Artists with special needs are thriving at a West Bloomfield studio that provides them with a community and creative outlet and has remained an important touchstone throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The local non-profit Friendship Circle provides assistance and support to 3,000 people with special needs and their families through recreational, social, educational and vocational programs. The organization, which also provides support for individuals and families struggling with isolation, addiction and other family crises, was founded in 1994.
At the group’s Soul Studio site, 5586 Drake Road, exhibitions of in-house artwork are regularly held and artists have many avenues for growth and connectivity.
Jacob Barron of Farmington Hills, one of Soul Studio’s artists, has been visiting the center for four years. Tall and lanky, he towers over everyone he talks to, often sporting a huge grin despite his shyness. His large, dazzling works are popular sellers and were a hit at last month’s “Drawn Together” exhibition.
“It makes me feel really good,” he said. “Very happy.
“One thing I really like about coming here is the environment. And I really like waking up every day and making art. Also, I’ve made a ton of friends who come here, and then there are other people I’ve been friends with for quite a while who decided to come here.
Friendship Circle founder Bassie Shemtov said the organization provides a place where everyone feels welcome and needed, can be empowered and can even receive job training. She believes that the greatest gift people with special needs can give is teaching others how to live life.
“One of our performers, Carly, has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair,” Shemtov said, citing a favorite memory. “She’s a very bright, super positive girl, just a ray of sunshine. One day, during a social lunch with the participants, everyone was asked: ‘If there was anyone in the world you could be one day, who would it be? Everyone shared, and then it was Carly’s turn, and she said, “Carly!
“I was really in shock, because I think a lot of people would probably say super famous person or someone who inspires them. She can’t walk, you know? And here, Carly, in her pure innocence and her zest for life, all she could say was “God made me, and I’m supposed to be Carly.”
“How much better,” Shemtov asked, “would our daily lives be if we learned from these souls?
Elisabeth Lockwood, manager of Soul Studio, joined the team in fall 2021.
“This job is the best burnout I’ve ever had,” Lockwood said. “From the moment (the artists) show up, it’s engaging and instructive. They create beautiful works of art, and I get to see the stories before showing the finished results to the world.
“I feel most effective when relationships are formed between participants – real camaraderie, as a friend, as a mentor, as a support. Seeing those moments is the culmination of my work here at the studio.
Caryn Martel of Farmington Hills is another artist whose work has been featured in Soul Studio’s ‘Drawn Together’ exhibit. Chatty and quick to laugh, with a bright purple streak in her hair, she also spoke about the social enrichment aspect of Friendship Circle.
“It changed my life,” she says. “Before, I didn’t have many friends. I had no one to talk to. But I come here on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and now I have a social network. That’s wonderful.”
The “Drawn Together” exhibition was curated by studio instructor Victor Williams, who for the first time took the approach of hanging art at multiple levels, including wheelchair height for visitors with a physical disability.
“I love seeing how artists are able to uplift each other,” he said. “They are very encouraging; it is heartwarming. Every day here you get three or four comforting experiences.
“There’s a gentleman named Jesse coming in, and he’s mostly non-verbal. But he’s transitioning from sign language to speaking, and we’ve gotten to the point where he’s going to tap me on the shoulder and nudge – instead of a high five, for sanitation – and it makes you feel really good. Because he’s glad to see you.
Inside the Soul Studio location is its own restaurant, Soul Café, where adults with special needs undergo vocational training and work as baristas, cooks and cashiers. A warm and brightly lit environment, Soul Café is also home to one of the only kosher Starbucks franchises in the world. At any open house, people from the local community can be seen networking at business meetings, working on laptops, having lunch with friends.
“Soul Café is our window to society, so to speak,” Shemtov said. “What I love about the concept is that right next to it is our natural opportunity to invite the general public into the world of our people with special needs.”
“We want everyone to feel extremely comfortable and welcome at the Friendship Circle,” she said. “And we are here to unite as a community in our own right. We want people to learn from each other and contact us when they need help. None of us is complete without all of us being included.