Author Archives: Robin Schwartz

A Red Potato in A Minor: New Soul Studio Exhibition

Abstract artworks will hang from the ceilings and extend off the walls at the Friendship Circle Farber Center in West Bloomfield during the newest Dresner Foundation Soul Studio exhibition titled A Red Potato in A Minor. The show opens Thursday, Aug. 16 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and runs through November 9, featuring the work of Soul Studio artists with special needs. Visitors can expect to step into another world.

By Jonathan Barnett


“It’s going to be a memorable experience,” says Exhibitions & Program Manager Anthony Marcellini. “The paintings, sculptures and other works featured in this exhibition will explore the complexity of abstract expression and how artists communicate their world through that lens.”

“At Soul Studio, many of our artists use abstract art to convey emotions and sensations,” Marcellini explains. “It’s a way to represent their experience, which can sometimes get lost in common forms of communication.”

Synesthesia, a sensorial phenomenon, is the inspiration for the show. It is a stimulation of one sense that leads to an automatic, involuntary stimulation of another. In other words, the pathways of individual sensations become crossed. A person may “feel” a color, “smell” a sound, or “taste” a note.

By Dylan Somberg


Several artists at Soul Studio have some form of synesthesia and the title for the show is an innovative quote from one of them. Sam Morris is a participating artist with perfect auditory pitch. He translates visual colors and textures into notes and tones. When he’s presented with a red potato, Sam says he hears the musical note A minor. When asked if A minor can be purple, he adamantly replies, “No, it is red; it has to be red.” Synesthesia, like all life experiences, is never perceived exactly the same way by everyone. Sam may register A minor as red, while others may see canary yellow; it is a completely individualized perception.

Visual abstraction is like Sam sensing “a red potato in A minor.” The statement is non-linear and abides by a different system of logic, but speaks directly to an individual’s sensual lived experience. Abstract art parallels synesthesia in that stories, memories, and emotions are not represented directly. Memories of sadness may be expressed in blue washes of color, or a birthday party might be represented by orange with yellow and pink circles. For the viewer, abstract art triggers an experience that may be completely different from the one that inspired the artist.

Like synesthesia, the experience abstraction evokes is different for everyone and may not be quick or easy to communicate. Abstraction requires the viewer to slow down, meet it halfway, and to listen, smell, or feel, in an uncertain space where meaning is driven by sensation and emotion.

By Alyssa Gold


WHEN: Friday, August 17 – Friday, November 9, 2018
*Opening Night is Thursday, August 16, 6-8pm (Soul Cafe will be open from 5-8pm)

WHERE: 5586 Drake Road, West Bloomfield, MI

Soul Studio is a project of Friendship Circle of Michigan. Artists receive 40% of the proceeds from the sale of their work. Learn more: friendshipcircle.org/soul

Featured image by Megan Donley

Chalking It Up! Soul Studio artists get creative with renowned chalk artist David Zinn

The sidewalk outside Soul Café sprang to life with whimsical creatures and playful collaboration during a recent chalk art workshop for Soul Studio artists.

The late-morning lesson led by Ann Arbor-based street artist David Zinn began with the basics: the supplies every serious chalk artist must have and the techniques to make their art really pop.

Use charcoal to create contrast, he said. Use your finger to blend the chalk into the sidewalk’s uneven surfaces. And those cracks and blemishes? Don’t avoid them, he said. Oftentimes, they can spark an idea and serve as the starting point for your next masterpiece.

From there, Zinn delved into the subject of surreal art on a deeper level, talking about the emotions behind the art. He shared with the group why he prefers surreal art to the status quo.

“I learned after a while that if I was drawing an animal and I started to get to a part I couldn’t draw, I had two choices: I could stop and study and try to work really hard to learn how to draw dog legs or I could just draw a dog-topus and put tentacles where the legs would have been,” Zinn said. “No one can tell me that I did it wrong because it’s never existed until just now.”

When criticism, pressure and the expectations of others are washed away, the artistic soul is free to shine. It was this premise that eventually prompted Zinn to leave his job as a freelance commercial artist and let his creativity flourish unfettered on sidewalks across the country.

