People wander in off the street expecting to spend a few minutes looking at the jewelry in the shop. But then they realize there is more going on than what meets the eye. They have entered the world of Downtown Designs, an art coop with a special purpose.
Once you look past the gallery in the front of the space, you notice a large table where people are stringing beads, weaving on hand-held looms, working with clay, painting, drawing and sewing. This is Downtown Designs, a little surprise with a big mission.
Under the direction of Melissa Seitz, Downtown Designs functions as a Newport outpost of Looking Upwards in Middletown, an organization that provides work, guidance and a variety of activities for developmentally disabled people.
Recently, three client artists busily went about their work, making bracelets, necklaces and small woven items to build the shop’s inventory for upcoming sales at local fairs.
“We’re kind of a secret gem,” Seitz said proudly as she chatted with Lily Marino and Lisa Wexler about the necklaces they were making.
“She inspires us,” Marino said of Seitz.
“She’s our second mother,” Wexler chimed in, to which Seitz said, “You are my mother sometimes.”
The artists and artisans from Looking Upwards couldn’t be more enthusiastic about their twice-weekly workdays at Downtown Designs. They work hard to perfect their techniques and to learn new skills, and they draw added benefit from being paid for work that is sold at the gallery. “It’s a 60-40 split, and we use the money to buy supplies and other things we need,” Seitz said.
Learning to make jewelry is therapy for Marino. It has helped her hand strength and stability, she said, and it has strengthened her confidence.
“Her hands used to shake, so it was hard for her to control the stringing,” Seitz said. “She resisted using the tiny beads for a long time, but now she is fine stringing those small ones.”
The artists aren’t the only ones learning new skills. Seitz, whose background is in interior design and theatrical costuming, had to learn weaving and sewing, making clay pottery and other pursuits. “We learn together,” she said. “We are all learning new skills.”
Among the folks who stumbled upon the gallery was a retired business executive, Chris Stephens, who was so taken with the operation that he offered to run a workshop for the artists. In retirement, he had taken up making sculptural objects out of found materials, and he showed the artists how to make smiling faces from all sorts of material, including plastic remnants recovered from beaches. Seitz said it was a great experience for the client artists.
Stephens is one of several community artists who display and sell work at the gallery. Between those folks and the artists from Looking Upwards, the gallery sells work by about 30 artists. Seitz said everyone has benefitted from the interchange between the client artists and community artists. It all fits the Downtown Designs motto: Sharing Art, Sharing Space, Sharing Community.
Seitz and the artists are planning an Art Bazaar in the courtyard that fronts the gallery on Sept. 10. Meanwhile, Seitz, who has directed the gallery for seven years, travels to different parts of the state to sell the gallery’s handcrafted jewelry, weavings and other work at community fairs.
“We’re holding the bazaar to draw attention to what we do here, but we also want to share with the community,” she said. “We’ll have photo stand-ins where people can have their pictures taken, a cake walk, bingo, food and refreshments.”
Another partnership will result in an exhibition of paintings by Natasha Colon, a client artist, and Wayne Quackenbush, owner of Annex Comics and an artist in his own right. They will share space at Out of the Box gallery in September and October.
Beyond the community artists, Downtown Designs receives support from several community partners, including The Met School, the Jamestown Arts Center, the John E. Fogarty Foundation, Bank Newport, and Newport Galleries. The Arts Center has given the clay artists access to their kiln as part of that partnership, and it will host an exhibition in Jamestown in January that will include artwork from Downtown Designs and similar programs from Maine, New York and Pennsylvania. The Met School has provided student interns to help at the gallery studio.
“I just love coming here,” Wexler said. “I really enjoy making the jewelry and meeting so many adults.”