Established 1978, Brunswick, Maine

Spindleworks, a fantastic and accomplished progressive art studio in Brunswick, Maine, was not one that we were able to visit in the course of our research trip last year. Spindleworks is unique from most other studios in that it offers woodworking and has a rich history of Fiber Arts such as wool spinning and weaving. Below is our conversation with Spindleworks' program supervisor, Brian Braley.

Disparate Minds: How did Spindleworks get started initially and how has it developed/progressed in the time you've been there? What are your current goals? What are your long-term goals?

Brian Braley: “We’re trying to prove that people with this unique handicap have a unique vision because of this handicap, a vision that can be presented artistically in a way that is valuable to everyone.” - Nan Ross 1978

Spindleworks was started in the late 1970's by Nan Ross, a weaver and writer from Brunswick. At the advent of deinstitutionalization in Maine it became quite clear that individuals with intellectual disabilities needed a positive alternative that would allow for self-expression, and creativity. At a time when adults with intellectual disabilities were hidden away, and denied rights, Nan believed that creative expression could serve as a method to give voice to their unique perspectives. The initial 6 artists learned to spin and dye wool, and eventually began to work in various fiber media such as rug hooking. Although there is still a strong fiber presence at Spindleworks, we now offer programming in painting, woodworking, sculpture, weaving, embroidery, music, photography, printmaking, video, and theater.

The creative voice of Spindleworks’ artists has also grown over the years and has proven to be an unstoppable force; the artists have developed a reputation of producing high quality work through numerous exhibits including the Portland Museum of Art, Space Gallery, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. Spindleworks hosts a variety of exhibitions throughout the year including juried community shows, themed exhibits, theater productions, installations, and collaborations. One of these collaborative projects is the annual All Species Parade which was created in partnership with Arts Are Elementary (a program that incorporates visiting artists into school curriculum). The parade engages community involvement through the creation of costuming and floats in celebration of the diversity of the planet’s species.  Through the parade and annual exhibit Spindleworks has raised thousands of dollars for a local animal shelter.

We continue to seek the creative and professional growth of the artists we serve.  This is achieved through professional development curriculum that includes portfolio prep, resume writing, business card creation, public speaking, and self advocacy.  Being a professional artist is and should be a career choice for adults with disabilities; many of our artists make more money creating art than they did while holding other jobs in the community. These financial benefits are very important for the artists as the employment options are generally limited in the rural setting in which we reside. Program artists receive 75% of the proceeds from the sale of their art and the remaining 25% goes back to fuel our supply budget. Our long and short term goals are sustainability. We are not currently seeking extensive growth, but want to focus our efforts on generating consistent funds to ensure that we can continue to maintain a safe and beneficial environment for the artists in our community to fulfill their independence.

DM: About how many total artists with disabilities do you support in your studio? Also, how often do they attend and how much time is spent in the studio per day?

BB: We currently support 49 artists from the surrounding Mid-coast and Central Maine area. On a typical day we have as many as 30 artists in attendance. Artists participate in anywhere from 1-5 days a week depending on their desire and approved funding. Our program is a 5 hour day from 9-2 M-Thursday and 9-1 on Fridays. In 2011 Spindleworks started a sister program Spinoff Studios located in Gardiner, Maine which currently supports 18 artists. Spinoff has a morning and an afternoon shift totaling 4 hours each.

DM: How do artists served by Spindleworks find out about and become involved in the art program?

BB: We are well known in the community due to various collaborative efforts with local businesses, galleries, events, and other nonprofits. Additionally, we frequently get referrals from case managers, community members, volunteers, and friends. The artists themselves are our best spokespeople; many of our artists have created their own business cards and use them to talk about their art and our program. We accept only artists with intellectual disabilities that have a strong creative desire. There is a several week assessment period to help determine ongoing interest and potential fit for the program.

DM: What is your philosophy with regards to artist facilitation?

BB: Spindleworks staff serve as mentors rather than teachers. We believe that program participants have an inherent ability to create art and our role is to provide the right tools and environment to promote creative growth. The key to good mentoring is observing what someone can or cannot do on their own and knowing when to offer help. By modeling professional creative practice we encourage independent thought and action, rather than attempting to dictate the creative process. We ask difficult questions which forces the artists to make their own choices, and we don’t hesitate to push the artists to reach their potential. Sometimes it takes that little push to get someone to open their peripheral vision and try new things. We are eternally patient with whatever pace ensues, and unwilling to allow anyone give in to their own doubts. We understand that despite our best efforts that we will often fail and it is through that failure that we are able to use our problem-solving abilities to overcome obstacles. Spindleworks is a non-competitive and non-judgmental environment. We encourage mutual support and maintain a peer helper chart so that program artists can share their skills with others. This has allowed artists to develop self-esteem in their abilities and has led to several artists teaching workshops with skills that they have gained from experience.     

weaving by artist Lloyd Whitcomb

DM: How do you anticipate recent cuts in state funding to impact Spindleworks and do you feel there's a successful way of counteracting this?

BB: The State of Maine is implementing a system known as the Support Intensity Scale which places a number and a value on an individual.  We fundamentally disagree with this methodology as it doesn’t measure people based on their potential. Essentially the harder we work toward someone’s creative growth, the less we would get paid for the service. We estimate that the changes would reduce our funding by 35%. It forces Spindleworks and other similar programs to do more with less. Although the impacts of these changes are not yet fully realized, we have focused much of our energies on developing an action plan to adapt. These strategies may include changing our program structure, growing our revenue stream to include additional grant and in-kind donations, and reduced operating costs through additional efficiency. In the face of these changes, we refuse to sacrifice the quality and safety of our program. We continue to advocate through our government officials the value and need for continued full funding of these important services. Unfortunately, there have been recent efforts in state government to remove the public voice from the equation so that the Department of Health and Human Services can make changes without public forum.

Artist Earl Black at the loom, All images courtesy of Spindleworks