It was the first blizzard of the season. Shelves of snow slid off the trunks of cars and hit the road with pillowy thuds. Through a cave-like opening in my windshield I squinted to find 1878 Overland Road, the building where the Boise City Department of Arts and History was offering a free artists' professional development workshop.
Confused, I pulled open the door to Idaho Parents Unlimited, a statewide organization that houses programs assisting families of Idaho residents with disabilities. Down an empty, low-lit carpeted hallway I heard a dim chatter. To my surprise, the snow hadn't deterred more than 30 folks from packing the building's small conference room.
With notebooks cracked open and pens poised, artists waited patiently to hear Jane Brumfield, guest speaker and co-owner of Basement Gallery, give pointers on how to assemble a professional portfolio.
In the back of the room, arts and history department employee Janelle Wilson chatted with local artists James Sharp and Erika McGinnis about previous artists professional development workshops they had attended in the fall--utilizing social media, photographing artwork and the business side of being an artist.
"The photography one--photographing your art--from my perspective, not knowing much about photography ... it was great. They showed us light angles, they taught us how to refract light, how to take pictures of all sorts of stuff," said Sharp.
McGinnis agreed, chiming in that the free artists workshops have been both informative and stimulating.
"It can be depressing, scraping to make money. I think with [these workshops] we all feel a little bit energized," said McGinnis.
The workshops, though partially organized by the Department of Arts and History, wouldn't have been possible without financial backing from Idaho Parents Unlimited's VSA arts of Idaho.
Part of an international nonprofit founded in 1974, VSA (formerly Very Special Arts) strives to "create a society where people with disabilities learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts." Last year, VSA arts of Idaho received more than $150,000 from the Idaho State Independent Living Council to develop an artist employment program in Boise to assist both those with and without disabilities. The first step was partnering with the arts and history department to create the professional development workshop series.
"We had staff so we could put it together, [VSA] had the funding and didn't have the staff," explained Terri Schorzman, director of the department. "It ended up a being really nice partnership ... because we can each bring something different to the table."
But VSA's artist employment program reaches much further than a few free workshops. The majority of the grant went to fund the renovation of a stunning new IPUL office space, framing shop and art gallery--dubbed the Creative Access Arts Center--which opened in mid-December in BODO.
"In order to be a universally designed or inclusive program, you have to be in the cultural district," explained Evelyn Mason, executive director of Idaho Parents Unlimited. "You can't be out somewhere else and talk about promoting employment and careers and really being part of it unless you're right there with everybody else and doing the same things that other cultural organizations are doing."
The former Idaho Candy Company warehouse space is innocuous from the outside--an easy-to-miss brown brick building on the corner of Myrtle and Eighth streets--but inside, it's breathtaking. Natural light floods the open, wood-floored space and temporary walls are arranged to display artwork from a handful of area artists, including Goran Fazil, Robert Neal, Matt Bodett, Christine Barrietua and Sarah Creamer.
"The purpose of the space is not to be permanently built in so that it can grow and evolve with the program and the needs of the artists," said Mason.
Though VSA Idaho is still settling into its new digs, there are big plans for the future. In addition to having adaptable gallery, conference and classroom space, the nonprofit also acquired a large amount of artists' equipment--saws, drills, nail guns--at closeout prices from Boise Blue.
"It'll give artists a place to exhibit, to work on their artists statements, to come to workshops, to teach in classroom space, to take workshops, to mentor each other, to bring in speakers and trainers," said Mason.
Artist and VSA volunteer Marilyn Cosho--who was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in her early 50s--is thrilled with the new space. Her whimsical miniature fairy chairs made from found natural objects and thimble-sized fairy houses are on display in the back of the gallery, while her framed, mixed media pieces line the office cubicle walls.
"For artists with disabilities, this can be a great place to come together and talk about art and to take classes and to meet other artists with disabilities ... It'll tap a whole different community that can become inspired," said Cosho.
But according to Mason, the Creative Access Arts Center isn't solely intended for artists with disabilities.
"It serves all of the arts disciplines and all artists. We kept it inclusionary ... [Those with disabilities] need the same things that all artists need, they just might need some more support," said Mason.
While it's still being determined exactly what kinds of workshops, classes and exhibitions will be offered in the new space, Mason is confident local artists will step up to help shape the center's future.
"This is the foundation that now the community can come in and support and take it where it needs to go," said Mason.