Forward Thinking

SkylArc Studios is an art studio and education facility that occupies a space on the lower level of Lownes House of Shoppes in Penn Yan. Lately, it has been attracting a lot of attention. The studio is home to approximately 31 artists, and produces and sells pieces of all shapes, sizes and mediums. Work from the studios has been in juried art shows, where it has come away with numerous awards. It has also made a name for itself among art enthusiasts and collectors as a first-rate choice for Finger Lakes-related art. What makes SkylArc studios unique is that, as the name indicates, it is a facet of the Arc of Yates organization.

The studio began in 2003 as a paid-work program that ran two days per week and employed five consumers – the agency’s term for those individuals who “consume” its services – to produce mosaic landscape stepping stones to be sold. The program was terminated after a short period of time, only to be brought back by consumer demand. Upon its revival, a different approach was taken. “A paid-work program centers around production and sales,” says Dot Winger, the studio’s manager, “and we thought it would be a good idea to get away from that, to turn to a more relaxed and educational atmosphere where these guys could learn something about art and put it to use.”

Winger’s decision to shift the program’s priorities and change the concept behind SkylArc Studios was a successful one. The unique atmosphere of SkylArc sets it apart from other Arc of Yates programs and, in fact, has become a source of inspiration for them. “The transition at SkylArc is a big part of where this agency is headed,” says Paul Miller, manager of sales and operations at Keuka Lake Enterprises, the agency’s manufacturing division. It is also turning to a more educational approach. “Our goal is to provide the individuals we serve with the skills necessary to succeed in the surrounding community and to foster motivation and self direction. SkylArc is doing that.”

The scene at SkylArc is predictable for an art studio, but the shared responsibility between the participants and the staff allows for a more natural progression than if the program drew its guidelines from a manual or a textbook. “We just kind of let things go,” says Winger. “We take a very relaxed approach and let things progress as they may. The rules that we have and the lessons that we teach are planned with equal input from artists and staff, and we’ve learned to set our expectations high because our artists always rise to the occasion.”

Winger has managed the program from the beginning, working with Janice Miller, who has since moved on to another position within the agency. She remains involved, but says that it has grown beyond any of her initial plans. “We no longer have to put ourselves out there to get into art shows or have our merchandise be a last resort for art lovers. We have an open-door policy for viewers and buyers alike, and the studio has become a heavily trafficked area. On top of all of that, and on a much deeper level, we are changing public perception of our individuals; we are changing the label that has been borne upon those in need of our services. No longer is this person a consumer or a set disability, he or she is an artist and that’s a big deal.”

Chelsea Xidis, the studio’s new-hire art teacher, also attributes much of the studio’s success to its environment. “The artists are free to question, explore, express interest, and be completely creative without fear of any rebuke or consequence, and that is vital not only to any creative space but also to any learning space.”

Chelsea is one of four new hires within the Arc of Yates agency who happens to be New York State certified teachers. It’s a hiring trend that has parts of the agency looking to restructure and make use of its resources. “The job market for young teachers today is rough,” says Paul Miller. “Many of them are coming out of graduate school to discover that work in the public and private school system is scarce. We can’t afford to pass up the opportunity to have them here as part of what we are doing. The ‘lack of experience’ that leaves these young teachers passed over means that they are coming to us with the passion and creativity of youth, and with new, non traditional approaches that come in handy when we are trying to change decades of tradition.”

“It isn’t the easiest,” says Xidis, who had to adjust her curriculum to fit a more tempered pace at the studio, “but it is rewarding to see the results that we’re all seeing, from a group of people who are constantly underestimated.”

Among the first lessons she taught with the SkylArc group concerned the concept of positive and negative space. The artists filled in silhouette outlines with magazine clippings of their choosing. “It gives them a chance to express their personality and interests through ready-made images of popular culture, and it gives me the chance to pick up on their personalities and interests, and get to know the artists better as individuals,” she says. “Where we go from here is up to them.”

Staff at SkylArc always gauge the next step by the feel that they get from the artists. Having their voices heard is a big step for these individuals says Winger. “It gives our artists a sense of self-esteem to have a say in how things are done, just as it gives them a sense of self-worth when they see a piece of their artwork go out the door. It gives the staff a reward – to just sit back a little and watch our individuals grow as artists and as members of the community. It all comes around full circle.”

This effect, this cooperation between consumers and staff and the outcome, is what others like Paul Miller want to spread. “The drive to create something, to be a part of something of worth is what we want to see develop in all of the individuals that we serve. SkylArc illustrates what can happen by simplifying things and putting the human element back in human services. Now we need to actively try to re-create this across the agency and hope for the same results.”

Currently, the studio offers mosaic stepping stones, furniture, papier-mâché projects, jewelry, paintings, glass art and more. Some of the art at SkylArc is commissioned by buyers; what is not is often spoken for prior to completion. This is quite an accomplishment for a little shop off Main Street, “but we’re not done,” says Winger. “With the influx of new staff like Chelsea, and new ideas coupled with the enthusiasm and encouragement of veterans who are excited by the change they see and want more, there will be even bigger changes to come.”

Traditionally the skylark is a bird that nests on the ground, then takes flight and hovers to create and sing its tune. Like the skylark, these artists live on the ground in their community and attend Winger’s studio to create and soar. Don’t expect them to stay still long – there is always forward and there is always upward.


by Elijah McCarthy