January 16, 2018

An Artistic Imaginarium

Visionaries + Voices, the 14-year-old nonprofit that is dedicated to providing artistic training to people with disabilities, is thriving and growing. It recently opened its third location in Oakley, adding that site to its Northside home and Tri-County branch.

V+V’s Northside hub serves as an art gallery with adjacent studios and administrative offices, and the Tri-County space consists of working artists’ studios with a small retail store. But the new Oakley Visionarium has a larger shop for its students’ artwork and also acts as a progressive learning studio to engage both V+V artists and the community at large.

“We strive to put art before disability and this is a great platform for that,” says Director of Operations Robyn Winkler. “Not only are we showing art made by V+V artists, but there’s art from all kinds of community members — not just artists with disabilities. Art made by all different people, all on one space, together.”

Located in a storefront in a highly coveted, family-friendly block of Oakley’s historic business district, the Visionarium offers the public a space to come and interact with the artists on their own turf. 

“Having wall space to sell work functions in multiple capacities: as a learning studio, gallery and retail store,” says Visionarium’s manager, Julia Lipovsky. 

Not only can artists potentially sell their work in an exhibition, or become part of the Teaching Artist Program (TAP), they also can make royalty fees from the merchandise they make such as greeting cards, magnets, wrapping paper, T-shirts and tote bags. 

“A majority of the items in the retail store are merchandise that’s made from (V+V) artists’ work,” says Creative Director Karen Boyhen. “It’s another way to offer professional opportunities for artists working in the studios.” 

V+V artist Melissa Preston’s ceramic cat sculptures — each one quite similar in scale and pose, yet equally precious in their unique details — are bestsellers at Visionarium already.  So much so that Boyhen jokes, “We were thinking of changing the name to ‘Melissa Preston’s Cat Store.’ ”

V+V currently offers studio space and exhibition opportunities for 120 outsider artists at its three locations. Out of that number, 24 have been certified to participate in the organization’s TAP.

“There are a lot of different arts organizations like V+V across the country,” says Winkler. “But our Teaching Artist Program sets us apart from all of them.”  

In TAP, artists get matched with a professional mentor to learn skills like public speaking and developing a curriculum. Once their training is completed and they have done student teaching and created lesson plans, TAP artists are eligible to accept their own teaching opportunities, like those at the Visionarium. 

In her previous position in the education department at V+V, Lipovsky saw firsthand how much effort it took to get TAP artists out on the road and into the community. So she wanted to give them a space where they might have a leg up. So when she and former education director Casey Gries saw that a retail storefront previously occupied by Blue Manatee children’s bookstore was looking for a new tenant, they thought the location could be a potential site for V+V artists to further develop and maintain mentor-student relationships. 

The Oakley location also gives artists more of that “home-field advantage,” hosting TAP-led workshops on everything from comic book cover design and piñata construction to classes for children and their caregivers. 

V+V gained control of the space in April of last year and took on the task of renovating it. By mid-summer, it was fully gutted and the Visionarium opened to the public in late October with a grand opening party the following month. The process has been quick, but it’s a work in progress.    

The staff, however, is seasoned and the programming reflects the organization’s aim to allow the public additional opportunities to connect with V+V artists and their work. There are already twice-weekly parent-child programs, (which coincide with the end of storytelling events at the nearby new home of Blue Manatee and thus fit into events already happening in the neighborhood), weekly piñata parties and weekly teen studio socials — all of which are open to people of varying abilities.

Two Hamilton County social service workers engaging those with disabilities, Keith Banner and Bill Ross, planted the seed for V+V in 2001. The two put together an exhibition at Over-the-Rhine’s Base Gallery for artists they had met while doing their county work, including Richard Brown, Paul Rowland, Raymond Thunder-Sky and Antonio Adams. 

That show ignited more interest and soon, with more exhibitions and a widening network of artists engaged in the project, Adams suggested finding a physical space for the loose group to work from. 

The collective moved into Essex Studios in Walnut Hills in 2002 and put out the welcome mat. Artists of all ability levels were encouraged to come make and promote their work. 

From there, V+V grew rapidly. The next year, it gained nonprofit 501(c)(3) status and was serving 30 artists a week. Four years later, it had expanded enough to warrant a satellite location serving Butler and Warren County artists from a portion of Tri-County company Frame USA’s warehouse. 

