By MANDY VALENCIA
Peering into vacant buildings while on a walk in downtown Medford, Baylee LaVoie had an idea.
LaVoie is the business and donor relations director for Living Opportunities, a nonprofit organization that provides workshops and instruction for artists with a wide range of disabilities.
“I drive and walk up and down these streets a lot, and I noticed how many empty and lonely buildings are here,” she said. “I was wondering how we could come up with something to share our art.”
Then it dawned on her: Living Opportunities artists could show their work in the empty buildings until they were occupied. LaVoie contacted Henselman Realty and other property management places to pitch her idea.
“We love to have our windows filled with something other than a for-rent sign,” said Scott Henselman. owner of Henselman Realty. He agreed to work with LaVoie on her idea.
A few other realty companies LaVoie contacted have yet to reply to her request, but she hopes that showing the art in the empty buildings owned by Henselman Realty will prompt them to get on board.
Artwork started showing up on easels in the Sparta Building at 401 E. Main St. a few weeks ago, then in the historic Goldy Building at 105 E. Main and the space formerly occupied by Rapid Refill Ink at 218 E. Main.
On Thursday, more art was being hung at 40 S. Central Ave., a space near the Living Opportunities studio that once housed the Jackson County Democrats’ headquarters.
“This way we can share our art at no charge and showcase the work of our artists while beautifying the downtown,” said LaVoie.
Each artwork is unique. The pieces range from JacksonPollock-like abstracts to vibrant paintings of people and still-life pieces of bouquets. Some works incorporate mixed media art, such as clippings from print publications combined with paint.
Gabe Lee, 21, of Medford, who comes into the Living Opportunities studio to paint regularly, says he likes to sing romantic ballads and classical songs while he paints.
“I paint animals and faces and like to make collages from magazine clippings,” Lee said. “I also like to make things for the holidays.”
On Thursday afternoon he was creating a painting of two dogs.
Samantha Stearns, 21, of Medford, comes several times a month to the studio to paint. She says she gets inspired there and finds it less distracting than painting at home.
“I like it because it expresses me and how I feel at the moment. It’s like therapy for me,” said Stearns, who goes by Samantha Jonz when she signs her finished pieces. Stearns was painting a woman with purple hair on Thursday, from an image that inspired her on Pinterest.com.
“I like to paint girls and dresses, and I like to add words from poems that I write,” said Stearns.
Stearns has synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes her to see different colors depending on the music she hears.
“I can see the color of the music, so it’s kind of whimsy, I like to say,” she said. “I’m happy because they are seeing what I am feeling. It gets me out. I like that because you can’t really argue with that.”
The atmosphere in the studio when the artists are working is calm, with lots of smiles and laughter as music plays in the background. The artists who use the studio are all friends and support each other, said LaVoie.
“When a new person comes into the studio, everyone is very welcoming. It’s a chance for these people to be seen as something other than their disability, to be seen as artists,” said LaVoie.
The displayed art is all for sale, with 50 percent going to the artist and the other 50 percent to Living Opportunities to help pay for the studio’s overhead and art supplies. Living Opportunities has 67 artists who use the studio. About 16 to 20 artists are featured in the downtown displays.
The studio at Living Opportunities is open from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and is available to anyone with a disability who wants to create art. Newcomers are encouraged to make an appointment to get an overview of the program and to go over the artist contract, since the organization acts as their agents.
Art hanging in downtown windows is changed from time to time, LaVoie said.
“I love to support what Living Opportunities is doing,” Henselman said. “It’s an excellent concept of encouraging those that are challenged and to use their abilities to express themselves and possibly have a vocation while doing it.”
Described as “outsider art,” the works are special because they are made by people who are not trained artists, said Jim Gochenour, development director for Living Opportunities.
“They just express themselves without trying to sell,” Gochenour said. “An artist is an artist. We wanted it to be fine art, not arts and crafts. We want to be part of the art community.”
To buy any of the displayed works, or to see about having a work displayed, contact LaVoie at 541-772-1503.
“To see the looks on their faces when a piece of art sells is priceless,” said Gochenour.
Reach Mandy Valencia at 541-776-4486 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.