By Emily Joy, JVA Consulting

Vibrant paintings dot the walls, and busy students are seated at long tables with their heads down and pencils, pens and paintbrushes flying.  VSA Colorado’s studio in the Santa Fe art district is a bustle of creative energy with hanging proof of collaborative, high quality artistic productions.  The revelation is that all of these incredible pieces are created by youth with disabilities, mentored by devoted artists and art teachers from the Denver community.

Nicole is painting fanciful pastel-colored dragons and has even taught herself how to embroider her signature dragon designs. Jose brings Japanese anime to life with his detailed masking-tape figurines, and other students work on impressive pet portraits for donors.  For specific projects, the students research art movements and focus on famous artists with disabilities to increase awareness.  Vibrant canvases from the most recent project, “Pop Art with a Purpose,” are on display in the studio, and Javier, an art teacher with VSA for the past six years, finishes filling in blue art deco dots on one of the pieces while we chat.  He says that he connects with the students through his own disability and gains a tremendous satisfaction from their successes.

Artistic Innovation

Whether studying an art movement, producing pet portraits for donors, working on corporate art or creating projects for the trendy art-o-mat vending machines nationwide, VSA’s programs use art as an innovative way to overcome the challenges that youth with disabilities face on a daily basis.  VSA fosters social connection, educational opportunities, teamwork, economic opportunity and disability awareness.

Overcoming Obstacles

When Damon, the Executive Director of VSA, started his work over 17 years ago, he felt he could make an impact on the lives of youth with disabilities by providing a safe, artistic space for them to grow in.  Since then, he has seen the challenges that youth with disabilities face and VSA’s impact extend beyond the studio.   Damon explains that the concept of a “starving artist” is truly a reality for many of the impoverished youth VSA works with, but it doesn’t have to be.  Economic opportunity for VSA’s participants is Damon’s newest passion, as 70% of all persons with disabilities are unemployed, and youth with disabilities over the age of 21 are at the highest risk of losing all social support after finishing school.  To combat this obstacle, VSA provides young artists with a commission for their pieces that are sold, but Damon hopes that as their corporate projects scale up, VSA will be able to provide qualifying participants with a sustainable hourly wage.

Future Vision

VSA is ramping up its efforts to promote its Corporate Art Venture, a revenue-generating social enterprise that has the exciting potential to respond to the challenge of economic opportunity. Large, high quality art pieces that are commissioned by local and national businesses are produced collaboratively by a group of VSA students—encouraging peer-to-peer mentoring and teamwork while producing incredible pieces of customized art. The staff at VSA is excited about the opportunity for growth with the development of the Corporate Art Venture that is currently evolving alongside the young artists who create it. VSA’s Program Director participated in JVA’s Social Enterprise Academy in November 2013 to develop its business model and prepare for the launch.

For the next 41 days, VSA is raising money for the Corporate Art Venture through the local crowdfunding platform, Neighborhood Catalyst. You can invest in this incredible social enterprise HERE.