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Richmond Art Studio Keeps People With Disabilities Connected During The Pandemic

Isabella Bloom
The NIAD building on 23rd St. in downtown Richmond, Calif. used to be a car repair place. Now, it's a vibrant and cluttered studio and exhibition space.

When the pandemic forced day programs for people with developmental disabilities to close, some made a rapid turn to virtual activities. In Richmond, a progressive art studio ensures its artists with developmental disabilities remain connected.Click the play button above to listen to this story.

"I actually like being online, even though I miss all my friends at NIAD."

Among a string of auto body and car repair shops, right in the heart of Richmond, an unassuming art studio sits quietly. 

Before the pandemic, the art studio would be buzzing with 55 artists and staff. An indoor gallery would be adorned with various mediums of artwork. 

But now, the studio’s artists remain at home, and instead of filling the indoor gallery, art hangs on a display panel in the building’s windows for a socially distanced exhibition. 

Liam Golden, the studio’s manager, walks alongside the window display, reading a piece created by letterpress print artist Shayna Harper. 

“I am not weird. I am limited edition,” Golden reads. 

Golden manages the studio at Nurturing Independence through Artistic Development (NIAD), which isn’t a typical art studio. Founded in 1982, NIAD combines an exhibition and studio space for artists with disabilities seeking to create and sell their work.

NIAD and its two sister organizations, Creative Growth in Oakland and Creativity Explored in San Francisco, serve a total of almost 350 artists with developmental disabilities. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, they were all forced to temporarily shut down their physical studios. 

“At first, we really wondered, how are we going to maintain these sort of thriving conversations,” says Amanda Eicher, the executive director of NIAD. 

The disruption of the pandemic was hard for almost everyone, but it hits the developmentally disabled community especially hard. Eicher says the staff felt a sense of urgency to get the artists plugged in and connected as quickly as possible. 

“We made a really rapid turn to shelter in place and a virtual studio,” Eicher said. “In two weeks, we had all of our artists engaged in virtual activities, whether that was phone call check-ins or we provide six hours a day of circles of practice on Zoom.”

Before COVID-19, NIAD offered classes ranging from textile sculpting and mixed media sculpting to drawing, ceramics, and fashion making. It also offered bingo, cooking, journalism, jam sessions, meditation, and movement classes. Even now, NIAD has found a way to incorporate all of these classes in an online format.

Under The Coronavirus Pandemic

Rebecca Jantzen is taking a class led by Golden, who found a way to make a very pandemic appropriate art class. The Mail Art class focuses on art that you can fit in an envelope, made from materials NIAD sends to its artists. But really, artists can create whatever they like, and they do so while listening to jazz.

As Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” played out on computers throughout the Bay, some of NIAD’s artists sat in their homes drawing, sewing or painting. 

Jantzen, who’s been at NIAD for about five years, says she likes that NIAD is online right now because she’s been having health issues.

“It’s easier for me to be online right now because otherwise, I’d be having to miss so many days of NIAD,” Jantzen said. “I’ve been able to take care of myself as well as be able to do my art still.”

Deshawna Kinard, who’s been at NIAD for a little over a year, says she likes the online classes for a reason most people can relate to. 

“I can be home and relax and I ain’t got to get dressed,” Kinard says. 

Staff also drive supplies out to the artists every other Thursday, with deliveries as far north as Rodeo in northern Contra Costa County and as far south as Fremont. 

But Eicher acknowledges that it’s been tough on the artists who relied so heavily on the face-to-face interactions with other artists, staff, and the community. 

“One of the big challenges is that the best feedback for most artists but especially for ours, comes from that in-person engagement with other people around your work,” she says. “It has been really important to acknowledge that there’s no substitute for that feeling.”

Artists like Kinard are aware of the dangers of the pandemic and are willing to patiently wait until things are safe again. 

“I do miss going to NIAD too, but I’d rather just be safe until the coronavirus is over,” Kinard says. 

And even though she’s excited to go back to the in-person studio once it opens, she also wants to continue taking the online classes. 

“I think I want to do both because I like going to NIAD in person to see all my friends and the staff there are nice and the field trips,” Kinard says. “And then online I can just sit here and relax.” 

NIAD’s listening to its artists. When the pandemic is over, they’ll resume on-site classes and continue running a virtual program for artists who want to do both.