“Chalk art is so … temporary and anonymous that it makes it, for me, a thousand times easier just to make art for the joy of making art.”

Can’t decide what to draw? Dream it up, he said.

Not sure which colors to use? Blend several to create your own.

After all, chalk art is meant to be fun.

Zinn then invited the group to gather some supplies and create whatever came to mind.

And that they did.

Megan Donley was among the first to finish her drawing, a little pastel turtle with a larger-than-life smile that rivaled her own.

“He’s smiling at you,” she said. “I like happy turtles – not snappy turtles.”

Satisfied with her creation, she turned her focus on the work of others, like Tyrese Hall, whose vision seemed to grow and grow and grow. First came an out-of-this-world alien, then an eye-catching sun and, lastly, a silly snake in a top hat.

Many of the sidewalk creations underwent several transformations during the workshop. Lindsey Pringle’s pink whale, for example, morphed into an owl by session’s end. And, somehow a pastel piglet popped up behind Tyrese’s alien.

There’s’ something about sidewalk chalk art that brings people together.

Children especially find it hard to resist, Zinn said.

And Thursday’s workshop proved no different.

As the artists drew their hearts out, passers-by took notice. Curiosity turned into delight as café patrons and others stopped by for a closer look at the colorful concrete canvas.

“This is absolutely beautiful,” one woman said.

“Amazing,” said another.

“Which one of you is Banksy (the anonymous graffiti artist),” an intrigued bystander asked in jest.

Zinn’s reply was swift:

“We are all Banksy.”

Keep your eyes open! Some serious chalk art could be coming to a sidewalk near you. This summer, several Detroit area cities will feature chalk art created by a Soul Studio artist. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for the latest. When you spot the chalk art, snap a photo and post it with the hashtag #4Friendship and you could win a prize. Stay tuned!

Big Dreams on Two Wheels – Friendship Circle Hosts iCan Bike Camp

They came, they biked, and, best of all, they beamed with pride.

Such was the scene Tuesday at West Bloomfield High School, where children with special needs made lap after lap around the gym, during Day 2 of the five-day iCan Bike camp hosted by Friendship Circle.

With the help of nearly 20 young volunteers and program staffers, participants made tremendous strides toward reaching their goal of riding a bicycle all on their own. Whether it was wearing a helmet for the first time or quickly rounding the orange cones on specially-equipped bikes with little help from spotters, each child triumphed on his or her own terms.
Rounds of applause and words of encouragement filled the room, in true Friendship Circle fashion.

“iCan Bike is an awesome way to get families connected with Friendship Circle and to tell them all about who we are and what we do,” said Erin Berry, Friendship Circle program manager. “This also helps us connect with the wider community as a whole – and building supportive connections is what Friendship Circle is all about.”

The weeklong camp consists of five 75-minute sessions each day. In all, 40 children are participating this year, thanks to word-of-mouth and social media outreach, Berry said.

For several years now, Friendship Circle has hosted the bike camp run by iCan Shine, a St. Louis-based organization that provides unique recreational learning opportunities for people with disabilities across the country. The two iCan Shine staffers conducting the West Bloomfield camp – Amanda Bartolotta of Buffalo, N.Y., and Eric Marr of St. Louis – will spend their summer traveling from state to state, teaching scores of children with special needs how to ride a bike. The pair work together – Marr as bike technician and Bartolotta as floor supervisor — to ensure each session runs smoothly.

Tuesday’s camp theme was Tandem Tuesday, Bartolotta explained.

In addition to riding the roller bikes, which have a safety roller instead of a rear tire to simulate the feel of riding on two wheels, campers had a chance to take a spin on a special tandem bike with Marr.

“We use it as a diagnostic tool to see what they need to work on,” he said. “If it’s steering, pedaling, leaning … we can diagnose that from taking them on a ride. It’s helpful in giving them interventions later on throughout the week.”

While campers rode the roller bikes, volunteers, many of whom were local high school students, were at their side, cheering them on. It was hard to tell who was having more fun – the campers or the volunteers.

