear, and I make sure I always sound more eloquent, informed, and intelligent than anyone who I do business with that could be a potential threat to these guys. I think the term ‘outsider’ is far more interesting and attractive than ‘insider.’ As someone who thinks typical people living typical lives are quite boring, the term actually draws me in. That said, I think it is pretty ridiculous that we haven’t come up with something more respectful, as the term “outsider” comes with a lot of negative connotation. It feels to me as if that is coming. Fifteen years ago the word “retarded” was still used to describe people with disabilities in textbooks and official documents.
Lastly, where do you want this to go? Do you have plans for the future?
I want these guys to be famous. I want to be able to provide a space where people can be and never feel judged, torn down, or not welcome. A place where people leave happier than when they came. I want Art Outside the Lines to be an art destination in Columbus.
Art Outside the Lines is one of four PALS (Physical and Activity and Life Skills) programs run by Chrysalis Health. Their next big event is a solo show by artist Ernie Strickland (11.11). For more, visit artoutsidethelines.com.