Joan Browne, co-founder of Unruly Arts and supporter of the Toledo art scene, has been a long-standing advocate for accessible, purposeful art in our local communities. As many good ideas begin, Joan and director Lori Schon teamed up over a drink at Carrabba’s and brainstormed the idea for Unruly Arts. Unruly Arts is an organization that provides a space, supplies and encouragement to artists with disabilities. We had the opportunity to chat with Joan and Lori this month and talk more about their brainchild, how Unruly Arts has helped Toledo, and their next steps in a pandemic-centric world.
A New Beginning
As the former president of Lott Industries, Joan dealt with the U.S. market crash of 2007 and suddenly found herself responsible for 800 people who needed jobs. At the time, many did not fit production roles well. Around this time, the concept of art studios for people with developmental disabilities were relatively new. Joan saw this as an opportunity to start one herself. “I didn’t want it just to be an activity or habilitation, I wanted it to be for real.” Knowing that she couldn’t embark on this project alone, she sought the help of local artist Lori Schon, co-owner of Vintage Gardens. After three months of twisting her arm to start the studio, Lori gave in. “The first day I spent [there] with artists, I was hooked. That was that.” Unruly Arts was officially founded in March of 2008 – originally in Downtown Toledo, now located in the Artists Village at the Toledo Botanical Gardens.
Creating a Joyful Place
From there, the pair dove right into the work. “It was pretty fast paced. Everything you shouldn’t do, we did it.” The business plan and funding were somewhat of an afterthought, but the mission was so much more important to them. With support from other artists in the artist village at Toledo Botanical Gardens and The Arts Commission, they’ve been able to expand resources and reach so much more of the community through activities like the Art Loop. Currently, the age range of artists starts at 17 and goes all the way up to artists in their 80s.
When Lori geared up to teach her first class, she was nervous about how things would go. She was used to high school students who were afraid to put paint on a canvas or were unsure of the process – but this was not the case. “I had 16 people who were loving the process. Everything was everywhere and I thought, this is where I belong.” Now, there are a variety of teachers that come in and host workshops, from woodworking to knitting; it depends on what people are passionate about and what those individuals can bring to the table.
Adapting in a Pandemic
Covid has impacted the arts community in every way possible, and it has not left Unruly Arts untouched. “We received a grant from The Community Foundation and The Andersons to expand our services to younger artists, and that’s when Covid hit.” The studios were closed shortly after schools were closed and have only recently reopened for the artist use. The plans to expand currently wait in the wings, but the Unruly Arts community has remained strong. Lori has taken it upon herself to drop off supplies at the artists’ houses and host zoom calls. They even held a drive-by parade for one artist’s birthdays. And though times are tough, they are making it work financially by posting their artist’s work for sale on their website. Both Joan and Lori hope to be able to work with younger artists soon as they feel there is a need, especially in current climates. “With so many kids being homeschooled and not knowing what to do, it’s the perfect opportunity to reach them.”
Free from Restrictions
Joan and Lori’s desire in starting Unruly Arts was to find meaningful work for adults with developmental disabilities. As her time at Lott Industries came to a close, Joan realized the amount of untapped potential that so many of these people had. One of the memories her and Lori treasure most was from the very first art show that Unruly Arts put on. The mother of one of the artists – a small, kind woman in her 80s – came into the show and almost immediately burst into tears. The next day she came back and explained saying, “I was so overcome. It was a chance for everyone to see how talented [my daughter] was. I always knew it, but nobody’s ever seen it.”
Through this work, these women hope to bridge the communication gap by inviting the public to have conversations with people they might not typically interact with. With the world as it stands today, it’s important to remember how opening up dialogues with friends and strangers alike can foster understanding and empathy.
You can learn more about Unruly Arts and donate to their GoFundMe at unrulyarts.org.
Do you know someone in Toledo that would be perfect to spotlight for our new local creative series? Are you a local Toledo artist and want to talk to us about upcoming projects or events? Reach out to Audrey at firstname.lastname@example.org and say hello!