Harborside Studios:  A Place Without Dragons

“I love what I do,” says Program Director Michelle Ault as she points to a simple wind chime hanging from a window in the corner of the gallery. “In eight years, we’ve gone from that, to this.”

She now points toward a beautiful painting of a caterpillar—a cheery representation of circles and color that sits below the window, the sun glinting off its plastic protector.  Her gesture is to show the growth she has seen over the past eight years, not only in the program, but in the artists as well.

Ault is the director of Harborside Studios, a division of UPARC, Inc., an adult day program for developmentally disabled adults. The gallery and studio at 176 5th Avenue North in Safety Harbor is a cheerful yellow building with umbrella-covered picnic tables out front. The gallery there is a showcase of all the artists’ beautiful clay bowls, wind chimes, paintings, yard art, charms, ornaments, vases, calendars, plaques, greeting cards, and more.

“We just want people to know who we are what we do,” says Ault. “There are many Safety Harbor residents who still don’t know we’re here, but we want more community awareness.”

Most of the iDSCN1380nventory has a high turn around.  The artists receive 60% of each sale for their work, except for several treasured pieces in Ault’s office.  “I always buy the first of an artist’s work,” she says. ”That way the artist gets a guaranteed first paycheck.”

In the next room, a bright open space full of tables, students chat amicably to one another as they concentrate on individual projects. The artists love visitors and they are proud of their work. Talking with them reveals how happy they are with what they are doing at Harborside.

“I do painting, clay, and coloring. I love art work,” says Vinnie. “I love all the things we can do.” Then he pauses and smiles wide. “I love money.”

“I’m painting wisdom cards,” says Jason, as he looks up from a painting of a woman, her face surrounded by a vibrant red border.  His painting reads, I love myself.

Peter loves to paint Tampa Bay Rays or Buccaneers designs on clay. “Clay is my favorite part,” he says. “I like to paint. It’s my second favorite part. I like people at UPARC. I made a lot of friends here.”

Being here, amongst the artists, volunteers and staff, you wouldn’t know Michelle Ault faces challenges like budget cuts and lack of financial support. “We survive off community awareness, selling our wares, and donations. We depend on the community to write checks, and to offer their time volunteering. It’s up to the community to help us survive. “

She takes a moment to look at a student’s clay fish, ready for the kiln. “The day I don’t want to come to work is the day I need to quit,” she says. “I love what I do. I never know what each day is going to hold. It’s exciting, challenging.”

Holly sits in her wheelchair, painting a picture of her living room. “The reason I come here is I get to do my own creations,” she says. “I’m very detailed. I like to put a lot of thought in my paintings. I think of it and I put it on paper, or clay, or crocheting.”

“Holly just bought a computer,” Ault says.” She has voice activation so she is writing her autobiography.”

“I wDSCN1379ant to go to college too,” Holly adds.

Tanya is painting a picture of a teapot with flowers on it. She takes a break to stretch her hands.  “I stopped shaking. When I calm myself down, I stop shaking.” She lifts her painting. “It’s going to sell at Syd Entel,” she says, talking about their annual fundraiser on August 24 at Syd Entel Galleries.

Carrie doesn’t like to get messy, but she loves working with clay. Michelle laughs with her as they talk about how long it takes for Carrie to shoot when they play basketball.  Holly turns her wheelchair to go to lunch, and on the back is a sticker: Stomp out all disability dragons. It’s something she wrote—a  message to folks like us who perhaps  aren’t as wise as she is

“You have one too, but I can’t see it, ”Holly says. “Everybody has a disability, but you see ours different. The dragon represents people throwing them away. That’s your disability. You’ve got to remember that, okay?”

Harborside Studio’s gallery is open 5 days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They also are open during special events such as large arts & crafts festivals, Third Fridays and Wine Fest. Their annual fundraiser will be held at Syd Entel Galleries on Wednesday, August 24, 2011. Michelle Ault can be reached at 727-793-2792.

Article Written By Laura Kepner for Destination Tampa Bay magazine