By 2008, V+V needed a bigger home base. That spring, it moved to its current, and now iconic, headquarters in Northside. That building on Spring Grove Avenue is emblazoned with artwork honoring founding artist Thunder-Sky, who passed away in 2004. Adams, another artist featured in V+V’s seminal 2001 exhibition, designed the work as a dedication to his friend and fellow visionary.

V+V hosts five exhibitions a year at the Northside location, which also includes the nonprofit’s administrative offices, studio space for artists and other programs. Now, the nonprofit is expanding again.

Winkler has worked at V+V for a decade, Lipovsky for two years and Boyhen has been with the organization for nearly nine years. The newest team member, Marion Cosgrove Rauch, is replacing Gries as education director — the latter is staying home with her first child. But Rauch is not new to V+V.  In fact, the educator has been volunteering for the organization for six years. She was one of the original mentors in the TAP program, teaching public speaking.  

“You cannot be in that studio (with V+V artists) and not come out with a smile on your face,” Rauch says. “People need to have a place where they can go when they feel good.”  

Boyhen, an artist and designer, says, “When you’re a writer or artist, it’s very solitary.”  Thus, the opportunity to work collaboratively in the studio with V+V artists can “recharge your battery almost immediately,” she says.  

Because artists of all ability levels often seek out studio time as a way to have more solitary moments of reflection, V+V Exhibitions Director Geoffrey “Skip” Cullen explains in a separate interview that the organization respects that. It would love to invite the public into the much busier Northside or Tri-County artist studios, but it’s a nuanced issue.

“The big push right now from the state is inclusion,” he says. “They don’t want people isolated, which makes sense. But being part of an art studio, some artists just like being in their studio and making art. We’re not dictating what or how people make; this is their lives. But if we were to integrate completely, some of that would go away, too.” 

The goal of Visionarium is to be a site for bringing the wonder and good vibes from V+V’s studios out into the community itself, and this particular stretch of Oakley’s storefront location — so close to other family-friendly spaces — will allow V+V artists to reach an even broader spectrum of ages and abilities.

It is available to rent out for gatherings like birthday parties and wine and painting nights or any other similar art-making events. Even the logo for the new Visionarium, based on what Boyhen calls an “iconic” image in a painting by V+V artist Kevin White, is a reflection of the organization’s very talented pool of practicing artists. When brainstorming names for this new location with artists in the studios, many of the suggested ones — Pop-Pop, Glitter Rock Art Castle and Art Muffin, for example — were just too good to pass up, so some are being used in program naming.

“It would be a wonderful addition to any community,” Rauch says of the Visionarium.  “There’s always a lot of great things happening in the studio that you don’t necessarily know about.  We want to get it out there and let the public become a part of it.”


Visionaries + Voices new Visionarium is located at 3054 Madison Road, Oakley. More info: visionariesandvoices.com.



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Oakley Visionarium storefront
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Oakley Visionarium storefront
L to R: Visionaries + Voices staff Karen Boyhen, Julia Lipovsky, Marion Cosgrove Rauch and Robyn Winkler
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
L to R: Visionaries + Voices staff Karen Boyhen, Julia Lipovsky, Marion Cosgrove Rauch and Robyn Winkler
Emily Funk sculpture
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Emily Funk sculpture
Brian Dooley’s dolls on display
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Brian Dooley’s dolls on display
A tower of Kevin White brightly painted drink cans in the window of Oakley’s Visionarium
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
A tower of Kevin White brightly painted drink cans in the window of Oakley’s Visionarium
Amy Hayden and Tyler Bollinger working on their Double Vision project.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Amy Hayden and Tyler Bollinger working on their Double Vision project.
Painting by Kevin White that inspired the Visionarium logo
Courtesy of Visionaries + Voices
Painting by Kevin White that inspired the Visionarium logo
Curtis Davis painting
Courtesy of Visionaries + Voices
Curtis Davis painting
The inside of Oakley Visionarium
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The inside of Oakley Visionarium
Courttney Cooper at work on one of his signature Cincinnati map drawings
Courtesy of Visionaries + Voices
Courttney Cooper at work on one of his signature Cincinnati map drawings