All Abilities Arts Expo showcases work by artists with disabilities

 interview by Rosalie Murphy

Alicia Hopkins is an author, painter and mixed media artist. Two years ago, she began searching for opportunities in the arts for people like her — she uses a wheelchair and lives with high-functioning autism. 

In December 2017, Alicia felt a calling to create an art show for people with disabilities. People encouraged her to join an existing organization, but she didn’t qualify for developmental disability services and couldn’t find a space where she fit. So she made one.

On Nov. 9, Alicia will host her fourth Art Speaks All Abilities Art Expo. The twice-yearly event invites artists with disabilities to display and potentially sell their work, which is presented in a way that is as accessible as possible.

Alicia spoke with The Devil Strip about her work and about the opportunities that exist for artists with disabilities. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Rosalie Murphy: Tell me about the All Abilities Art Expo.

Alicia Hopkins: About two years ago I started researching what opportunities were out there in the arts for me. I found that there was stuff over here for mental illness, stuff over here for developmental disabilities, and then people with physical disabilities, there was nothing. I wrote down my plans for what I wanted to do. I had this really big vision — like five tiers of levels of activities. I approached a couple friends that are also disabled about it and said, ‘I really want to bring this idea to fruition.’ We met at the bookstore in Chapel Hill every week and just talked about this idea, this art expo, and bringing people — writers, songwriters, published authors, people from all kinds of disabilities, together — and what it would look like.

Chelsea is visually impaired, so she came up with this idea to have Braille programs. Each artist has a card with Braille, so if you walk by and you’re visually impaired, you can read about the artist. We brought in an ASL person [to translate during] spoken-word poetry.

There’s also this community service aspect of it. The artists hold a canned food drive for charity as a way to pay it forward. This is my gift to the arts community, and then they pay it forward. The event is free to the community, but they can bring canned food to support the community. Artists can sell their work; I tell them, hey, you’re responsible for having a vendor’s license, sales tax, all that. Everybody that participates gets an award for participating, and then we also do people’s choice awards, where [attendees] can cast a ballot. And then we invite nonprofit organizations and community groups to come and share about the events they’re having. We have a big, giant resource table, so everything from information on opportunities for people with disabilities to an art class. We try to share people’s events and community resources. 

And then we have Empowerment Stations. This is where the community can come and interact. One of our stations is the Chain of Talents, where you write your talent on a link and chain it up. We have an Empowerment Board, where people can write a message they want to leave for someone else or take a message home they need. And then we have a Poetic Construction Zone, where you can — you know the word poetry? We made some this time in Braille and in regular words. And then we have these wooden letter As, for Ability and Action, so we’re going to challenge people to decorate one of these letters that we can use in a community art piece.

It’s all about having the conversation about accessibility. We talk to people about making this accessible and what we’ve done to try to make it accessible. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying to learn, and people give us ideas. We just recently learned about dyslexia font and how to use that in printing. 

It was a project that taught me that I didn’t have to have a lot of money or have my life together to help people in need, and I keep doing it because people keep offering spaces, and people are offering spaces into 2020, like December 2020 now. I usually have 500 to 600 people over two days.  It’s twice a year, and just a really great way to get people to know what resources are out there, how they can volunteer in their community, how they can get involved in the arts.

RM: This sounds like really hard work. Why do you do it?

AH: It’s really a gift to the arts community, and I keep doing it because… there’s this one little boy, his name is Ayden. He has autism and he draws cartoon characters. He’s participated every time. He gets so excited about showing his medals and his awards, and it keeps him going. He’s always asking when we’re going to do another one. I want to involve more kids. I really have a passion for seeing children smile. They get so happy when they get to share their artwork and know that someone cares about them.

[When I was a kid], my mom would give me J.C. Penney catalogues and I used them to make collages. I lived in a rural community, there weren’t really resources — I went to the library, park, Girl Scouts — but there just were not things like this. And I want to be a changemaker. For me, this has taught me that you don’t have to have a lot of money to help people. You can be kind to people and give back. 

RM: How did you develop a community around this event?

AH: I have a Facebook page, Art Speaks Ohio. For me, art tells my story, it communicates my goals, it’s helped me come a long way. It’s not easy for me to communicate, and I feel like there’s so much you can tell from an art piece, so I wanted to gather people in kind of a grassroots way. It helps people come together and advocate for a common cause. I’m not a nonprofit yet — I have some health issues, so I’m not really sure what’s next — but in this grassroots way, to get people to think about, ‘hey, I have talent, I have purpose, I have abilities, and I want to share them with the world.’

People want to be included. Some people have this idea that we want to be separated — mental illness over here, developmental disabilities over here — but we want to be together. That’s why I wanted to bring this dynamic, unique [community] together. And it’s all planned and coordinated by people with disabilities. People have ideas. Everybody brings something unique. It’s one thing to be invited to an event, another thing to be included, but when you can be at the table and put your ideas in and know that your voice matters, that says something. 

The next All Abilities Art Expo is Saturday, Nov. 9 at 2125 W. 25th St. in Cleveland. (Alicia plans to bring the 2020 expos back to Summit County.) Artists from the Akron area include Leah Curtis, Ayden Heade, Alicia Hopkins, Casey Howe, Sharetta Howze and Jamie Mutnansky. Reserve tickets here.

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.

Photos used with permission from Alicia Hopkins.