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At This Loud, Chaotic Studio In Kansas City's Crossroads, 'Every Person Has A Story'

First Friday in Kansas City's Crossroads neighborhood is always a street party. But on the first Friday in August, the third annual Southwest x Central Street Fest spotlights artists who don't typically get as much exposure as others: the musicians, writers and artists of Imagine That!, a non-profit studio of artists with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Each weekday, about 40 artists arrive at the Imagine That! studio at 2040 Central, with its two big rooms of tables are covered with drawing and printing paper, art supplies stacked along one sunny wall, a pottery room and, in the middle of it all, with not exactly soundproof walls, a band room with guitars, drum sets and keyboards.

Imagine That! opened in the Crossroads in April 2012.

“We support people who have all different types of developmental disabilities — Down syndrome, people with autism, cerebral palsy," says Amy Norman, acting program director. "So they might have some physical disabilities, maybe not the use of their left hand or right hand. Some people utilize wheelchairs.”

Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR
Artists at Imagine That! prepared their work for the annual Southwest X Central Street Fest on August 7.

All of the artists are adults. Joshua Hartlzer, 23, is tall, handsome, dressed all in black with a top hat. He’s eager to promote his Facebook page.

“You type in Hartzler’s Projects. It’s where I display all images of my art. And I have about 6,000 likes.”

Hartzler has autism. He’s been drawing since he was eight. Drawing, he says, makes him feel like what he truly is: an artist.

“Makes me feel what I am,” he says. “My autism causes me to walk around sometimes and talk to myself. Occasionally I grow anxious and have a hard time understanding particular situations. But I try to make it work.”

Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR
Joshua Hartlzer writes short stories and posts his pencil-and-ink drawings on a Facebook page called Hartlzer Projects.

Art is good therapy, Hartzler says. “It makes you who you are, and your feelings are through art — your feelings like happiness, joyful, sadness or depression.”

Another one of the artists is Mark H., a writer who will premier a new play at the First Friday street festival.

“It's kind of Shakespearean," Mark says. "Sort of an Edgar Allan Poe kind of thing.”

A filmmaker, Kevin W., learned how to use the video software at Imagine That! Before he started coming to the studio, he was "lost," he says.

“I was just like a waif. I had no home or friends.”

Imagine That! studio is operated by RHD, or Resources for Human Development, a Philadelphia-based non-profit with programs in 14 states. Medicaid pays for the artists to spend attend the program, which is administered through the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

“There are a lot of day programs where it’s more like learning skills, such as counting and what not,” Norman says. “And we’re just, come here and be yourself, express yourself. Every person has a story.”

Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR
For the artists and staffers at Imagine That! studio, lunchtime is a communal experience.

The staffers at here work to share those stories. And in the meantime, something else has been happening.

Because many of the studio's staffers are also artists with their own studio practices, relationships are developing between Imagine That!'s artists and artists in the community who don't have developmental or intellectual disabilities. 

“They see stuff that we’re doing, we see stuff that they’re doing,” says Brandon Frederick, who graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2011 and now works as Imagine That!'s outreach coordinator. “We're both getting inspired at the same time, which is beautiful.”

Imagine That!'s Southwest x Central Street Fest is 6 to 10 p.m. on Aug. 7, 2040 Central Street, Kansas City, Missouri.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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