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'An Artful Affair' to showcase art from adults with autism, disabilities

For many adults with autism and developmental disabilities, 200 S. Elliot Road is a safe haven.

The Chapel Hill locale is home to Extraordinary Ventures, a non-profit organization founded in 2007 to train and direct individuals with disabilities to viable career paths. Extraordinary Artists, a subgroup of the organization, was founded in 2012, establishing a more creative outlet for participants through the provision of art classes.

On Thursday, Extraordinary Artists will display the work of participants with its annual art showcase, “An Artful Affair.” The gala is open to the public and intended to celebrate the participants’ creative agency and share their stories. A silent auction will follow the evening’s festivities.

Cyndi Whisnant, events director for Extraordinary Ventures, said that the showcase represents a unique opportunity for participants and their families to celebrate their abilities rather than their hardships.

“The art itself will make you smile, but the smiles of the people who’ve made it is so infectious. They are so proud, and they want to tell you about it,” she said. “That’s so huge because you know, with people with autism, communication is a real problem. But this is a way for them to talk, to share a little bit about who they are.”

Whisnant piloted the Extraordinary Artists program last fall with the Art Therapy Institute of Carrboro. The initial pilot consisted of six sessions and culminated in one large event, “The Artful Affair,” which was also held November 2012.

The night of the event, Whisnant said she was contacted by Holly Phelan Johnson of “HappyMess,” a Durham-based art studio that works with a broad demographic — from children to senior citizens to people with developmental disabilities.

Whisnant said she and Johnson drafted a grant proposal for the Orange County Arts Commission. Upon receiving a large grant for Extraordinary Artists, they transformed the lesson plans for the program, with each class focusing on a particular art style with a specific artist in mind.

Whisnant said the artistic prowess of participants fell across the entire spectrum of ability.

“Some people, clearly gifted, some people, maybe not so much. This may be the first time they really tried,” she said.

Yet Whisnant said it was a learning process for them as much as the participants. She also said that the support of UNC student volunteers greatly abetted the program.

“We had some students last year but this year was just an abundance of support. They seemed to have a ball every time that we had it,” she said.

Hannah Haas, a UNC sophomore and Extraordinary Artists volunteer, said she feels this sense of delight while working with participants.

“It’s a happy atmosphere. There’s a lack of inhibition among the participants. They’re not caring what people think, so they’re just themselves. That’s very refreshing,” Haas said.

“They’re my friends, and I think I get more out of it than they do.”

Haas said that the prospect of meeting the participants’ families is what she looks forward to most about the showcase.

“They talk about their moms, dads, sisters, girlfriends and boyfriends, and I’m excited to meet them,” she said. “I’m excited to see what the families think of all their work because they should be proud, too. There’s some really phenomenal work that they’ve done. ”

Anna Ollinger, a UNC senior and intern for Extraordinary Ventures, corroborated the sense of hard work put in to prepare for the showcase.

“We’ve been working so hard to put this together since the summer, so it will be really great to have people come and celebrate the work. I mean, our artists are so, so capable,” Ollinger said.

Ollinger said Extraordinary Artists has been rewarding both for her and the participants with disabilities.

“So, I’m president of Best Buddies and my buddy Molly is in Extraordinary Artists,” Ollinger said, “I talk to her on the phone every week, and she tells me she’s always excited for Extraordinary Artists.”

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Ollinger also said art can be empowering for all people.

“I think that you can express yourself through art no matter what your ability is,” Ollinger said, “There’s no limits with art. There’s nothing that’s right or wrong, and I think that really brings people together.”