An Interview With Brian Kavanaugh On His 5 Year Experience With The Friendship Circle Soul Studio

This interview was conducted in the Summer of 2019 with Brian Kavanaugh, during his last months at the Soul Studio before Brian left on a Fulbright Scholarship to Romania. Brian was one of the first facilitating artist staff members at the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio, where he helped to form it’s pedagogical structure. The goal of the interview was to record Brian’s involvement in the development of the Soul Studio, so that his experience could serve as a tool to inform new staff on how the studio’s formation from the perspective of one of its earliest facilitating artists.

Anthony Marcellini: Please tell me, from your perspective, how the Friendship Circle Soul Studio was formed? What guided the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio’s set up and the kinds of programs the Soul Studio planned to offer? What was your initial role, what did it grow into and how did your role impact the eventual formation of the Soul Studios?

Brian Kavanaugh: My inclusion in Dresner Foundation Soul Studio, in short, was a matter of right place, right time. It was the second such right time/place in my career, but that’s another story altogether.

After 20 years of providing services and creating programs for kids with special needs and their families, FC watched the kids they initially started with become adults and FC wanted to continue providing enriching experiences to those they grew with over two decades.

After conducting a national review of programs that were already existing for adults with disabilities, FC decided on opening a restaurant that would provide vocational training (Soul Cafe) and an art studio that would focus on the creativity and expression of artists with disabilities that would also provide an opportunity to make money for the artists (Soul Studio).

After it was decided that FC would go in the direction of creating these two spaces, they began reaching out to Michigan arts organizations to see what, if any, information they could find specific to this kind of programming.

As luck would have it, someone I was very close to at the time was the individual at the Cranbrook Academy of Art who answered the phone when a representative from FC called. At that time I had more than 7 years experience in the field of facilitating the art practices of people with disabilities, and was working for a handful of organizations that supported such work.

In the late summer of 2013, a few months after graduating from Cranbrook I met one of the Founders of Friendship Circle, Bassie Shemtov at FC Meer Center and her initial thoughts about Soul Studio were conveyed to me. We agreed I would run a pilot program that would take place in the multipurpose room in the basement of the Friendship Circle Meer Center on December 30 and 31 of 2013 and January 2 and 3 of 2014. Each day was a 5 hour session. We had 5 Teaching Artists that each brought their own experience to the program. Jon Mietling assisted with sculpture, Jeremy Harvey supported painting and mixed media, Carolyn Sklarchyk guided weaving and fibers work, and there was an artist who brought in glass for mosaics (she would place them in kiln each night to melt the pieces together) and another artist focused on photography. My responsibility, as I understood it, was to manage the people involved in the program while ensuring it was a positive and fruitful experience for all the artists involved. We had artists spanning the entire spectrum of ability levels and with little information going into it, it was important for the teaching artists to understand how to respond to each artist in a way that would ensure the artists felt confident and not that they were measured on any sort of metric resembling a pass/fail attitude. For this to take place it was incumbent on each Teaching Artist to be able to identify elements within each artists output that could be built upon, and to communicate how that could take place in a manner that each artist could understand. In the short window of time we had for our pilot program, our most important goal was to build interest and motivation amongst the artists in continuing to create and express themselves. We did not give ourselves any goals other than this.

It is important to note that having practicing artists as facilitators was what enabled us to achieve these goals. They understood that frustration can be a very fruitful creative challenge. How and when creative momentum can be built is often not how artists assume it will be formed. What’s important is seeing opportunity in challenges and artists are very well suited for communicating those principles.

In a short period of time we saw a good deal of progress, if not in the specific work of the artists, in the progress of the team and in the student artists understanding of this being a supportive community responsive to their interests and goals. We were not a collection of classes to sign up for but an environment that would collectively form to each student artist as best we could to ensure their interests and expression were amplified in ways unique to each artist. It was an extremely kinetic environment that thankfully everyone seemed to buy into.

Over the next few months, as efforts were being made to find a space for our next pilot program while our final home at Farber Center was being made, I ran a few programs at FC for the summer camp program and a couple of teen art evening programs. During that time I had a few other jobs, including Program Coordinator at The Art Experience in Pontiac.

We moved into a large commercial park at 2075 E West Maple on March 15, 2015. Our space used to be a small manufacturing shop with two offices and a garage door. After a few months we were granted access to another space across the small parking lot that used to be a small gym with one entire side of its interior covered with tall mirrors and slogans such as “HATE THEM BREAKS!” emblazoned across its walls. It seemed like a perfect, or at least supremely comical space to place our Fibers department headed by Carolyn Sklarchyk. For the first 10 months (roughly), it was just Carolyn and I acting as Facilitating Artists.

After those first 10 months we were joined by Adam Lavoy, who had returned to Michigan from California where he had worked in another Supported Studio, Claraty Arts. We knew that we were very lucky to have a team made up of three people that each had a vast amount of experience in this niche field.

During our year at 2075 E West Maple, or SC mini as we referred to it, we were able to focus on what our philosophy was and how to communicate it. We started with 14 artists and grew to 20 after JVS began to send us artists from their program. On no day did everyone attend.

