Guided by Art

Two Milk River Arts artists featured in Highpoint exhibition.

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When it opened nearly four years ago, the Highpoint in Scott’s Addition set out to address a fundamental need in the community by providing opportunities for artists to work and exhibit.

When David Morrison, the Highpoint’s owner and programming director, met Milk River Arts founding Executive Director Sally Kemp, something clicked.

The nonprofit Milk River Arts pairs adult artists who have disabilities with professional artist-mentors, who assist them in creating, exhibiting, and selling their unique bodies of work. “Hopefully our gallery setting can give Milk River Arts and their artists a venue to showcase their work so that the community can learn more about this amazing nonprofit,” Morrison says.

Inspired by a hand-drawn image, the exhibition "The Niceist Group of People I Ever Meet," which opens on Saturday, June 18, features work from two Milk River Arts artists, Andrea Budu-inspire and Lewis Woodhead.

The work at Milk River Arts falls into two categories: supporting studio artists in their growth and professional development through mentorship, exhibitions, and sales, while also engaging their artists in the larger community through community projects and partnerships. “Our community projects are when we call in a larger community to make something big and collaborative with lots of co-creators and no clear lines around authorship,” Kemp explains. “Everybody brings something to the table, sort of like a potluck.”

There are various ways for folks to plug in, some of which take just a few minutes, like helping to write a card or paint a banner. “Some ways are pretty intense, like when supporting artists and friends spend a few days or a few weeks with us,” Kemp says. “It's a way to share our process and our vision with a much broader group.”

Where Milk River Arts shines is in how its mentors are able to make a difference with the artists. The emphasis is on depth, with deep, slow relationship building. While one-on-one mentorship may not make financial sense for most organizations, Milk River Arts has almost no turnover of artists or mentors year after year.

"Six Gold Smiles," a watercolor by artist Lewis Woodhead.
  • "Six Gold Smiles," a watercolor by artist Lewis Woodhead.

“We have ridiculously, highly qualified artist mentors sharing studio time with our artists every week. Talking about color, advising on the tiniest decisions about composition, working not to constrain but to support the freedom and creativity and choice of the artist,” Kemp explains. “It's not just strong work that emerges from this process, it’s also strong, trusting relationships and personal growth and that’s what’s profound. We’re small in numbers and huge in connection and empowerment.”

In addition to the help the Highpoint is providing, the show will require some financial assistance to showcase the artists’ work in the best light. The exhibition will include 72 paintings and prints along with four fiber sculptures which require framing and installation. Morrison has reached out to local corporate sponsors but is also looking to crowd-sourcing methods to make the show a reality. Those looking to help can donate at milkriverarts.org/donate.

Kemp sees art making as not just an answer to the artists' questions of how to occupy their time, but more importantly, as a way to define their meaning and place in the community, just as it is for all professional artists.

“Art is a way to be seen, to be valued, to be understood, to participate. Art is about communication, and so it must be exhibited and sold to be truly complete,” she insists. “We're here to guide our artists through every step of the creative process, and exhibitions and sales are an important step in that process.”

Choosing the artists for the show came easily to Kemp.

“Andrea and Lewis just had work that was ripe, so it was the right moment for them to exhibit it for a larger audience,” says Kemp. “Their work had gone through a long process of growth, a slow build for over a year. Now it’s time for celebrating their accomplishments and seeing where their work goes next!”

UPDATED: "The Niceist Group of People I Ever Meet" opens Saturday, June 18 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Highpoint, 3300 W. Broad St., thehighpointrichmond.com, milkriverarts.org