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A Vacant Storefront Sparks Arts Collaboration In KCK

It was once a barbeque joint, then a Colombian restaurant. But now this storefront in Strawberry Hill has traded out sizzling slabs of ribs and empanadas for another kind of oven: a kiln.

The Epic Arts studio is the brainchild of Steve Curtis, a photographer and community organizer for Community Housing of Wyandotte County. Curtis has long wanted to make art more accessible in Wyandotte County.

“It seems like the solution is always to put in a gallery or something,” Curtis says. “But that’s not really what the kids need. And most of the parents don’t understand the gallery, either.”

Curtis was looking for something more participatory.  It just so happened that the organization Accessible Arts, which runs arts programs at the Kansas State School for the Blind (among other places) was looking to store a kiln and pottery equipment that they couldn’t use at the school anymore.

“The whole idea is accessibility to kids,” say Curtis. “Particularly kids with disabilities, but also to seniors, to adults, and to kids with economically at-risk backgrounds.”

Community Housing initially offered the property rent-free, the non-profit Greater Kansas City LISC kicked in a few thousand dollars to pay utilities, and dozens of volunteers stripped off inches of grease and renovated the space with practically no budget.  The studio offers classes to local schools, as well as seniors and teenagers in the community.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, students from the Kansas State School for the Blind’s art club are creating punch pots and bird houses.

“When we all come over here – it’s like our creativity comes alive,” 20-year-old Hailey Linnell says.

It is through art that some of the school’s students are finding new creative outlets to say what they may not be able to put into words.

“I just love art, because I’ve had a lot of trouble in my life,” student Matt Mitchell says. “I take blindness as a blessing, but I also think that [art] just helps me to express some of those frustrations.”

Working with students from the School for the Blind like Linnell and Mitchell has also helped Curtis push his own creative boundaries.

“I’ve always thought in terms of tones and colors and things like that,” he says. “And most of [the students] don’t relate to those issues very well. So their question is more about texture, what things feel like, what they represent, maybe what they taste like.”

Erin Kelly, activities coordinator for the Kansas State School for the Blind, says that the studio also helps the school’s students get out into the community. And that’s just what the studio is meant to be – a place for the community to come together around art.

“A few times we’ve been here, there’s been other kids from the community in, so it gives them another change to meet new people – make new friends,” she says.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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