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To measure a year: Reflecting on ACT's apprenticeship program

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Consulting Writer Annabelle Miller reflects on the power and impact of ACT's first apprenticeship program.
ACT apprentices at Cerasus Studio

ACT apprentices at Cerasus Studio

About the apprenticeship program

ACT’s apprenticeship program is designed to provide high caliber, intensive art apprenticeships to eight young artists with disabilities from the Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Transition Campus. Artists are gaining experience under the direction of professional teaching artist Becky Baker.

ACT apprentices with visiting artist, Wes DeVries

ACT apprentices with visiting artist, Wes DeVries

ACT apprentices Jasmine Kelley and Mary Scovel smiling over a touch-friendly art journaling session

ACT apprentices Jasmine Kelley and Mary Scovel smiling over a touch-friendly art journaling session

On a bitter morning in January, I found myself on Division Street in Grand Rapids, in front of a painted window that read “Cerasus Studio.” To me, it felt like a normal Thursday—I had been spending an hour with ACT’s apprentices every week for the past four months, quietly observing their projects, listening for cool things they said about their art, and helping out when I was needed. This morning, however, everything became much more real.

I stepped inside the studio and found all the apprentices huddled together, overlooking packets that contained personalized logos, featuring their art. The packets were put together by AUX, a design firm in Grand Rapids, and I could see the way their faces lit up at having something so official to go with their art. The goal of the program is to empower the artists, to build up their skills and show that they are artists. This morning, they all seemed to get it.

Even more than this, when I looked around the room, I saw professionally framed artwork of all of the apprentices, organized in sections for each artist. Volunteers and ACT staff were laying out how artwork would be hung while the artists oversaw the process, so that their art was displayed as theirs. There were printed cards with the artists’ personal statements and bios, and when we started hanging everything, it all came together.

A real art show. With tags, purchasing information, bios. Real artists.

On this morning, the impact of the apprenticeship program really hit me.

I had been with the apprenticeship program for a while, but in different ways. When I was an intern with ACT in the Winter of 2016, I remember proof-reading the proposal to the Kennedy Center that would make this all possible. I remember the buzz of excitement over this fledgling idea—it was something like hope, a way to take ACT’s mission, passion, and tools and make a more individualized impact. I remember reading the application and thinking, 'Wow, I want to see this happen. This would make a huge difference.'

When ACT was awarded a contract, all of the hope and excitement turned into an intense drive to make it come to life. The people at ACT at the time, Becky Baker, Emily Evers, Melissa Schulert, and Angela Steele, began crafting what each week’s class would look like, including highlights of artists with disabilities, visiting artists to share techniques, directed art journals, and specialized topics for being professional artists. The goal was always the same: empowerment, making the artists believe that they are real artists.

When the program started, I had the privilege of sitting down with the apprentices and talking to them about their art, inspiration, goals, passions, and lives outside of the program. I learned that artist Jasmine Kelley loves basketball and plays in the special Olympics. I learned that artist Chris Overway finds passion in his loved ones and religion. Colin Vanderveen and I laughed about our complete opposite perception of spiders (he loves them). I got to know the apprentices personally in addition to their art, and I could see that the program was allowing them to gain confidence in themselves and their work.

At the close of the program, the artists have discovered the power they have to be their own artist. Each artist has sold pieces of their work, been entered in four different art shows, constructed artist statements, have logos designed, and created a lot of really great, personal work. And that’s really the goal of the program—to give the artists the space to grow into their own artistic identity. As apprentice Tyler Vonitter said, “The apprenticeship program is a very good program. I like being able to do art all the time.”

For a year, I got to see the apprenticeship program bloom from a hopeful concept, to an exciting reality, and an inspirational story of confidence and empowerment. Though I am sad I will not be able to see it, I know ACT will continue to do inspiring, powerful work for artists with disabilities in West Michigan and beyond.

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