Access Arts celebrates 50 years of creative experiences.
There’s something soothing about working with clay, which may be why pottery classes are among the most popular at Access Arts — and also what they’re most known for in the community. From classes on pottery to fiber arts, Access Arts provides a welcoming environment for anyone interested in exploring art.
“We meet you where you’re at,” says Shawna Johnson, executive director of Access Arts. “Most people who come to us are beginners. If you’re interested in pottery and have never touched clay, you’re not alone in that.”
The philosophy of working with all ages, levels, and abilities is central to Access Arts’ mission and commitment to providing creative learning experiences for everyone. The nonprofit is celebrating 50 years of offering art classes and workshops for all in the community. It’s a mission the organization takes very seriously. “Everything we do is creative — a learning experience,” says Shawna. “We try to accommodate everyone.”
A History of Service through Art
Known as the School of Service when it was founded in 1971 by Hurst John, an accomplished architect and visionary, the organization first began as an integrated learning program. Hurst was inspired to start the program after watching his son, who had cerebral palsy, interact with others.
In 1979, after Hurst’s death, Naoma Powell became the next director. Naoma was known throughout the local art community for her dedication and passion for the arts, and it was during her tenure that the organization became known as Access Arts.
Shawna says that, while the program still serves people with disabilities, they also offer programs for everyone in the community. “We definitely still offer adaptive programs, but we want people to know there’s something here for them,” she says.
Currently, Access Arts offers adult and youth classes in six-week sessions for a variety of fine art and traditional crafts media, including clay, fiber arts, painting, and drawing. Summer camps for kids ages 5 and up are also popular, offering creative learning for school-age children outside of normal school activities.
In addition to the regular classes for all ages and levels, advanced learners can take advantage of Access Arts’ studio spaces, which allow them to work independently year-round. Other programs include the teaching-intensive artist in residence program and outreach to provide art education at local schools, festivals, and organizations.
Growing and Celebrating 50 Years
In a typical year, Access Arts reaches about 4,500 people through its different offerings, from in-house classes to outreach efforts. Like many other organizations, they had to pivot their plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had a lot more inquiries during the pandemic because people were learning how to deal with the stress in their own lives, and art has always been a way to do that,” says Shawna. “We saw an increase in requests for services when, at the same time, we were not able to expand physically.”
The organization was forced to think about how they could help more people in a new way, and one result was art kits with supplies and instructions for both adults and kids. They assembled several hundred kits to distribute throughout the city and made them available for order online. “People would send the kits to friends or family in other parts of the country and do the project together,” Shawna says. “Overall it enabled us to connect with a lot of people in new ways. A lot of silver linings came out of it that we’re really grateful for now.”
Celebrating a 50th anniversary also looks different during a pandemic, so once again Access Arts found creative ways to celebrate all year. “Access Arts has so many different facets, it was impossible to come up with one thing,” Shawna says. Each month, they’re celebrating with a different theme to explore and highlight some of the exciting things they’ve done. July’s theme was the ever-popular clay, with a featured clay scavenger hunt for ceramics students.
With their “50 in the 50th” campaign, Access Arts is asking supporters to give $50 each month of 2021; of those funds, $10 will go toward operating expenses and the remaining $40 will go into a building fund. With three buildings currently part of its campus and a fourth building recently being rented, they would like to develop revenue to purchase another building.
As they look toward the next 50 years and beyond, Access Arts wants to grow not only its facilities, but also the people and organizations they serve. “Our classes and programs give people common ground,” says Shawna. “By doing art together, we grow as individuals and as a community. That’s what Access Arts does best — we create the environment to provide those conversations and opportunities to bring people together.”
1724 McAlester St