That was the case for Anika Ghosh, an incoming freshman at West Bloomfield High School and a first-time volunteer at the camp. She relished all the smiles.

“It’s nice to see the campers happy and know that they can achieve their goals,” she said.

Learning to ride a bike can open up a whole new world of opportunities for children with special needs, children like Ryan Irwin of White Lake, for whom this childhood rite of passage seemed out of reach just days before.

His mother, Patty Irwin, said she was moved to tears Monday when she saw her 14-year-old son ride a bike for the first time.

“I cried,” she said, “because he’s been trying to ride since he was 4, and this, to me, is awesome.”

Click HERE to learn more about iCanBike.

Baird Cares! Volunteers Visit LifeTown

It was not a typical day at the office for wealth management teams from Baird in Birmingham. Jay Godfrey, branch manager, took on the role of a police officer during a recent visit to LifeTown at Friendship Circle’s Weinberg Village. His job? To patrol the 5,000 square foot, true to life cityscape, making sure our visiting special needs students followed the rules for the road. Godfrey has fond memories of a previous visit where he was the “ice cream guy,” scooping ice cream and dishing out smiles.

“I think you get back a lot more than you give here,” he said. “It’s so heartwarming.”

Baird’s Birmingham office visited Friendship Circle in May during the company’s global initiative of “Baird Gives Back.” The financial services corporation supports and encourages its employees to go into their communities and make a difference. This was the second time the company chose to volunteer at LifeTown.
Baird Birmingham Office
“I saw the purple and white Friendship Circle stickers around town over the years,” Godfrey says. “It’s just fabulous here-the different sensory rooms, the village, the gym, Soul Studio and Soul Cafe – it’s truly a gem.”

While Godfrey was doing police work, his colleague, Jordan Rosenberg, was busy in the pet shop. Rosenberg’s in-laws are among Friendship Circle’s founding sponsors. His wife, children and other family members regularly volunteer.

“Friendship Circle does an incredible job in our community,” he said. “We feel it’s important to go beyond our role as financial advisors practicing wealth management to help people’s entire wellness. That means giving back and making a difference and we have a special affinity for this organization.”

The group also visited other local nonprofit groups throughout the week. Rosenberg says it’s all part of Baird’s unique culture.

“For the 15th consecutive year, we’re listed among Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to work for,” he said proudly. “This is one piece of it-that we go beyond just the financial bottom line.”

WANT TO VOLUNTEER?

We couldn’t do what we do with the love and support of our amazing volunteers. Interested in volunteering with Friendship Circle? We could use help in our Soul Studio, an art program and exhibition space dedicated to the creative growth and expression of adults with special needs. Our program runs Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Click here to complete our volunteer application form or contact volunteer coordinator Maggie Egrin via email or by calling (248) 788-8600.

Through Felicia’s Eyes

Every day, miracles happen at the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio inside Friendship Circle’s Farber Center as our artists with special needs discover hidden talents they never knew they had. But, Felicia’s story is one for the record books.

The 27-year-old from West Bloomfield, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at just 5 months old, is drawing incredible portraits that make people stop and stare. And she’s doing it in a way no one ever expected. Felicia draws with her eyes using an eye-tracking computer program known as Tobii that’s designed to help paralyzed patients communicate. It’s a new use for the technology that, to our knowledge, has never been tried before.

“Born with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, Felicia Bowers has limited control over her body,” Friendship Circle Director Bassie Shemtov told the crowd at our recent Patron Circle gala. “She cannot speak and rather uses a retina-controlled device called Tobii to speak. But her mind… oh, her mind, it is sharp, witty and determined.”

Following Shemtov’s introduction, Felicia’s latest portrait called ‘The Dancer’ was unveiled, eliciting gasps, tears, and standing ovation from the crowd. The drawing – depicting a dancer in a wheelchair looking back with an outstretched arm – auctioned for $14,500, part of an evening that raised $100,000 for Friendship Circle’s programs. Felicia was all smiles.

