by Elyse Wild
Angele Steele’s first exposure to the transformative power of the arts was through her son, Rock, who has a chromosome abnormality.
“He was in pre-school, and he was non-verbal,” she said. “He was a participant of Artists Creating Together (ACT) through his early childhood program. They brought in musicians and artists to teach drumming, visual arts, and movement.”
Steele witnessed Rock develop the ability to communicate through the creative activities in which he was engaging
“It was really exciting,” she said. “It was fun to see him take a leadership role and want to show us and tell us what he learned through the arts, even though he wasn’t able to speak to us at the time.”
Today, Steele works as the executive director of ACT as the nonprofit continues a 30 year legacy of supporting individuals who live with disabilities by providing them an avenue in which to engage in the arts.
“I felt drawn here,” she said. “It is a great place to be, to get access to special education programs and also to parents who are further along on their journey than we are.”
Through three branches of programming — youth, adult and health & healing — ACT conducts weekly programming and community events that allow individuals of all abilities to participate in visual and performing arts. They also provide accessibility training to other arts organizations within the community, such as the Grand Rapids Art Museum and ArtPrize.
“We are excited to share what we know,” she said. “We want to make sure everyone knows that they are welcome.”
Steele holds a bachelor’s in education and language arts from Hope College and a master’s in education from Walden University. Prior to joining ACT, she taught at West Ottawa Public Schools and was the program director for the Literacy Center of West Michigan.
“I always knew the value of the arts and would incorporate creativity into my classroom, but it wasn’t until I worked here when I saw students whose only outlet was through the arts,” she said. “Through our hospital programs, I saw people heal through the arts and overcome trauma, which is beautiful. I always believed in the arts, but I didn’t know the massive power of the arts until working at ACT and seeing it with so many adults in our community.”
ACT is currently in the midst of a $1.1 million capital campaign. The campaign has provided funding for a new, larger space that will accommodate the growing number of students (last year, their programming reached more than 6,000 people). Part of the funds has been allocated to the Creative Cube, a stunning 40-foot race trailer that expands to become a fully-accessible mobile art studio. The Creative Cube is on the road throughout West Michigan from March to October, serving more than 5,000 individuals who otherwise may not have access to ACT programming.
“It has been a long time in the making,” Steele commented. “We knew that there were a lot of people living with disabilities in West Michigan who weren’t being served by ACT, whether they couldn’t get to our studio or weren’t involved in the health agencies we partner with or weren’t in the K-12 system. We said, ‘How do we establish a relationship with those people?’”
James Dykstra, who is on the autism spectrum, has been taking classes at ACT for five years.
“You don’t have to worry about anyone criticizing your artwork,” he said. “It is big enough that all of us with different disabilities can work in different ways. All of the teachers are really nice — they give you props
Dykstra says that making artwork helps him with concentration.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how quickly time goes by while you’re doing your art,” he said. “Before you know it, you’re finished.”
Of all of the classes Dykstra has taken at ACT, he has enjoyed photography the most. During the course,
students took photos around the city as they learned various techniques.
“When they turned in our photos to be printed, the woman at the counter asked if they had a release for the photos,” he smiled. “They were that good.”
A hallmark of ACT is the value they place on their teaching artists, all of who are paid. For Sarah Scott, a printmaker who has been leading classes at the organization for more than five years, this demonstrates strong support for the local arts community.
I always believed in the arts, but I didn’t know the massive power of the arts until working at ACT and seeing it with so many adults in our community.”—Angele Steele, executive director of ACT
“To me, it offers an incredible amount of respect to artists in town,” she said. “It is really respectful when an organization can come at you like that.”
Teaching artists are supported by ACT’s network of dedicated volunteers.
“There are always two staff members and at least one volunteer,” she commented. “The volunteers are great — it makes you feel really supported.”
Scott goes on to describe how rewarding it is to teach at ACT.
“I love teaching here … a lot of what I do here is have my mind blown.”
ACT employs more than 50 teaching artists and makes an effort to hire those who have disabilities
“Last year, we had a culinary arts teacher with a disability,” she said. “Watching the students respond to her as she came in, I saw a more immediate and natural rapport and relationship building. It was really beautiful.”
To additionally support their students as they transition out of special education programs, ACT offers an apprenticeship program. Apprentices are between the ages of 18-26 and work under the mentorship of a local artist with the goal of showcasing their art in the community. ACT helps them create marketing material and find venues to showcase and sell their artwork. Apprentices keep 100% of the sales of their work.
“We want them to know that their art is valued and that is their voice, and they should make those proceeds for themselves,” she said. “It is also a way they can get involved with the community for years to come.”
Steele says to witness the apprentice students grow in their abilities and confidence is one of the most rewarding aspects of working at ACT.
“Watching them come in and dabble in the arts and learn skills here and there, to having five art shows under their belt and being able to talk about their art and what it means to them and advocate for their own sales is a really beautiful transition,” she said.
To learn more about ACT, please visit artistscreatingtogether.org.