Merlene Davis: Collaboration produces garden art with function

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 27, 2013 

Good ideas can really be complicated to pull off sometimes. In fact, most need a lot of collaboration. Thank goodness talented people are able to make that happen.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Nicole Kelley, director of Expressive and Wellness programs at Employment Solutions, decided to expand the horticulture program at the Whipple Court location of the training and enrichment service, create a functioning art garden and enlarge the community garden. She hired horticulture specialist Daniel Oxnard.

But the path leading to the gardens needed to be modified so that the 200 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities that her division serves weekly could get to gardens and green houses safely in wheelchairs.

There needed to be a ramp constructed, but not just any old ramp.

"A ramp is a ramp," Kelley said. "I wanted one that didn't scream disability and one that made a big statement artistically as to what lies ahead."

The 400-foot pathway Oxnard designed rounded the building at the top of a small hill creating a drop-off that could have wheelchair participants careening off the side.

"We could wheel them down there, but we wanted them to move freely and independently," she said.

There needed to be a fence or railing constructed to prevent that, but not just any old fence.

"We could have put up an institutional-looking rail, but their lives have institutional (images) all around them," Kelley said. "We needed something functional. But this was supposed to be a fabulous art garden."

Oxnard suggested art installations, but no one knew how to get enough metal donated to create the pieces. Then Kelley approached Shawn Gannon, faculty welding instructor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

"My whole fascination in art is not art for sale but art that can be repurposed," Gannon said. "Everything we do comes from scrap."

Since beginning his job in 2012, Gannon has sought ways to interact with the general public to give his students, about 70 a semester, real world experiences and deadlines to meet.

"The most important thing is trying to interact with the pubic in general to find opportunities to serve in the community and lead by example," he said. "When I came here to tour, I was blown away by all the good that is being done here."

There are six programs under the Expressive and Wellness division of Employment Solutions, an educational and training service that features 20 programs total in different locations around Fayette County.

Expressive and Wellness serves adults who receive waiver services from Medicaid that allow them to participate in programs such as fitness, art, gardening, cooking, digital media training, and community outings. Participants choose what they want to do in those areas. Or they work flexible hours with Qbox, or The Quality Box Company, which builds boxes for manufacturers.

"Our oldest participant is 87," Kelley said. "He is one of the main people who works in our garden."

With Gannon on board for the project, Kelley contacted Baker Iron and Metal recycling company and was given about 3,000 pounds of iron and metal.

The pieces were taken to the BCTC campus on Leestown Road, and Gannon asked his students to create panels that could be installed as a means of creating not only safety, but also beauty.

Part of each of the panels would include space where program participants could hang their art work as well.

"We went back and forth trying to determine what the right dimensions would be," Gannon said. "The students became very interested."

Devin Neal, a first-year BCTC welding student, said he stared at the pieces for a while trying to figure out what he could do that would be within the parameters of the instructions he was given.

"I kept staring at it and it came to me," he said. "It had to be something organic, so my first idea was a snowman. But I thought that was too simple, too cheesy, too easy."

He always liked planting trees so he decided to create a tree from rebar, steel bars used to reinforce concrete, he said. He used a torch to heat and bend the bars into shape.

"It was nice to do something to help someone else," Neal said. "It was an opportunity to do something as a class to help others."

The BCTC students created 16 sculptural panels, eight big and eight small, some of which were on display at the three BCTC campuses before being installed at Employment Solutions in late November.

The students will also be working with artists to create an interactive sculpture for the Lexington Art League's Luminosity, which will be made of re-purposed light bulbs and will be displayed in Triangle Park early next year.

"I have students from all walks of life," Gannon said. "Some are mechanical engineers who come to learn welding and some have just finished their GED. Everyone needs to play a part in something you can be proud of."

And that includes participants in the Expressive and Wellness programs.

"It is important that our people get out in the community, but it is also important for the community to recognize our people are a part of this community and that they exist," Kelley said. "They have been hidden in these programs for many years.

"Getting together and doing community collaborations kind of helps everybody out," she said.

The panels can be seen at 1084 Whipple Court, off Nandino Boulevard.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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