“From a young age, I have faced my life with cerebral palsy not with sadness and not with anger – but instead with a positive outlook and a grateful heart for all that I can do,” she told the crowd using the Tobii’s computerized voice to speak. “Everyone is always asking me if my life is hard with cerebral palsy and I always say, ‘No.’ My life is beautiful.

“I have family that love and support me, a boyfriend who thinks the world of me, dreams to become independent – and now a new talent that has been discovered with the help of Soul Studio. I have learned to draw with my eyes and my drawings reflect the beauty I see in myself and my world.”

A Learning Process

Unleashing Felicia’s amazing talent was a learning process, one that took time, patience and creativity. At first, Soul Studio staff members and volunteers devised a special foot brace, enabling Felicia to paint using her right foot with the help of volunteers. She created many colorful paintings using that method – but, they knew she could do more.

Shemtov challenged art instructor Adam LaVoy to dig deeper and find another solution. He borrowed the Tobii and put himself in Felicia’s shoes, experimenting with different ways to use the eye gaze technology to draw. He came up with a system that involves zooming in very close and working on one small detail of a drawing at a time. Felicia tried it, and the end result was jaw dropping. Now, she plans to use her newfound talent to pursue her dreams.

“For many years, I have dreamt of being independent. Being able to live with my boyfriend and do what I want, when I want,” Felicia told the crowd. “Creating these drawings not only helps me express my hopes and dreams for independence, they also give me an opportunity to sell and make a living as an artist… Love and freedom are my dream. And Soul Studio has given me a chance at both.”

Brother International’s Machines Help Make Stunning Pillows

Friendship Circle’s Soul Studio was abuzz with excitement Tuesday as artists and staff put the finishing touches on the newest gallery exhibit, Location, Location, Location, debuting tonight (Thursday, May 17) at 5586 Drake Road in West Bloomfield.

Amid the flurry of activity, Lindsay Pringle sat quietly, watching and listening as staffer Olivia Dixon explained how to use the studio’s table-top loom, a more complicated apparatus than the rigid-heddle loom she’s used to.

Staying focused isn’t always easy for the 30-year-old from Grand Blanc who’s known around the studio as a social butterfly.

“I like hanging out with my friends,” she says with a smile.

“Lindsay loves to joke around when she’s on the floor,” Olivia explains, “but the loom is where she excels.”

Lindsay loves to paint but really seems to gravitate toward weaving, said her mother, Ginger Pringle, who’s also gifted in the fiber arts.

Her daughter agrees.

“I like it,” said Lindsay, whose prized, animal-themed pillows are sure to draw a crowd during the exhibit’s opening night.
Her talent for weaving is evident in each pillow – there are five in all. On the back of each design is Lindsay’s woven artwork, in colors reminiscent of the animal depicted on the front.

The detailed images of the animals – a tiger, sea turtle, parrot, zebra and penguins – are embroidered using a high-tech embroidery machine, one of several pieces of equipment donated by Brother International.

The tiger pillow was Lindsay’s first but the zebra one is her favorite. “I like zebras,” she said as she looked over her creations.

“Lindsay really loves animals,” said her mother, Ginger Pringle, who volunteers at the studio while her daughter attends every Tuesday and Thursday.

Lindsay developed a brain injury at age 2 after coming down with chickenpox. She has been a studio regular for years, starting with the program before the current Farber Center site opened in 2016.

“If it wasn’t so far, we’d be here every day,” said Ginger, who lives in Grand Blanc. At the studio, Ginger often completes woven or embroidered pieces for artists who’ve moved on to other projects.

At home, she and Lindsay work on projects together.

“One of Lindsay’s jobs is to pick out the threads I am going to use because she’s great with colors,” Ginger said. “It gives her a sense of accomplishment, which is something we all need.”

Soul Stories: Dylan Somberg

Animals – bright, colorful and expressive animals – come to life in the artwork and imagination of Soul Studio artist Dylan Somberg of Shelby Township.

“Soul Studio is an artist’s paradise,” Dylan says. “When I come to the Soul Studio, I feel happy, excited, creative.”
Dylan was just 4 or 5 years old, when his mother, Jeannine, says his artistic gift started to take shape. Doodles and sketches gave way to more precise imagery. Patterns began to emerge.

