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OHIO students find creativity and community through Passion Works

Published: November 12, 2021 Author: Samantha Pelham

Throughout homes, offices and businesses in Athens, colorful, metal flowers ranging from big to small adorn desks and walls. These vibrant flowers are more than just decoration; they symbolize an organization that has been impacting the Athens community and Ohio University students for more than 23 years.

Passion Works is an asset-based organization that brings the Athens community together by inspiring and liberating the human spirit through the arts, working with artists of all abilities, including those with development differences, to create art infused with hope and joy. This studio has also become a place where Ohio University students have come to explore their creativity, relax, create connection, integrate themselves more into the Athens community, and learn from others.

Over the years, Passion Works and Ohio University have created a partnership that has allowed for students to intern and volunteer, taking with them new skills and experiences that have paved the way for their success.

The University partnership we have is powerful for both students and this community,” Patty Mitchell, director of Passion Works, said. “The University does a great job encouraging students to take part in the community and to participate in experiential learning and that’s something Passion Works is dedicated to. It’s about experimenting and discovery. We have people working there of all abilities and it’s really eye opening for students to work alongside people with perceived differences.”

Volunteers can come in and learn the basic skills around the studio like painting, cutting out circles, and production jobs, then are able to dive into what they’re comfortable with or try something new. Several OHIO students who come in have little to no experience working in this type of creative outlet, however, the artists lead them through the process of letting go and trying new things.

Summerford Passion Works 2
Carrie Summerford poses in front of a wall of artwork made by Passion Works' artists.

Students help with production and find it very relaxing and a nice outlet from their other day-to-day activities,” Mitchell said. “It’s a space where they are welcomed and are free to try new things. We’ve had engineering students design adaptive equipment, as well as medical students come in and spend time with people with development differences so that their first interaction isn’t as a provider and patient. Passion Works is also dedicated to having international students come in and practice conversational English.”

For students like Carrie Summerford, a fourth-year Honors Tutorial College Spanish student from Pickerington, Ohio, Passion Works has influenced her entire college career, even leading her to pick up a second degree in ceramics after finding her love for art again through her work at the studio.

“I’ve always been an artist, but for whatever reason, when I got to college, I decided to pick a very literature-based major,” Summerford said. “Even though I still love my Spanish studies, working at Passion Works made me realize how much I missed dedicating myself to art daily. This is part of the reason I decided to add a BFA degree even though I’m already a senior.”

Summerford first got involved with Passion Works in May 2021 when her dean at the time, Donal Skinner, had funding available for an intern position at Passion Works.

“I’ve loved the studio from afar since coming to Athens, so I jumped at the chance to get involved,” Summerford added. “I applied, interviewed, and they welcomed me in.”

She originally helped out with production of the metal Passion Flower, but after working on those for about two weeks, she was able to get her hands on a sewing machine and start working with fabric products and other textile art, with her favorite project being turning artists’ drawings into patches.

Fiona Avocado, a third-year graduate student in the Printmaking program, got involved with Passion Works two years ago when she needed a part-time job as a graduate student and never left. Like Summerford, she also started her work at the studio by assembling the metal Passion Flowers, but when the pandemic hit and she had to adapt, she started working on textile repeat patterns and sewing quilts. Once she returned to the studio, she was able to both advance her studies and the studio by helping launch Passion Works’ screen printing studio.

Fiona Avocado Passion Works

The experience of working with an arts organization and helping them integrate printmaking is something I’ve always wanted to do, and with Passion Works I finally am able to do that,” Avocado said. “I've realized I love the combination of production and collaboration and see it being a continued part of my studio practice beyond my time at Ohio University.”

Part of Passion Works history is using what’s available to make art, as well manifesting ideas from the volunteers and students that come into the studio.

We recognize that students are also resources to us and this community and that we can be a resource for them, so if we build an environment to welcome students and allow them to grow, we can ebb and flow together,” Mitchell said.

For Avocado, Passion Works has not only been a space for her to advance her art but is a place that brings in people from all different walks of life together and provides a space for people with developmental differences to succeed and be integrated into society.

Passion Works has really helped me feel connected to the Athens community, especially during the pandemic where social interactions were really limited,” Avocado added. “I love the core artists, I love the team of people I work with. I'm always learning something new and meeting new people.”

Students have worked in many capacities at Passion Works, from holding yoga classes to marching in the Honey for the Heart parade on Halloween weekend, to making puppets for the parade, painting the graffiti wall and other walls around Athens, creating graphic design for the studio, and even working with the Kennedy Art Museum on shows.

Prior to the pandemic, Passion Works hosted the Honey for the Heart parade over the last 10 years on Halloween weekend, an event that many community members looked forward to, and even more OHIO students help with. Although the parade has been canceled the last two years due to COVID, in the past, this parade has been one of the major projects that entices students to get involved and where Passion Works finds the vast majority of new volunteers. Honey for the Heart is also sponsored by Arts for Ohio and Ohio University Learning Communities.

Honey for the Heart 2015
The annual Honey for the Heart Parade heads up Court Street on Halloween, 2015.

Mitchell explained that Passion Works normally partners with Learning Community Programs during fall semester to get new students involved in the community. Through the Learning Community Leaders organizing events and volunteering with Passion Works, many students come together to create the puppets for the Honey for the Heart parade and even take part in the parade.

Regardless of how long students work with Passion Works, the experiences and lessons learned are carried with them throughout life. Kelly Jacoby, a 2011 graduate who earned a Bachelor’s in Specialized Studies focused on art therapy, got involved with Passion Works through a class and continued volunteering for the studio throughout college.

I made really great relationships with the artists who had developmental differences and with the other local artists volunteering and the staff,” Jacoby said. “I clicked with Patty right away and she became a mentor to me, helping me through the art program and teaching me how to create art in the public sphere. She taught me how to put yourself in a public setting and collaborate with people unlike you within the community, an idea that changed my career as I went forward.”

After graduating, Jacoby got a job at an art studio in Cincinnati where she was able to apply the ideas she learned from Passion Works, like thinking outside of the box, reusing materials, upcycling, and collaborating within the community, into her new job. While working in Cincinnati, Mitchell even hired Jacoby back on as an artist-in-residence in the Creative Abundance group which hosts programs for adults with development differences nationally.

I don’t know what my college experience would’ve been like without Passion Works because I associate a lot of my memories and experiences with the organization. It was so profound to me both professionally and personally,” Jacoby said. “It encouraged me to make connections with people I would’ve never met, it pushed me to connect with local shop owners and artists and expand my networking circle while I was in school. I was really able to get that real world experience here and every job I’ve gotten since has come from those early experiences.”

According to Summerford, Passion Works is a place she plans to continue to work on herself and her art, but at the end of the day it’s the artists she’s been able to work with who have developmental differences who are the soul of the place.

“The work Passion Works is doing by helping provide meaningful, fulfilling work to the artists, who might otherwise be doing repetitive, often dehumanizing jobs, is extremely important,” Summerford said. “This is a place where a marginalized group of people have a better place to go, and the community itself is enriched from having their voices heard. Students should get involved to keep the conversation going and one of the great things about OHIO is that it brings people from all sorts of backgrounds to the same place. The more people, the more voices, the more possibility for collaboration.”