Full Life

Established 2002, Portland OR

“Full Life” in Portland, Oregon is an incredible program whose structure is informed by client choice above all else.

Full Life began as an open art studio and is still centered around this format, but now offers a wide range of daily recreational and vocational programs to all of its clients. This includes work in their own “Happy Cup” Coffee Shop, janitorial enclaves, karaoke, work in a greenhouse and chicken farm, and a wide range of creative arts classes and projects that are constantly being developed by their 20+ staff of creative people. The program serves 160 clients who attend five days per week, split fairly evenly into two 5 hour shifts (morning and afternoon) with a one hour overlap.  Each client chooses his or her daily activities at Full Life independently every day:

This white board hangs in the reception area; the programming offered is updated daily and each client comes to the reception desk each morning to plan their day - their name is written under the activities that they wish to attend, and then staff use this schedule to collect participants for their classes. At any given time, there are staff engaged with groups of clients in projects and “floater” staff throughout the facility to maintain structure, while also handling other responsibilities (documentation, etc.). The art studio portion of the facility is always open for clients to come to between projects or when they lose interest in a project they’re signed up for.

Full Life sells some artwork, but customers are almost exclusively Full Life staff. Clients are permitted to take works home and to make artwork as gifts for friends. Full Life is funded as a day program and receives no private donations. They are technically for-profit, although profits tend to go only into the development of more programming.

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

-Richard Buckminster Fuller "The New York Magazine Environmental Teach-In" by Elizabeth Barlow in New York Magazine (30 March 1970), p. 30)

Steve, the Program Director states “everyone has the right to work, if they want to”,  elaborating that an individual granted a subsidy to live on due to unique social, physical, and intellectual struggles should be offered opportunities, but not forced to be employed if they are satisfied with an unemployed life. For me, this recalls Buckminster Fuller, as quoted above, especially since the success of Full Life’s use of this approach is a valuable demonstration of the “specious” nature of an overzealous focus on employing everyone.  When working as a case manager for a large sheltered workshop, I did my best to ensure that everyone was learning from their experience in the shop - moving towards, in some way, employment. I worked with conviction to ensure that each individual was supported to engage their right to be productive.  I often found myself conflicted, though, as some individuals struggled much more than others to produce. As their ability to produce is limited enough that it exists only in theory, I found that what I really wanted for them was to know excellence and to have excellence.  Considering this, I’m moved to believe that it’s more accurate that the idea that there’s a right to be productive is really just derived, in a misleading way, from a more natural right to be excellent.

If you commit to offering individuals the opportunity to excel in whatever manner suits them, rather than attempting to encourage them to be excellent in some consensus paradigm of “productivity” and “employment”, what you get is Full Life. It’s a place where the development of programming is driven in a deeper way by the clients, but where the individual decides whether or not to work each morning and everybody is encouraged to do well in whatever they choose to do.

Ultimately, in spite of this unconventional approach to considering employment, Full Life offers about as much traditional employment as any program of its size serving a comparable population.  And finally, the question of whether art is understood as recreation or career isn't answered by Full Life, but is instead decided by the ambition of each artist.

Full Life describes their future plans as just to sustain and continue to grow.  In which way they grow depends on the needs and desires of their clients.  Steve explains that at one time Full Life was only an art studio. They began to add some employment opportunities and other activities because the clients expressed a desire for them.

An important lesson to take away from Full Life is the depth of meaning that some of the projects achieve as a result of the cultivation of a community that is driven by client choice.. Although they don’t tend to produce cohesive bodies of work for exhibition, they do complete works that have meanings which are deeply understood within the context of the Full Life community.  A large, collaborative, and ever changing window display is a voice of the community, that is for many more intuitive way to speak to the outside than a delicately presented show in a gallery . Or these championship belts:

which play an important role in foosball tournaments that staff person Rob Gray describes as “a very big deal around here.”  Works like these can be viewed as art, like aboriginal masks in a museum case, where the intensity and adoration with which they are crafted could be well understood and respected. But within the realm of Full Life they have a greater and clearer meaning than they could really achieve outside. Because work is allowed to be entirely personal, many works are kept by the artists or created for a particular person - one could likely collect from the staff offices a very endearing collection of works made for apology.

This philosophy grants the freedom for the facility to become an art studio in a more natural sense. It’s a place that not only creates projects, but also explores ideas.  Staff are empowered to develop programming at any time and are therefore able to devise projects that respond to the concerns and interests of the clients in the moment. Some projects are intended to develop skills and introduce concepts that empower the client. Others resemble something more like a collaboration between staff and client (truly between artist and artist). The result is a committed team of staff, an empowered and satisfied group of clients, and an exceptionally strong culture of mutual respect. There are truly beautiful examples of artists enabled to achieve excellence, to be further discussed on this blog in detail, and works in themselves that are in some way works of art- empowering and granting a voice in a manner entirely abstract of any concept of producing: