Full Life in Portland, Oregon (founded by Rachel Bloom in 2004) is a unique and dynamic program whose methods are informed by client choice with more depth and ambition than most service providers of any kind that we have encountered. Full Life is funded as a day program and receives no private donations; they’re technically for-profit, although profits tend to go only into the development of more programming.
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 including work in their own “Happy Cup” Coffee Shop, janitorial assignments, employment in a greenhouse and chicken farm, and a wide range of creative arts classes and projects, among many other options. The Full Life staff, a team of 20+ creative people, are all given agency to develop and introduce new programming and opportunities to offer. The schedule is incredibly diverse (and in constant flux), initiating and retiring activities organically. Because staff working directly with individuals are also involved in developing the programming, what is offered (and when) can be constantly tracked based on demand and interest. 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.
The program serves around 160 individuals who attend five days per week, split fairly evenly into two 5 hour shifts (morning and afternoon) with a one hour overlap. Their most impressive achievement is that they offer this wide range of opportunity to their large community of clients with incredible flexibility. Each person chooses his or her daily activities at Full Life (not only with a team in an annual or quarterly planning meeting, but independently every day).
This scheduling board hangs in the reception area; the programming offered is updated daily and each person comes to the reception desk in the morning to plan their day - their name is written under the activities that they wish to attend and then staff use this schedule to understand their own schedules for the day. Opportunities on the board include everything from paid employment in the community to foosball tournaments and karaoke.
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’re satisfied with an unemployed life. Full Life is committed 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 what it means to be productive or employed. An 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.
The question of whether art is understood as recreation or career isn’t answered by Full Life, but is instead determined by the ambition of each artist. Full Life sells some artwork, but customers are almost exclusively Full Life staff. Artists are permitted to take works home and to make artwork as gifts for friends.
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 driven by individual choice. Although they don’t tend to produce cohesive bodies of work for exhibition, they do complete works that have deeply understood meaning 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 a more intuitive way to speak to the outside than a delicately presented gallery exhibition.
These championship belts also 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 objects, somewhat 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 elsewhere. 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.
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 artists in the moment. Some projects are intended to develop skills and introduce concepts that empower, others resemble something more like a collaboration between staff and artist (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, such as the poetic works of Marvin Asino, who is supported by Full life to participate in readings and access local creative writing communities. The culture cultivated by Full Life’s deeply person-directed methodology is described by the various creative projects they produce collaboratively, whose sole function seems to be expression of their community, such as this video, “when you least expect it”