‘We’re Not Just Here To Babysit,’ Carnegie Art Studio Empowers Adults With Intellectual Disabilities

Feb 26, 2018

Laura Stuart is standing in the center of a small room practically exploding with color. She’s surrounded by artwork of all shapes and sizes -- from painted windows and furniture to decorated mannequins and vibrant beaded bracelets and necklaces.

“The studio has inspired [an artist] at home, on her own time, to make jewelry and also beautiful pot holders," Stuart says. "On the side, she’s doing things because she knows she can bring them here and have a place to sell them. ”

It’s the "For Sale" room of Studio Forget-Me-Not in Carnegie, where almost all of the artwork is created by adults with intellectual disabilities. Stuart is the Gallery Facilitator, which means she plans and runs the studio’s weekly $10 classes and open art sessions.

The studio opened last September on Carnegie’s Main Street. It’s hard to imagine that the space used to be a bank -- every wall, chair and table appears to be decorated with artwork and paint. Stuart says the borough of Carnegie has been welcoming to its new gallery.

“It kicked off really well," Stuart says. "We had a huge opening. A lot of people came out to support, and since then we’ve participated in a lot of the local events. Carnegie has a lot of -- they have Carnegie Crawl and they have Open Streets. So, we’ve participated in that, where we have interactive art out on the sidewalk.”

Stuart originally hails from a tiny Lawrence County borough called Volant. She even served as mayor for the town’s 170 residents before moving south to the Pittsburgh area to earn a master’s degree from Carlow University.

For the past six years, she’s been teaching art to people with disabilities in elementary schools -- and creating works of her own. Her practice of finding and using discarded objects to make “recycle art” has rubbed off on the studio’s curriculum.

“These are bottles that an artist friend of mine donated," she says, picking up one brightly decorated bottle from a shelf full of them. "They were old cologne bottles. I think he saved them his entire life. He donated them to us. He was like, ‘I just know you guys will do something with them,’ and I said, ‘They’re beautiful.’ So, one of our classes this past month was to bejewel and decorate these gorgeous bottles.”

Studio Forget-Me-Not is a project of the nonprofit “Not Forgotten Home & Community Services,” which also provides housing, recreation and in-home care for people with disabilities in the Pittsburgh area.

Jonathan Williams, the group’s Director of Operations, says Stuart has built an arts service for people with disabilities unlike anything else in the Pittsburgh area.

“This is not just a place where they just come in and draw. They’re making real art," Williams says. "They’re creating art, and they get to sell that. We’re not just here to babysit our individuals. We’re here to really empower our individuals.”

Stuart says it’s been a rewarding experience.

"One of our individuals came in, his very first class, and he was very negative, and he said he couldn’t do art. He just didn’t want to be here, and after one class, he has come back every single Tuesday night to many," she says, laughing.

Stuart says she hopes to eventually open three more studios in communities surrounding Pittsburgh. For now, though, her next big project is to set up a new kiln to host events for a national pottery conference in Pittsburgh next month.