From the time Dylan could pick up a pencil, he began to draw animals.

“It was always very calming for him,” Jeannine recalls. “He can relate to animals, and I think that they relate to him. There is a natural connection.”

Jeannine was determined to nurture her son’s talent. Because art was not part of the curriculum in Dylan’s grade school special education program, she turned elsewhere, enrolling Dylan in private art and photography classes.
And then she discovered Soul Studio, which she says has been a godsend for her son.

“Soul Studio is an incredible place,” Jeannine says. “They’ve taken his strengths, they’ve taken his goals and are providing continued vocational training for his career.

“It’s made such a difference in [Dylan’s] life.”

A fan of abstract and impressionist art, Dylan says the value of art lies not just in the aesthetic but in the friendship it fosters and the joy it brings to others. In addition to painting and drawing, he enjoys using computer design, laser cutting and engraving to enhance his geometric creations.

“Being able to sell something that people want is wonderful,” says Dylan, who has autism. “I (feel) happy and proud that I made that.”

After he took first place in an amateur digital photography contest, Dylan dreamed of a means to share his artwork with the world.

From this, Dylan’s Photographic Arts was born.

Through his business, created with the help of his CPA mom, Dylan digitally transforms photographs of clients’ beloved pets into cherished pop art reminiscent of the great Andy Warhol.

Asked which animal is his favorite, Dylan, who has a cat and dog of his own, responds: “All of them.”

Click here to view and purchase some of Dylan’s Soul Studio creations.

New ‘Animal Friends’ Program Brings Wags + Smiles

Six furry friends marched through the doors of Friendship Circle’s Meer Family Friendship Center on Thursday and right into the hearts of all who met them.

The therapy dogs and their handlers visited the West Bloomfield center for the first session of a new pilot program called “Animal Friends” – the first of its kind at Friendship Circle.

“It is a six-week-long program that seeks to give our participants hands-on interaction experience with animals, educate them about humane animal treatment and pet care and allow them to benefit from the therapeutic aspects of animal interactions,” said Jenna Simard, the Friendship Circle’s special needs program coordinator.

The mental and physical benefits of animal companionship are well-documented. Scientific studies have shown therapy animals can lower blood pressure, improve heart health and aid in relaxation. For people with special needs, these furry friends help to boost socialization, encourage communication and even assist in overcoming speech and emotional disabilities.

Thursday’s visiting canine companions had a profound effect on the center’s participants and volunteer helpers, who took turns reading to the dogs, walking them and feeding them.

There was no fear or trepidation, just smiles, hugs and lots and lots of kisses. And more than a few dog treats, too.

“How many pugs should I get?” asked Clayton, who took a liking to Pearl, a blind pug who does much of her therapy work at Henry Ford Hospital West Bloomfield. “Two! I want two of them.”

When asked what she liked most about the dogs, Lauren exclaimed: “Cuddly! They’re cuddly!”


Friendship Circle participants, volunteers and staff weren’t the only ones moved by these new bonds forged in fur.

“Look at how special this is,” said Karen Gasior with Therapy Dogs International, who brought her black lab Maizey — a former leader dog who switched to therapy work a couple years ago. “She brings smiles and tears of joy. She’s always happy cheering other people up – that’s the best.”

Visiting with special-needs children was a first for most of the dogs, who spend much of their time at hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

This was true for Lucy, a toy poodle who is relatively new to this line of work. Her handler, Ann Scikorski with Mid-Michigan Therapy Dogs, says she and Lucy graduated from their training program last May.

“We wanted to do something with kids … well, I did anyway,” she said with a smile.

This was the first time Casey, a rescued black lab mix, had worked with kids, said her handlers Christine and Dennis Sweers with Mid-Michigan Therapy Dogs. “She was abandoned and took up residence on our porch,” Christine Sweers said. So, she and her husband, Dennis, gave Casey a home and a purpose that fits her personality.

“Casey is a love-motivated dog,” she said.


Thursday’s session was just the beginning. There’s so much more in store for “Animal Friends” participants.