By pure chance, we were at SC mini for exactly one year (3/15/15-3/15/16) and we were very fortunate to have this time to focus on our programmatic goals without the presence and pressure of a gallery space. This benefited our thinking process as staff, as well as the mindset of the student artists.

Anthony Marcellini: From your perspective, can you explain a bit more about the structure of the program, how it ran at mini, and changed during the year there, and how did it shift, when it moved to a permanent location, gained more artists and a gallery? And how have you seen the structure of the program at Farber Center, change over the time you have worked here? Make sure to explain your role/part in structuring the program. (These may be answered as separate questions or one if it makes it more linear.)

Brian Kavanaugh: In terms of the desired outcomes of the studio, and the structure needed to achieve them, the biggest change from Mini to Soul Studio was the inclusion of a gallery and the emphasis it put on the concept of exhibiting work for artists, volunteers, and staff. When at Mini, we also didn’t have a restaurant associated with us so the idea of others viewing our work and what we do in the studio was much more distant.

At Mini, the emphasis of our language was on experimentation and experience over outcome. At Soul Studio, with our gallery and Soul Cafe, we could combine those ideas with conversations about how artists hope others see their work and use both to inform the making process. We were very fortunate to have our time at Mini to form language around building a studio practice before we introduced the idea of exhibitions, creating products, etc. I am certain that if we would have tried to create both forms of language simultaneously it would have been very difficult.

Regarding the structure of our days, it changed fairly constantly in our initial stages because I wanted to run through different iterations to get feedback and understand the advantages and disadvantages of each model. Each Supported Studio program (a sustained creative environment that fosters and supports the individual practice of visual artists with a disability) responds to its unique community, funding structures, expectations, larger arts community, etc. and it was a fact that we wouldn’t immediately be able to understand how all our pieces would fit together. With that in mind it was important to experiment in the beginning and at the same time create a culture of collaboration and openness amongst staff, volunteers, artists, and their families so that any information that could be used for our benefit would be shared. To that end, we were already at a tremendous advantage because our Friendship Circle community had been growing together for 20 years already!

Anthony Marcellini: What have you specifically brought to the Soul Studio program or what would you like to be remembered for?

Brian Kavanaugh: I hope that something I have been able to pass along is the importance of crafting a creative practice. Throughout the entirety of my time with Soul Studio I have stressed the importance of not getting stuck on one’s prefabricated expectations, but to make sure to always pivot forward when presented with a challenge. At some point every artist creates their work, and then their practice, based on what they think it should look like. Where the excitement happens is how someone chooses to move forward when things go in an unexpected direction. Feeling comfortable with the fact that zigs and zags are a guaranteed part of a creative life, or life in general, is something I hope I have been able to share. I don’t think art is much of anything to an artist until they surprise themselves.

In general, I hope to be remembered for facilitating an environment of positivity, promoting confidence when faced with something unknown, and the importance in creating an inclusive environment for all expression. I feel that if those things can be communicated well, then good art will simply be its consequence.

Anthony Marcellini: What do you hope to see in the future for Soul Studio?

Brian Kavanaugh: One way or another I hope to see it grow. Soul Studio is part of the Detroit metropolitan area, with a population of over 4,000,000 people. Within that number is a lot of people that can benefit from what Soul Studio offers. It would be amazing to see the philosophy that is practiced at Soul Studio put into action; creating opportunities for a broader spectrum of the human experience to be included in the cultural production of our community.

Additionally, Friendship Circle itself is a model of inclusion and community making that has been replicated all over the world and it would be incredible to see Soul Studio follow suit.

I am going to Romania to conduct my research into how the ideals and practices that I have brought to Soul Studio can be communicated so that more people are enabled to benefit from them.

I have been very fortunate to spend almost the entirety of my professional career practicing and communicating something I passionately believe in. All I hope is to see it spread.

Anthony Marcellini: Is there any advice you would like to leave the newer facilitating artists, volunteers and artists

Brian Kavanaugh: Focus more on the beginning of the day more than the end of the day. Challenges will accumulate and frustration will build but if the beginning of each day is met with excitement, positivity and proper preparation then that momentum will be able to carry through the day.

Frustration is part of the creative practice and shouldn’t be feared. Hitting a creative block is only natural. Moving forward isn’t meant to be easy, the challenges are what makes us evolve. Support the people next to you. What we have made at Soul Studio is a place that all the necessary frustrations of creativity are turned into the connective tissue of a community. That can’t happen without all of us.

Anthony Marcellini: Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience/legacy at Dresner Foundation Soul Studio?

Brian Kavanaugh: I graduated college and found myself in a very lucky situation, getting a full time job in the arts working at the art studio of Autism Services in Buffalo. While at Cranbrook I always spoke with visitors about the artists I worked with, surprising myself at times how often I discussed the subject. I graduated from Cranbrook knowing that I loved this work but not sure where it could go since it is such a niche field. Soon, I found myself in another very fortunate situation when Friendship Circle hired me and I was given the opportunity to not only do what I love, but find out how to build it. Now I have gotten the chance to travel across the world for what seems to be the third chapter in doing this thing that I am so passionate about.

Dresner Foundation Soul Studio is part of a global network that is continuing to grow and become more and more connected. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to help introduce this idea that I am so passionate about, and proud to share it with others around the world.