Creative heARTs program makes ‘magic’ for some local artists

At the far end of a non-descript building on Route 113 in Millsboro, across from Lowe’s, is a room where laughter, creativity and accomplishment flow freely. It is where the Salvation Army’s Developmental Disabilities Program is located.

“We make magic here,” explained Joey Fletcher. The word “magic” was echoed delightedly around the room as participants in the Creative heARTs class awaited instructions for the day’s paintings.

Barbara Buford is the assistant program coordinator/art instructor. She has worked for the Salvation Army for 18 years, and she got the art program formally started 11 years ago.

“We had always involved our people in painting and drawing as a matter of course, but I started to notice that one of our ladies, Ernestine Robins, had real talent,” said Buford. “She told me her hope and dream was to see her paintings hanging in a gallery one day. I’m an artist myself, so I could identify.”

With Buford’s passion to make dreams reality, along with the help of VSA Delaware (formerly Very Special Arts — “the state organization on arts and disabilities”), a group of local artists, $50, and help from family and friends, she was able to make that happen for Robins, and now the 15 other artists in the Creative heARTs program.

Buford, her “right-hand person,” Hope Henry, and volunteers from the Millsboro Art League do most of the instruction, but periodically a guest artist leads the class. Recently, Terry Lake, an artist who specializes in the pour technique using acrylic paints, led the group.

To start, Lake demonstrates what everyone will be doing. There is excitement in the group as each remembers what they’ve done before, prepares their station with an empty pizza box bottom and a canvas, and puts on gloves.

“It’s going to get messy,” one said.

“Real messy,” others agree.

“I like it,” said another, and the others agree.

Lake invites the class to come up individually to make their color choices.

Jessica Bird jumps up quickly to be first.

“I always pick purple, because that’s the Ravens’ color — they’re my favorite,” she said, also selecting silver, pink and teal. “I’m having a ball.”

Bird lives in Dagsboro and catches the same DART bus to the program as Joey Fletcher, who lives in Frankford. The DART bus also takes Bird to her weekly job at McDonald’s in Long Neck, and Fletcher twice a week to Apple Electric in Rehoboth Beach. Both say they love their jobs. Indeed, it’s clear they love their lives.

Fletcher said he is looking forward to the football season and watching the Philadelphia Eagles with his family.

“I like it when my nephew comes to play on weekends,” he said. “And I love music — especially classic rock and country. Toby Keith is my favorite.”

Bird said she particularly likes volunteering to get the food ready for the Meals on Wheels program. She is a fan of TV soap operas, and she likes to ride her bike around the neighborhood.

“Sometimes I’m a pain,” she joked, which made everyone laugh.

When everyone has a cup of their chosen colors of paint in front of them, Lake instructs the group to put the canvas on top of the cup, flip it and tap it three times. When the cup is removed, each artist tilts the canvas so the whole area is covered with paint, just the way they want it.

“I used to pick dark colors,” said Fletcher. “Now I add gold, and my paintings look bright.”

The best part of making art, the program participants say, is selling your paintings. Whenever a painting is sold, the money goes directly to the artist. Some of the art is also used by Creative heARTs to make various greeting and holiday cards. Revenue from the cards is used to provide the program with paint and other supplies.

“The artwork is displayed at different art leagues and galleries in the area,” said Buford. “But year-round, it is on display and for sale at Pat’s Pizza in Lewes. The owner, Alex Kotanides, loves our group and is a big supporter of our work.” (Pat’s Pizza is located at 17644 Coastal Highway.)

“Every November, we have a special event at Pat’s where the public can meet and greet our artists and buy cards and artwork,” said Buford. “This year, it is on Wednesday, Nov. 14, from 4 to 8 p.m. Everyone who attends finds they are in awe of our artists’ talent and creativity. And our people feel such a sense of accomplishment and pride.”

In two hours, each artist has created two amazing pour-art paintings. They are eager to show off their work to Buford and Lake, and are very careful when carrying their paintings to a safe place for them to dry. On another day, they might be working with mixed media and making collages, or with watercolors, or going on a field trip. Exposure to different ideas is an important part of the program.

“The first time I taught here was eight months ago,” said Lake. “I cried all the way home. I was so touched by their enthusiasm and their beautiful paintings. I love them. This is such an amazing program that is such a win-win for everyone… the Creative heARTs artists, their families and the community. I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Watching Buford is like watching love in overdrive. She is never in one place for a minute. Always her eyes are checking to see who needs help with their project, or a smile of approval, or to go to the bathroom, or has paint on their face, or has yet another question to be answered. And she is always ready to laugh.

“The smile on Ernestine’s face when she first saw one of her paintings hung at Gallery Place in Rehoboth was priceless. She was blown away, and I was overwhelmed,” said Buford. “Now I get to see how they’ve all grown and made such progress. Their art gives them a voice that they may not be able to otherwise communicate. Through our programs here, five days a week, they are artists, workers and volunteers. They are an integral part of the community, and they are so proud.”

Christy Cugno is the Salvation Army’s Delaware director responsible for the Developmental Disabilities Program, Supported Employment Services and the Community Options program at 28777 East Dupont Highway in Millsboro. She can be contacted at (302) 381-9163 about purchasing cards or by any organizations, galleries or venues that would like to display Creative heARTs’ artwork.

Creative HeARTs is a unique program. Recently, it received a national Salvation Army award for best programming for social services in the Eastern Region.

Fletcher and Bird both selected which painting they would like to hold for the photo in the newspaper.

“I love it,” said Bird, who had spent extra time with her hair that morning, as she knew her photo would be taken.

“It’s magic,” said Fletcher. “Told you!”

By Christina Weaver
Special to the Coastal Point