Art Outside the Lines – an art studio managed by artists with disabilities

Art Outside the Lines

“…my artists are reminded every day that we are not just advocating for ourselves, but for people with disabilities all over the world, because we are showing them that this is possible. This is the only art studio in the country that is managed by artists with disabilities,” Mehri Davis, M.Ed.

Mehri Davis

An interview with Mehri Davis, M.Ed, Founder and Director of Art Outside the Lines

How did the studio Art Outside the Lines come to be?

Seventeen years ago when I was 16 years old, I decided that someday I wanted to start an art studio open to the community, completely managed by artists with disabilities. I created my own major as an undergraduate student at Ohio University, calling it ‘Community Art,’ where I merged Fine Arts, Social Work, Family Studies, and Psychology. During this time, I began working with Passion Works, an art studio for adults with disabilities in Athens, Ohio. For the next few years I inserted myself into jobs, classes, and activities that would continue to prepare me for the ultimate goal of opening my own studio. Finally, I completed my Masters in Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

Shortly after, I was hired by PALS Chrysalis Health to run their Art Program, from the ground up, as they had just opened. The studio became so busy and well-attended, that my supervisors asked me if I would like to run my own program. I explained my vision and they loved it. PALS gave me a large space (6200 square feet) and the support to begin putting it all into action. Myself, and a small group of artists with disabilities, who I had been working with at PALS Art Studio, came together and started the program. We opened a year and a half ago, in 2015, on April Fool’s Day.

Are you an artist yourself?

I am. I do mostly drawing, but make a lot of mixed media pieces as well. I have been creating, showing, and selling my art since college.

How is Art Outside the Lines sustaining itself?

The artists on the management team are able to use their waivers through Medicaid to attend the program. Outside of that, we have memberships for artists in the community to create and have space in the studio, we sell artwork, we have events and shows regularly, and rent our space out to others to use for programs and events rooted in creativity and positivity.

Group Art Class

How is Art Outsides the Lines helping the disability community?

The artists here have purpose. They all have different jobs around the studio. Their attendance is better and they take pride and ownership over the studio because of this. Our environment is extremely positive and fun. Many people have approached me in the last year and admitted to deep depression, or just not feeling like they belonged anywhere or had friends, until they began at Art Outside the Lines. When someone starts here, we make the same commitment to their personal growth as we do to their artistic growth.

We have three days a week that are open for young people to come to the studio on field trips. This tends to be special education classes. I believe we are helping the community by showing young people with disabilities that the sky’s the limit. They can be who they are and thrive, as long as they find the right environment.

Finally, we talk a lot about advocacy. Self-Advocacy is the buzzword in the field these days for good reason. Here, though, everything we do is advocating for the self. The artists make their own decisions, they eat when they want, they work with who they want to work with, they give tours to visitors, ring up sales in our shop, and heavily influence our during and after hours calendar of events. Because of this, my artists are reminded every day that we are not just advocating for ourselves, but for people with disabilities all over the world, because we are showing them that this is possible. This is the only art studio in the country that is managed by artists with disabilities.

Ernest Strickland with Mehri Davis
Artist Ernest Strickland with Mehri Davis. Mehri states “After artists have been in the program for 1 year, they are given the opportunity to have a solo show in our gallery. Ernie chose to challenge himself. He has very limited mobility and uses a wheelchair, with little to no feeling from the waist down. We gave him charcoal, and by rolling around on two giant pieces of paper, he created this! “

What future events do you have planned?

We have an event on January 20 called ‘The Big Surprise’. This will be our reception for the show in the gallery, which is an interactive, upside down, creative experience. There will be surprises and strange things happening all evening. The following weekend we have our first annual Chili Cook Off, where we will also sell chili/food-themed artwork and do karaoke. Some of our events are very strange, but it is completely because I rarely say no to the team when they come up with things. This is why they run the studio…WONDERFUL ideas that we could never come up with.

Can others contact you about your model? If so how?

Yes, I would be happy to chat with people about the model and how it works. Please contact Aaron Bracone, Founder and Director of PALS Chrysalis Health and we will go from there!

Art Outside the Lines is located at 485 East Livingston Avenue, Columbus, Ohio.

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