UT Art Education Alumna on finding her true path, the creation of SAGE Studio & Gallery and providing a safe space for artists with disabilities
On a trip to San Francisco where she visited Creativity Explored, one of the oldest art studios in the country for artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), UT alumna Katie Stahl (MA in Art Education, 2013) felt the gears clicking into place. Returning to Austin, Stahl made the decision to switch careers into the arts field, a decision that would eventually lead her down a road to found SAGE Studio, an art gallery and studio for artists with disabilities, in 2016.
The Department of Art and Art History spoke with Stahl about finding her true path, the creation of SAGE and providing a safe space for artists with disabilities.
AAH: Which came first for you: your involvement and work with persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities or your work with artists?
Katie Stahl: I grew up making art, and in college I did student teaching in an elementary art classroom and taught art at a summer camp in Maine. I majored in psychology and did a year and a half in a graduate program in child psychology at UT before realizing it wasn't the right fit. After I left the program, I discovered the field of disability arts on a trip to San Francisco, where I visited Creativity Explored. I was blown away by the incredible art I saw and the artists I met. When I got back to Austin, I made the decision to pursue a career in the field. I applied to the Art Education graduate program at UT and began to volunteer at the Arc of the Arts, an art-based day-habilitation program in Austin that serves adults with IDD, where I eventually became an art instructor. My final year at UT, I had the opportunity to write my graduate thesis on Creativity Explored and best practices in progressive art studios that serve artists with disabilities.
AAH: How did SAGE come to fruition?
KS: My now partner Lucy Gross and I met in 2013 at the Arc, a fantastic program similar to Creativity Explored. Lucy and I realized early on that we have a similar aesthetic and gravitate toward the same artists, and after we both left the Arc in 2015, we spent the next couple of years daydreaming about opening our own studio and gallery that would focus on supporting artists with disabilities on their path to becoming working artists.
We started SAGE Studio in 2016, and in the beginning, we just worked with one artist, Rick Fleming, whom we had met at the Arc, at Lucy's kitchen table. Once Rick had built a portfolio of work for exhibition and we started working with a second artist, we felt ready to find a space in the community we could use as both a working studio and a gallery. In the spring of 2018, we found a refurbished shipping container in East Austin that felt like the perfect size for what we were doing.
In 2020, we moved SAGE to a refurbished trailer in east Austin's Canopy creative community. Being a part of Canopy—the epicenter of Austin's arts scene—was an aspiration of ours since the beginning, and we were excited for the opportunity for partnerships, collaboration and the ability to give our artists a chance to participate in a community of other studios and galleries. Last fall, a nearly 2000-square-foot space in Building 2 of Canopy opened up. Making the move to this much larger space meant we could work with more artists simultaneously following a set studio schedule and to maintain a separate gallery space for the first time, enabling us to have more art shows, represent more artists and bring new eyes to our artists' work to truly give our artists the workspace and exhibition space their practices deserve.
AAH: What opportunities does SAGE offer and what impact have you seen?
KS: We have two main programs at SAGE, our Studio Program and our Exhibition Program. Through our Studio Program, artists create work in our space, with all materials provided for them. The goal for participating artists is to explore new mediums, strengthen their artistic voice, and build a cohesive portfolio of work. Through our Exhibition Program, we host bimonthly exhibitions in our gallery to showcase the work of our studio artists, alongside artists with IDD from across the country.
Additionally, we participate in outside exhibitions, most notably the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. We have also facilitated collaborations between our artists and nationally recognized partners, including Vans shoes, Whataburger and the Biden presidential campaign. Vans featured the work of artist Charlie French on a pair of shoes they sold on their website, while the Biden campaign featured a portrait by artist Rick Fleming on a sold out tote bag. These opportunities are hugely impactful when it comes to increasing the visibility of artists with IDD. On a personal level, it was extremely cool to see Rick, a huge Biden supporter, connect with Biden via Zoom and gain so many new fans as a result of the collaboration.
AAH: Why is it important to you to help provide a safe space and support for artists with disabilities?
KS: The types of jobs available to adults with IDD are generally limited, and people with disabilities aren't given much choice when it comes to career paths. We offer participants the opportunity to create art and also benefit financially from the work they are creating. The concept of artists with IDD doing what they love, and then exhibiting and selling their work while connecting with other artists in the community, was the impetus behind SAGE.
AAH: What kind of community does SAGE create around this work and how does that translate to the work itself and the artists?
KS: Since we transitioned into our new space, we have developed individual work stations for up to six artists to work simultaneously. Our new location gives us a unique opportunity to provide marginalized artists a chance to participate in a larger art community. Historically, there have been few truly integrated spaces in which people with and without disabilities work side by side. We try to create an egalitarian community that mitigates the effect of segregation and seclusion through open studio hours, gallery visits, exhibitions, collaborations and events such as the Austin Studio Tour. There is also a strong community of progressive studios operating all across the country, and we are lucky to be able to showcase the work of artists from other studios in our exhibitions.
AAH: What are some things everyday persons and artists can do to help make the art world more accessible overall?
KS: The main thing I'd suggest is to seek out artists operating outside the often exclusionary confines of the contemporary art world. Social media, especially Instagram, has increased access and exposure for artists with disabilities and following artists and other progressive studios and sharing their work is a great way to increase the visibility of these artists.