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Hoosier Women Artists: An Opportunity for Self-Expression

Perhaps the most powerful thing about the arts are their ability to bridge divides, open dialogues, and create understanding. For Indiana’s 100,000 Hoosiers with an intellectual or developmental disability, the arts provide a unique opportunity for self-expression and socialization. One of the best places to see this in action is at the annual Hoosier Women Artists celebration at the Indiana Statehouse.

 Lieutenant Governor Crouch embracing artist Eileen Siefker (left, middle) and congratulating artist Nina Unternahrer (right)
Lieutenant Governor Crouch embracing artist Eileen Siefker (left, middle) and congratulating artist Nina Unternahrer (right)

Since 2008, the program has celebrated the important role art plays in our communities by exhibiting the work of talented artists of all abilities.

“I am so proud of the work the Hoosier Women Artists program does each year to showcase and elevate the creativity of our Hoosiers with disabilities. We have a responsibility to ensure all Hoosiers have equal opportunities in life to succeed, and I am grateful for the dedicated Hoosiers who work tirelessly to ensure that individuals with “different abilities” are successful and supported.” – Suzanne Crouch, Lieutenant Governor, Indiana

"I’ve never had so much fun and been so proud of myself." – Tillie, Hoosier Women Artist

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Indiana Arts Commission (IAC) chatted with Michele Fanfair-Steury to learn more about the impact of programs like Hoosier Women Artists, especially for her clients. Michele serves as the studio coordinator for RedBird Studios at Cardinal Services.

RedBird is a lively and unexpected place, an inviting art studio where artist of all Artabilities are encouraged to explore their creativity alongside others; where there are no mistakes; where artistic expression leads to self-discovery, and perhaps, to new friends. RedBird artists are all clients of Cardinal Services (Warsaw, IN), an organization that assists and advocates for people with disabilities. RedBird Art Studio provides artists a chance for independent income and a forum for artistic expression.

In addition to her work at Red Bird Studios, Michele runs her own business, the Gift of G.A.B. in Goshen, Indiana.

Question: In addition to running your own creative business "The Gift of G.A.B., you serve as the studio coordinator for Red Bird Studios at Cardinal Services. Tell us about your work as an advocate for people with disabilities.

My full time job is working at Cardinal Services, serving as Coordinator of the RedBird Art Studio. A position that advocates for people with intellectual disabilities and challenges. My job is defined as a manager that gives permission for artists to explore and take creative risk. I would also say I am the finisher, asking the artists and client what I can do to help you finish your art piece. Often times it just comes down to helping the artists connect their thoughts to create a final project they are proud of. We really try to remove as many barriers as possible to allow the artists the ability to complete creativity.

Question: For the last few years, your clients at Red Bird have participated in the Hoosier Women Artist program. What have they told you about what participating in that program means to them?

A Shiny Star by Nina, Abstract Painting with green, red, orange and blueFirst of all, the moment I received the congratulations letters on behalf of the women chosen to be Hoosier Award Winners over the last few years has been a thrill. I share in the excitement of giving the artist their congratulation letters and the moment that follows accompanying them to the Statehouse where they receive their award and have their picture taken with Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch. The first three ladies selected from the RedBird Art Studio at Cardinal Services became a defining moment for the potential of our RedBird artists being seen in the public as artist (not being defined as a disability). Hoosier Award winner Tillie stated on the way home, "This was a really long day because we had to wake up at 4:30 a.m., but it was worth every minute of it. I’ve never had so much fun and been so proud of myself." Kathleen stated she already knew “she was a good artist” but receiving this award confirms her painting titled “The Best Painting” showed she was a really good artist. Amanda had family who was able to attend and witness her receiving the award. She said she felt so proud and excited that her family could be present to see her get such an award. Our 2019 Hoosier Award winning artist, Mychelle told me that being chosen helped her to realize she is an actual artist with talent. And RedBird 2020 artists Nina and I talked on the way home about how this award has helped her true colors shine through her piece titled “A Shiny Star”.

Question: What would you say to someone who wants to make their business or practice more accessible? Where should people start?

We really need to start looking at our world and its design as an extension of our person. Buildings are not just buildings, but places that people go for hours of the day, every day to be successful whether it is at work or in an art studio. I would definitely suggest getting in contact with a local organization that already is assisting folks with disabilities. The organizations should have advocates that can be of assistances with design, sense of place and even helping to navigate culture shifts that can support positive changes for making the business and space accessible. I would also invite the organization to extend an invitation to folks in the disability community into their business to hear from them directly and welcoming their feedback on how to create new systems.