Nonprofits: Making art a part of wellness; Living Resources serves students with wide range of disabilities

Works from Living Resources artists hang inside the 70 Beekman Street Gallery in Saratoga Springs
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Works from Living Resources artists hang inside the 70 Beekman Street Gallery in Saratoga Springs

Rotterdam native Tyler Cronk has been drawing and illustrating for as long as he can remember.

The professional artist honed his skills in the arts program at Living Resources, first in Albany and then in Schenectady.

“I believe I have been attending the arts program for about 19 years now,” Cronk said.

He started when he was around 7 years old and continues to attend classes.

“I typically always like to do simple pencil-and-paper illustrations and I also dabble a bit in acrylic painting. And nowadays, I tend to do a lot of digital illustrations on the computer, as well as drawing illustrations by hand,” Cronk said.

Through the program, he’s also tried voice acting, which his longtime teacher Marcus Kwame Anderson said he has a particular knack for. Anderson remembers one claymation that they worked on in class for which Cronk performed the voices of five different characters.

“The really cool thing about it is if you were just a viewer, you wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s the same actor doing all the voices, because Tyler brought something different to each character and made them all unique and distinct, and stand out,” Anderson said.

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Cronk is one of more than 125 students the Living Resources arts program serves each year. At each of its four Capital Region studio locations — Ballston Lake, Albany, Schenectady and Saratoga Springs — instructors hold art classes six days a week, teaching students with a wide range of disabilities.

“We’re actually coming up on 25 years this year,” said Sergio Camacho, assistant director of the arts program.
“We started in a small instructional space in Albany at the Carriage House. There were only a few students; classes were pretty loose. People would come in, make a little bit of art, there was some socialization.”

Classes are more structured today and offer a greater variety of mediums, from traditional drawing and painting to mosaics and animation.

“[The] criteria for being involved in the art program is not that you’re necessarily a tremendous talent. It’s just that you have an interest in making art, and you have an openness to exploring and trying different things with your teachers,” Camacho said.

Classes are relatively small, usually somewhere between four and 10 students, with one or two instructors per class.

“It’s student-centered, so students will come to us and say, ‘This is what we want to do’ and we’re like ‘OK we’re going to dig in,’ ” Camacho said.

That approach allows students not only to work on the things they’re passionate about but also to try new mediums, and even have instructors learn alongside them.

“[It’s] an opportunity for us to model struggling with mediums and making mistakes. That’s a big culture of the class: It’s a space where you can make mistakes and that’s not a negative thing. You’re building up toward success or achieving what you want; an environment where it’s OK to be wrong, that scaffolds out to the rest of their lives. If they’re taking chances with us, maybe they’re taking chances trying something new at work or in a relationship or an experience,” Camacho said.

He sees art as a vehicle to overall wellness — to overall health and habilitation. That became even more important during the pandemic, when the daily lives of the students were completely upended. At least for the first few months of the pandemic, Living Resources had to close its studios to students.

“The foundation of our services is tactile. You’re having a physical interaction. You’re making artwork with somebody. There’s that immediate dialogue that’s happening, and having access to the kind of materials and expertise that the program provides. It was absent during COVID because we weren’t able to do face-to-face instruction, but what we ended up doing immediately was to provide remote services,” Camacho said.

Any students who needed tablets or hot spots were sent supplies. At first, Living Resources employees did health and wellness calls with each student.

“A lot of the students were grateful to even have that contact because just their weekly or few-times-a-week interactions with us was an important part of their life,” Anderson said.

Those calls eventually evolved into virtual art classes, which gave students more of a routine and a way to stretch or challenge themselves.

“I think our students can attest to the fact that they’ve gotten a lot out of it. I even know a few students where they were having challenges with being independent, and in some ways being on the other side of a screen forced them to achieve a greater level of independence because they had to reach a little bit more,” Anderson said.

Living Resources was finally able to bring students back into the classroom last fall with strict protocols of temperature checks, mask-wearing and social distancing.

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“We’re very proud because we were able to serve these folks for many months on end, even from the outside, without anybody contracting COVID within the walls of our services,” Camacho said.

But a new set of challenges arose around mental health during the pandemic.

“A big part of what we’re doing now is trying to rebuild those habits and healthy outlooks, and art is a tremendous tool in doing that. We’re able to create a therapeutic component or even just the satisfaction of saying, ‘Hey, I’m back with my friends and doing what I want,’ and that was overwhelmingly what we saw,” Camacho said.

Getting back into the classroom means students can also get back to exhibiting their work, which has always been a big part of the program, though it expanded with the 2017 addition of the 70 Beekman Street Gallery.

“Our big annual shows used to be at the Albany Visitor Center, and then we started a second one in Ballston Spa. Those shows — our students look forward to them and look forward to the opportunity to have their work out there, and see people enjoying their work,” Anderson said.

Now, students can often see their work hanging on the gallery walls throughout the year.

“I’m an artist myself, and having my work displayed and seeing people respond to it is huge for anybody, so it’s just the same for all of our people,” Anderson said.

Since the gallery is open to the public, it also provides a way to connect with the community.

“One of the cool things about art is it shows and it tells at the same time,” Anderson said. “A lot of the times in society people have limited views of what they think [disabled] people can do or are doing, etc. … I’ve been with the art program a long time, and anytime we do stuff in the community or people speak to me about having seen Living Resources represented somewhere, it’s almost like there is an increased awareness.”

People are often impressed with the artwork without even knowing who made it.

“I think it works to expand people’s ideas because it challenges their perceptions,” Anderson said.

For more about Living Resources, which also provides day community services, employment resources, clinical services and more, visit livingresources.org.

Living Resources
Year Founded: 1974
Areas served: Greater Capital Region
Mission: Living Resources is dedicated to providing life-enhancing services to individuals challenged by intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as those who are brain injury survivors. Growth and happiness are unique for each person, and at Living Resources we offer a supportive environment that allows individuals to meet
and exceed their personal goals.

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Categories: Life and Arts, Nonprofits 2021

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