Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.
“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”
Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.
Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.
“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”
From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.
The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”
Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.
“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”
It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.
“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”
Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”
Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.
“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”
“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”