Being Seen, Being Known: Friends Life Artists Expand Community through Art

By Bridget Bailey and Jennifer Haston, teaching artists, Friends Life Community
a group of young adults with various disabilities in matching red T-shirts in front of an art gallery wall. Photo credit: Frist Art Museum.
FLC artists and Bridget at the Frist Art Museum opening reception, for “The Power of Resilience”. Photo credit: Frist Art Museum.

Artists with developmental disabilities at Friends Life Community tell their stories through the creation of original artwork. The process of self-expression and discovery allows these artists to communicate who they are and what is important to them. They connect with others through collaborative projects and sharing their artwork in exhibitions. They are professional artists who inspire others that work alongside them.

For the artists at Friends Life Community, 2023 was the year of being seen. FLC artists drive diversity in the Nashville art scene by driving a wrecking ball against stigmas and social barriers. To be seen is to be known. Last year, the artists' pieces dotted multiple art venues around town, from the Frist Art Museum to gallery spaces like The Browsing Room Gallery. Paintings and sculptures filled eight shows with various colorful visions expressing individual stories. Their inspiring works have also built partnerships with Zeitgeist Gallery, Belmont University's Art Department, and Harpeth Hall School. Each individual artist has become the face of social change in their community, taking risks and challenging themselves to find innovative ways to share their visions.

Jon Phillippi is one such risk-taker. Early in 2023, Jon had the opportunity to show at Zeitgeist Gallery. The show culminated in an artist talk in which Jon showed his paintings layered in watery pigments, swirling and seeping into one another. The minimal color palate of his paintings contrasted with his sculptures of bright, found objects that embrace color and whimsy. At Zeitgeist, he answered questions about his body of work while gaining exposure to the greater Nashville community. He was seen and heard, front and center, uninhibited and inspirational.

Photo of a young man with Down syndrome pointing to a piece of 3D art on a gallery wall to two young women in school uniforms
Sean talking about his work at Harpeth Hall School. Photo credit: Rory Fraser, Harpeth Hall School.

Communities are built by partnerships, and the strength of the FLC artists’ work maintains a partnership with the Belmont University Art Department. The artists’ first show of the year launched in Belmont’s Leu Foyer Gallery with an exhibition called "The Ecology of Community." Their final show of 2023, entitled “We are Here to Inform,” was housed in the Leu Center for Visual Arts. Both shows connected physical environments to the individual lives within them, helping us better understand each other. Both shows informed and spread the word about the importance of individuality. The artists created works reminiscent of vibrant fields of colorful wildflowers, playful dancing butterflies, and busy bees. Their work embodied the confidence of tall saplings and the wisdom of a root system stretching deep underground, connecting every being to a shared community.

Individuality is essential to all artists, but it shines bright and clear at the Frist Art Museum exhibition, "The Power of Resilience." In the studio, FLC artists were asked how they wanted the world to see them. Stormy replied, "As I am," and Mary Margaret added the word "powerful." These came together to form "Powerful, As I Am." This became the theme for their art and the words embodied by the crowd. FLC artists made a powerful impression when they showed up in red "Powerful, As I Am" t-shirts, collectively owning and embodying the theme. The words extended beyond the ornate community quilt and silk-screened pieces on the walls.

Similarly, Harpeth Hall's show "Among Friends" featured nineteen FLC artists working together and sharing studio space with Harpeth Hall students, creating a dynamic energy and excitement. Sharing art and power through a collaborative gallery walk forged even more connections. Connections drawn between FLC artists and other artists make it clear that the work of FLC artists has its own place in the larger contemporary art world. Their voices are essential. The act of making is empowering, and seeing their art out in the world further empowers them to tell their stories. Based on his experience in the show, Sean said, "My art is like an experiment with confidence. I can accomplish something."

Sharing art with the world changes how you feel, which is evident in talking with FLC artists. They cite feeling happy, proud, powerful, important, and a part of a community. Community is a core value at FLC, and through the courage and self-expression of FLC artists, it is ever-expanding into something beyond our wildest imaginations.

Bridget Bailey and Jennifer Haston are teaching artists at Friends Life Community. They organize and curate art shows in the community and help facilitate the art making process in the FLC studio.