“Throughout the six weeks, we will have a number of guest speakers from animal rescues and veterinary offices,” said Simard. “Participants will interact with the animals in our own pet store and we will see an exotic animal presentation.

“The program is already full,” she said, when asked how interested families might register. But, “we’ll do another one next year!”

Click here to learn more about Friendship Circle’s other exciting programs from trips to sports and more.

We Love Our Volunteers

Friendship Circle’s LifeTown got a little love from Mercedes-Benz Financial Services employees this week – and the special-needs children exploring the facility warmed their hearts in return.

Eight volunteers of the Daimler subsidiary traded their day jobs for morning shifts as police women, manicurists and librarians as part of the company’s Volunteer Day.

The day is voluntary and the employees get to choose where they’d like to donate their time, said Lorraine Paoletti, one of the visiting volunteers.

“It’s so cool,” she said. “(LifeTown) teaches kids life skills, which are so important.”

She and colleague Jana Seidel were all smiles as they played the role of police officers, patrolling the sidewalks and helping kids safely navigate their way around – and across — the winding road.

“I didn’t know what to expect because it was my first time here,” Seidel said, “but the kids are taking (the rules) very seriously and I’m impressed by that.”

The LifeTown experience was a first for most – if not all – of the volunteers, who learned of the facility during a visit to Friendship Circle’s Soul Center.

Across town, fellow volunteer Taleen Newlin took a break from her nail salon receptionist post to visit with co-workers running the library.

“It’s been awesome helping out children with special needs (and) seeing the smiles on their faces,” she said.
Colleague Ashley Beck agreed: “It’s just amazing – all of the real-experiences and the things that (the kids) have to do just to learn … to function in the real world.”

Days like this – and volunteerism, in general — serve as a good reminder of things most people take for granted, the women said.

“I think it is important to do,” Newlin said. “It’s hard to do sometimes because we are all so busy with life so this is a good reminder of the difference this really makes in the community.”

WANT TO VOLUNTEER?
Interested in volunteering with Friendship Circle? We could use help in our Soul Studio, an art program and exhibition space dedicated to the creative growth and expression of adults with special needs. Our program runs Monday through Thursday from 10 am to 3 pm. Click here to complete the volunteer application form or contact our volunteer coordinator Maggie Egrin or (248) 788-8600.

Soul Stories: Megan Donley

Ever since she was a young girl, Megan Donley has had a passion for art. If you can name a medium, there’s a good chance Megan has tried it. Now 24 years old, Megan has found the perfect creative outlet – Soul Studio.

“I feel welcome here,” Megan says.

Born in South Korea, Megan was adopted along with her brother, Matt, when he was 5 and she was just 3 years old. From the beginning, her mother, Judy, saw Megan’s artistic side.

“She’s always liked crafts and things at home. It’s something we’ve always done,” Judy says.

Megan and her mom took a tour of the Soul Studio two days before the start of the pilot program. After looking around, Megan was hooked.

“I’ve never had something like this in my life, never had someone care as much, with people who have the same interests as me,” Megan explains. “It’s a cool experience.”

Megan lists photography, weaving, and ceramics as her favorite activities. She also likes painting and scrapbooking. But you’ll most likely see her behind a camera. She loves taking pictures of her friends and fellow artists and posting photos on social media.


Accomplishment and Pride

Selling her works of art has been a big source of accomplishment and pride. The first piece Megan sold was a string project that depicts the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit.

“Exciting that someone wanted it,” Megan says of the feeling from her first commission. “They wanted to put it in their house, and it’s an original piece of art.”

Megan’s love for the Soul Studio is written all over her face every time she’s there. She’s always smiling and her mom says it’s easy to see why.

“She’s with a very diverse group of people and she’s never had that before,” Judy says. “That’s made her open to everything around her. It’s just a 100 percent positive situation.”

As much as she loves working on her own projects, Megan also gets a great deal of joy out of rooting for her fellow Soul Studio artists. There’s a team aspect to the environment. Friendships and supporting one another, she says, are what it’s all about.

“It’s always uplifting when someone finishes their work,” Megan says. “We always clap or cheer.”