Charmaine is one of those lucky people who discovered her calling early on. “I knew I was going to be an artist when I was a young child making mud pies,” she said. Charmaine is also lucky enough to know how to ask for help when she needs it. That’s how she ended up earning her degree at the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) and, later, working with LEAP to create a vision for her business that’s as clear as her artistic vision.
Charmaine was an independent artist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when, at about age 30, she began to experience creative blocks. She knew she needed help, so she enrolled in CIA. “I didn’t go back to school because I thought I needed the credentials to be an artist, but because I was stuck,” she said. She graduated in 2005.
Although in the past she had found the educational world to be a rather standardized, one-size-fits-all system, at CIA—perhaps because she was older and more confident—she spoke up and helped direct her course of studies to meet her personal needs and interests. Charmaine has dyslexia, a reading disability that prevents the brain from recognizing and interpreting certain alphabetic symbols. Dyslexia can affect a person’s reading speed and comprehension, as well as other language skills like spelling.
Charmaine had been a painter and intended to study painting. Hanging in her spacious, light-filled space in the 78thStreet Studios is a self-portrait done when she was a student. When asked about the colorful sketch, she scoffs and describes it as “flat” and lacking perspective. Formally studying drawing and painting led her to her true interest, she said.
“I realized that I did better with dimensional objects—sculpture—than with a flat medium onto which I had to add dimension. I think it’s related to my dyslexia,” she said. And so began her journey into the world of really big art: sculptures and installations.
As a student Charmaine worked as a fabricator at the studio of David Davis, the world-renowned artist who founded Cleveland’s Sculpture Center. After graduation, she appeared on track to follow her mentor to success. She received prestigious commissions and awards, including a $20,000 fellowship from Cleveland’s Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, and she had a number of exhibitions around town.
The natural materials used in her sculptures vaguely recall the mud she used in her mud pie art. In addition to driftwood, scrap wood, rocks, hair, and grass, the components of her pieces include lath from old homes, metal, wool and other fibers, newspaper pulp, electrical conduit, and other miscellaneous discarded materials. Some of the sculptures in her studio are pieces of what once were large outdoor installations, and others “come apart and can be reassembled like Lincoln Logs,” she said.
Most people wouldn’t consider this stuff to be elements of future fine art. But Charmaine sees differently.
“I became interested in these materials when I went to an artist interview, and the artist talked about making paper plates and straws into sculptures. Someone in the audience asked what she did with the packaging, and she said she threw it away,” Charmaine said. “I’ve been turning in the direction of wanting to be responsible for what I do, exploring aspects of classism, and what people find value in and what they overlook. I think about my materials as something I’m putting value back into, something that’s already been used and discarded. It’s about judgment. What you judge to be valuable isn’t necessarily what society says is valuable.”
When asked whether her art reflects her experience of racism, Charmaine reveals part of her artistic inspiration. “To some extent it reflects my own experience, my parents’ experience, and the historical experience of racism, but it’s also about disability. When people find out the depth of my disability, I get the baby-talk treatment. They assume my comprehension is screwed up,” she said.
In other words, when people find out she has a disability they overlook her intellect, just as they overlook the beauty and value in the discarded stuff she uses as material for sculptures.
During the years after her graduation, while Charmaine was busy establishing herself as an artist, the way the world communicates changed radically. Arts news, exhibition notices, and networking events that formerly had been publicized in newspapers and brochures was now flying through cyberspace in the form of e-mail, Facebook posts, and web sites. The digital age had arrived.
Once again, Charmaine found herself stuck, this time due to her disability. The speed of communication, not to mention having to read everything on a computer screen, both caused a great deal of stress.
Not one to let difficulties derail her, Charmaine decided once again to get help. She registered with the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, hoping to find assistance in hiring an agent. Her counselor, Fred Collins, referred her to Julia Donovan, LEAP’s employment services director.
“Charmaine really had it all in her head,” Donovan said. “She didn’t need an agent. She knew what she needed to do to get her business established; she just wasn’t sure where to start. She just needed help with logistics. Many of the things we talk about involve where energy should be focused. What’s really important to make your business sustainable?”
Charmaine wanted to use social media, so Donovan helped with logistics: she worked with Charmaine to set up an artist Facebook page. Charmaine wanted to sell her craft items to holiday shoppers and booked a booth at the Christmas Connection fair at the I-X Center, so Donovan helped with logistics: she transported everything needed for the booth to and from the studio. Charmaine needed identification tags for her craft items, as well as business cards and professional brochures to distribute at the event. She wrote and designed them, so Donovan helped with logistics: she took materials to a printer. Charmaine wanted to apply for several artist grants, so Donovan helped with logistics: she typed while Charmaine dictated responses to the application questions.
Because having a strong business plan is an essential logistical component for any sustainable business, but not something one learns in art school, the Collins (from the BVR) called in another team member, John Hogan of Cleveland’s Small Business Development Center. Working with the entire team, Hogan coordinated the development of a plan that includes strategies for each of the three areas of Charmaine’s business: the biodegradable craft items, such as seed ornaments and wreaths, that she sells at farmers markets and fairs; the workshops and classes she teaches in her studio and elsewhere; and the fine art that takes time to nurture and create.
““I’ve learned so much about logistics, meaning how to prioritize what I do and how I do it,” Charmaine said. “Before I was trying to create and sell without a viable plan. Now I don’t spend so much time thinking about my next step, because it’s all mapped out.” And because she helped write the plan, when the time for working with LEAP expires in about 18 months, Charmaine is prepared to write the next version on her own. She’s excited by her future opportunities.
“It’s hard to accept that you’re not in the mainstream,” Charmaine said. “You don’t want to be different. Once you get over the fact that you need help, it’s easier. If I didn’t have help finding my path, I would not be successful.”