Writer Shannon Severson // Photography Courtesy of STARS

Art can often speak what words cannot.

What Makes Me Me, an expressive new exhibition running through May 3 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, accomplishes that and so much more. The exhibition features a collection of watercolor, acrylic, ceramics and poetry by 35 members of Scottsdale Training and Rehabilitation Services — better known as STARS — and the Opportunity Tree, both of which serve individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Each work answers the questions posed to their creators: Who are you? What makes you the unique individual you are?

The idea for the exhibit originated as a collaboration with Beverly McIver’s Full Circle, an exhibition at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. McIver is a caregiver to her older sister who has intellectual and developmental disabilities. The goal is to highlight the artistic voices of a community that is often hidden from public view.

Scottsdale Arts Learning and Innovation paired professional artists with disabled individuals for a series of workshops in different media over the course of several months. Each participant was encouraged to communicate with their art partner to express their feelings through art.

STARS’ Day Training for Adults program manager Jakie Walker oversaw its 12 participants chosen for workshops in acrylic, watercolors and ceramics. Artists facilitated progress by sketching full-body outlines of each participant. The STARS members took over from there, choosing paint colors and brush sizes. In the case of the ceramic pieces, members were provided a mirror as a reference for sculpting their own faces.

“They were given free rein and were able to choose whatever they wanted to do,” Walker explains. “The members were told, ‘This is a picture or you or the outline of your body. Choose whatever color feels good. This is about you and bringing out your true self.’ There was a lot of encouragement during the workshop. The artists were there to walk them through and my instructors were alongside to facilitate communication.”

STARS members were eager to participate and the workshops at the Opportunity Tree location were a chance for them to get out and about after a long period of staying home and having few or no outings during the pandemic.

Court and Ella are members of STARS’ Day Training for Adults skills training program, which focuses on identifying and developing individual skills and talents to implement team projects from start to finish. Members expand teamwork skills in communication and cooperation to engage in research, design, development and marketing.

Court, 43, was thrilled when he saw old friends at Opportunity Tree and loved the entire What Makes Me Me experience.

“I like the paint,” Court says. “I painted a dragon. I still have it. I am happy.”

Ella’s self-portrait includes the outline of her wheelchair and is full of color.

“I used green for part of it and the thickest part of it was blue, pink, whatever they had,” says Ella, who is in her 30s. “It was watercolors. I liked it because I feel like they used part of me to be happy. I’m proud of myself.”

As the driver of the project, Scottsdale Arts’ curator of learning and innovation Laura Hales noticed the positive impact of artistic self-expression on participants.

“During one of the workshops, one woman who didn’t talk at all in the beginning was positively chatty toward the end of it as she became more comfortable and started enjoying herself,” Hales says. “I could see that she had gained an increased sense of herself, which was the primary goal of the exhibition.”

Grateful to each of the artists who took time out of their busy schedules to help participants express themselves through art, Walker says that seeing everyone’s reactions to the workshops was a heartwarming and eye-opening experience.

“It was interesting to see what the members saw in themselves when they were painting, putting together a collage or creating their face from ceramics,” she explains. “You don’t always think day-to-day how these members see themselves and it was eye-opening to see their self-perception that they can’t always speak.”

When the show is over, participants will take their work home and happy memories will be preserved within each brushstroke and impression in the clay.

What Makes Me Me
Through May 3 // Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts // 7380 E. Second St., Scottsdale // Free // scottsdaleartslearning.org