In this Tuesday, June 12, 2018 photo, Deborah Blackwell poses in her art studio, in Janesville, Wis. Blackwell is the executive director of Studio 84 in Whitewater, Wis.
WHITEWATER — Stuart Nagy knew his world changed the day he walked into Studio 84.
The 27-year-old had been looking for a place to create pottery and paintings.
When he found the art space in downtown Whitewater, he immediately embraced it.
Nagy, who has Down syndrome, even wanted to live above the studio so he would not have to travel from his home in Hales Corners.
"I just love it here," he said. "It's a lot of fun, and I've learned a whole lot of different ways to do clay."
Nagy has a passion for art.
But until he found the studio, Nagy did not think his dream of becoming an artist could come true.
Studio 84 in downtown Whitewater specializes in developing the creative abilities of people with disabilities, The Janesville Gazette reported. The nonprofit studio also features gallery space and a gift shop with art created by the studio's artists.
In this Tuesday, June 12, 2018 photo, Stuart Nagy uses his fingers to form clay into the shape of a cup at Studio 84 in Whitewater, Wis.
Deborah Blackwell had the courage to create the unique space a decade ago when the economy had tanked and people had little money to donate.
"It was my passion that carried me through," Blackwell said. "I started with a used table I found alongside the road and some leftover art supplies."
Today, she depends on individual donations, grants and the support of local businesses and organizations. Students also pay a small fee.
"We keep the fee very low because so many of our students are very low income," Blackwell said. "My ultimate vision is that our services would be free for all."
Blackwell graduated in 2008 from UW-Whitewater with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and yearned for a job with meaning.
While in college, she saw that people with disabilities had few opportunities to discover their creativity.
Blackwell developed a business plan for a community studio that would welcome them.
Eventually, she found a location on Center Street with enough space to do all she envisioned.
"Oftentimes, people with disabilities do not realize they have gifts in the arts," Blackwell said, because throughout school and young adulthood they are focused on learning daily-living or job skills.
"Getting involved in the arts gives them a place where they make the decisions," she said. "They tap into a part of themselves they've never tapped into before because of all the other obstacles in life."
Ben Kelly, who has a master's degree in social work, works with students and challenges them when they are ready.
He began as a volunteer.
"This place really had an impact on me because of all the creativity here," Kelly said. "I always love it when an able-bodied person comes in and says, 'I can't paint.' Talk to Stuart or any of the others, and they will show you how."
Kelly Gunn came to Studio 84 three years ago and wanted to try painting. Staff soon learned she had extremely limited vision and is colorblind.
Gunn also never learned to read braille because her fingers were not sensitive enough to feel the raised bumps that make up the alphabet. Without sensitivity in her fingers, she could not determine if she got paint on her brush or if her brush was touching the canvas.
"She was literally painting the air with no paint," Blackwell said.
Eventually, Blackwell and Kelly found ways for Gunn to overcome her painting challenges.
Today, Gunn works from paint in small cups instead of the usual pallet. By using cups, she can locate the paint and be guaranteed of getting paint on her brush.
Gunn also had trouble putting paint on the edge of her canvas.
Blackwell asked Gunn if edges of stairs or curbs scare her when walking.
"The answer was a definite 'yes,'" Blackwell said.
Blackwell reassured Gunn that she could not get hurt or fall if she painted too close to the edge.
"With confidence now, Kelly has learned to use her other hand to feel where the edge of the canvas is and to make her brush move towards the edge until she feels it with her other hand," Blackwell said.
Gunn paints with her face right up to the canvas and often ends up with a spot of paint on her nose.
Since coming to Studio 84, her curiosity about life has grown, and she is willing to try new things.
She has even written a children's book, "A B See Alphabet Book," featuring a painted picture of an animal for each letter of the alphabet.
"I want to be an inspiration to others," Gunn said, "and to let children know that even if they have a disability they can do lots of things."