Local arts group celebrates neurodiverse community of artists, encourages creativity

“Family Eats Together,” a watercolor and ink painting by Milk River Studio artist Bukuru Nyandwi. Photo courtesy of Sally Kemp

Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer

After living all around the world, from Israel to Romania, artist Andrea Budu-Inspire moved to Richmond to be near a friend. She has been creating art in the area since taking a painting class at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and has been involved with local studio Milk River Arts for three years.

“When I lived in Philadelphia, they said I cannot work and I started making art,” Budu-Inspire said. “I want to be independent. I want everyone to know that they can be independent too.”

Her art is inspired by people she has encountered in her life and consists of figures and portraits typically created using ink pens and a vibrant array of watercolors. 

Artist Andrea Budu-Inspire working with her mentor, Abernathy Bland. Photo courtesy of Sally Kemp

Budu-Inspire is one of the seven studio artists at Milk River Arts, a nonprofit studio founded in 2015 by Executive Director Sally Kemp. Their mission is to provide resources and mentorship to support the professional development of adult artists with disabilities. 

Our focus in 2015 was about the right people and materials and having a safe, accessible space to work,” Kemp said in an email. “These remain foundational to our work.”

Artists are paired with mentors who provide technical instruction and suggestions to support their work. Mentors are paired with a different artist each time they enter the studio.

Mentor Abernathy Bland has been with the organization since its inception. 

“We’re there to respond to what is innately awesome about that artist and their work, and then uplift in a way that is very specific to that individual artist,” Bland said. 

Studio artists, such as Albert Costanzo and Budu-Inspire, come from neurodiverse backgrounds. They frequently collaborate on individual projects, exhibitions and community events — which serve to create a positive perspective about individuals with different abilities. 

Costanzo was introduced to Kemp by his sister and has been with the studio for its full five years. He said he’s enjoyed making art since he started taking lessons at the age of 12. 

“Micropeople of Earth,” an acrylic and ink painting by Milk River studio artist Albert Costanzo. Photo courtesy of Sally Kemp

“I was in between jobs . . . and Sally opened doors for me that I never imagined,” Costanzo said.

The artist takes pride in his creativity and is inspired by the happiness of others. He hopes to publish children’s books and to have his artwork displayed near the National Mall in Washington and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

“God gave me a gift — my imagination,” Costanzo said. “He gave me a gift to make people happy with my artwork.”

Side-by-side images from Budu-Inspire’s art, which create a line of four people with colorful eyes, are sold on a t-shirt with the phrase, “We are all different. We are all important.”

The shirt sales serve as a fundraiser for Milk River Arts, as well as an opportunity to spread the word about the organization. 

Currently operating out of Studio Two Three, the group moved from their space in Church Hill at the beginning of the year due to changes presented by COVID-19. Bland said that Studio Two Three has been a beneficial space and provides a community feeling.   

“We reached out to Milk River Arts to see how they were doing and it actually aligned really well, so they ended up moving here full time,” said Kate Fowler, development director of Studio Two Three. 

Milk River artist Bukuru Nyandwi and mentor Barry O’Keefe. Photo courtesy of Sally Kemp

Art created in the Milk River studios can be found throughout Richmond, including on VCU campus. “Kutunza Kila Mmoja (Taking Care of Each Other),” a large-scale project by Congo-born artist Bukuru Nyandwi, contains banners, prints and a community bulletin board. 

Nyandwi’s art utilizes landscapes and family images that relate to his life experiences. The title is Swahili for “taking care of each other,” which highlights Nyandwi’s personal roots.

Nyandwi worked with a group of artists, including Fowler and Milk River Arts mentor Barry O’Keefe, to create the display. The installation will reside in the cafe of The Institute for Contemporary Art from Oct. 10 through September 2021. 

“This collaboration — this evidence of closeness — helps remind us that by taking care of each other, we also take care of ourselves,” Kemp said in an email.

For more information on Milk River Arts, visit milkriverarts.org.

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