Representation and opportunity: Holiday art market exclusively showcased artists with disabilities

It is often taken for granted that people with disabilities are a part of our culture and society. A common barrier to disability inclusion is attitudinal – the stereotyping and stigma placed upon those with disabilities, on the basic assumption that they lack the ability to live a high-quality life or function productively in their environment. Changing society’s understanding of disability is a mission for one downtown art studio who recently used its platform to showcase Grand Rapids-area artists with disabilities during an exclusive holiday art market created as a venue to spotlight and sell their work.

Hearts for the Arts Studio uses art therapy to offer a way for individuals with disabilities to express themselves creatively – and in a way that promotes personal growth, confidence, and self-esteem. At the studio, students are provided the opportunity to experiment with different media, materials, and techniques to find enjoyment; and also develop artistic expression. For each project, instructors work alongside them, teaching the tools necessary to bring out their natural talent. Although its founder Shannon Andrus opened the studio originally just for special needs, over the last 10 years, the studio has grown to celebrate the diversity of artistic expression for all abilities.

“We are a diverse and inclusive space that welcomes anyone who has a passion for art. I feel everyone has artistic capabilities, it is just a matter of finding their niche,” Andrus says. “Here at the studio, you’ll often see individuals young, old, disabled, and non-disabled, working side-by-side in our classes; and to me,” she adds, “That blending of backgrounds is what makes us unique and helps to bring awareness, acceptance, and inclusion in our community.”

Andrus has been teaching art to individuals with disabilities for the past 14 years and over time has hosted art shows and events for her students. However, she felt that overall, there was a lack of opportunity for artists in the disability community to showcase their work or have an outlet to sell locally. With the holidays approaching, Andrus thought it would be a great time to give artists exposure and a venue to sell amazing gifts. So, on December 8, Hearts for the Arts hosted a holiday art market at its studio exclusively showcasing the work of artists with disabilities.

“The This-Ability Holiday Art Market was the first art event put on where I sent out an open call to other organizations and artists beyond our students. Having the whole community involved definitely had a greater impact,” says Andrus. “The turnout was incredible, artists were selling out of their work, and everyone met new friends in the process.”

Art therapy is used, among other ways, to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, promote insight, enhance social skills, and advance societal change – such as disability inclusion. The holiday art market is an example of how those with disabilities can use art as a tool for personal growth, and as a catalyst for community integration. Additionally, as Andrus points out, “Art holds such a unique importance beyond just creating an aesthetically pleasing composition. Over the years, I have seen the variety of ways in which the simple act of creating impacts individuals.”

To learn more about Hearts for the Arts Studio, visit


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