In a tall, open atrium in East Liberty, eight people sit in a circle of folding chairs, puppets in hand.
“Ms. Louise Nordoff, what are you bringing to my party?” A woman in a teal blouse addresses the question to the puppet held by the girl to her left.
“Gluten-free blueberry muffins,” the teenager responds, in character as her puppet.
Creative Citizen Studios
Creative Citizen Studios uses art to help teach social and communication skills to people with diasbilities. (Video by Rebecca Droke; 7/17/2014)
The woman is Kirsten Ervin, co-founder of Creative Citizen Studios, and the girl is 14-year-old Daijah Massie, of Baldwin Borough, an artist who attends the organization’s weekly art classes for people who have developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Through these lessons at Union Project, a community hub, Ms. Ervin and business partner Tirzah DeCaria offer access to art to people with disabilities while also promoting interpersonal skills.
“It’s so exciting to see people be able to communicate things that they’re not able to communicate with words or not able to communicate through ‘normal’ channels,” Ms. DeCaria said. “But they’re able to share a piece of their perspective on the world through the things that they make and the stories that they tell through their art.”
On July 27, the students will combine their individual stories into a group puppetry narrative at The Lovelace Puppet Festival. The performance, which is part of the Weather Permitting series at Shadyside Nursery, will bring together six puppetry groups for entertainment, food and children’s games.
Since May, Creative Citizen’s students, who range in age from 14 to 40, have spent Tuesday afternoons preparing for the challenge.
The art students pay for the classes out of pocket, but Creative Citizen has a small scholarship fund for those who need it. The organization earns most of its income through contract work with arts and disability organizations.
At the July 8 class, students gathered markers and foam boards to create the props that their puppet characters will use in the performance, which simulates a potluck.
At the end of the table, Plum resident Robyn McKee, 27, drew the soda bottles that her puppet will bring to the party.
“Next Christmas, I might put a puppet on my Christmas list,” she said.
Teaching life skills
Ms. Ervin and Ms. DeCaria hope that in the process of making art, the students will improve their communication and social competence.
“The puppet show that we’re working on now is all about appropriate social interaction,” Ms. DeCaria said. “When we can fit in those lessons and help people learn how to control whatever behaviors might be prohibiting them from getting mainstream employment, that’s a big goal of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Midway through the July 8 class, Ms. Ervin asked Upper St. Clair resident Lee Kennedy, 20, to pass out the snack. By requesting that students help in the classroom, Ms. Ervin said she hopes they will learn the importance of showing consideration for other people.
Developing social skills like this one is easier for some students than for others, Ms. Ervin said. But in each individual, she and Ms. DeCaria see progress.
“People that were very shy and didn’t communicate much at all verbally are becoming more comfortable and have been presenting their artwork at art shows and markets,” Ms. Ervin said. “Because [art is] something they’re interested in, these other skills are coming.”
Ms. Ervin makes a careful distinction between developing skills in her students, which the class aims to do, and healing the individuals, which it does not.
“I’m interested in developing people, and I’m not interested in healing them, because I don’t think they’re broken,” she said. “I don’t want to look at what’s wrong. I want to look at what’s there.”
Throughout the classes, Ms. Ervin and Ms. DeCaria pay attention to the individual needs of each student. Instead of pre-determining what they expect a person to comprehend, they repeat instructions in different ways, check for understanding and remain aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
“We get to know the folks, but it’s also being open to surprises,” Ms. Ervin said. “It’s giving them a little bit of a challenge. So much happens when you just raise expectations a little bit and say, ‘Yeah, you can.’”
The Lovelace Puppet Festival
For Alex Lee, 24, one of the organizers of The Lovelace Puppet Festival, Creative Citizen Studios is just like any of the other groups that will perform.
“We aren’t treating these people as artists going through art therapy, but rather as people who are going to be commissioned for a piece for a festival,” he said. “They might have a disability; they might not have a disability. We don’t necessarily care. We’re treating them holistically as artists.”
Creative Citizen’s participation in the festival benefits not only the students but also other members of the public, Ms. DeCaria said.
“We’re teaching our guys a lot of things about technical, creative, artistic skills and a lot of things about independence, life skills,” Ms. DeCaria said. “But it’s also teaching Pittsburgh that these folks are capable and that we tend to segregate people according to what we think they can and cannot do.
“If you can see someone as an artist, it allows for a new understanding of that person. It allows a point of connection.”
Toward the end of the July 8 class, 22-year-old Mick Fisher of Upper St. Clair donned a curly black wig and chunky glasses.
At Creative Citizen, anything goes. It’s a place for students to be themselves.
After the group cleaned up, Ms. Ervin put her arm around Ms. McKee, and Daijah rested her hand on Ms. Ervin’s shoulder. Ms. Ervin mentioned that she will not be at the next class.
“I’m going to be on vacation at the beach, but I’ll bring you guys back some shells,” she told the artists.
Ms. McKee jumped with excitement.
“Get out of town! You’re kidding.”
It’s this type of constant surprise that Ms. DeCaria said keeps her coming back to the class, week after week.
“I always think that I learn more than I’m teaching,” she said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen in the classroom.”
The Lovelace Puppet Festival will be held at 5 p.m. July 27 at Shadyside Nursery, 510 Maryland Ave., Shadyside. Admission is a suggested donation of $10. Kids under age 10 attend for free.
Marisa Iati: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1891 or on Twitter @marisa_iati.