Just before lunchtime at Latitude, a yoga class breaks up, the lights go on and the community’s artists get to work.
Beverly Baker is working on her latest colorful creation, Will Fister pieces new items into the numerous scrapbooks he carries in his backpack, and Paul McGurl scans a book for new words to place on his collages of languages. In Latitude’s foyer, Jessie Dunahoo is piecing together his latest quilt of plastic shopping bags.
Bruce Burris and Crystal Bader, co-owners of the artist community geared toward people with disabilities, say it’s a fairly typical morning at Latitude, doing what the project was geared to do.
“For lots of people living with disabilities, they have a pretty low quality of life,” Burris says. “We wanted to give people a means of expression and direction that would raise their quality of life.”
That’s in part what inspired Bader to suggest Latitude as a name for the group when it was founded 10 years ago.
“The word is a directional word,” Bader says. “It implies movement, perspective and autonomy.”
Bader and Burris met when Burris was heading Minds Wide Open, an arts outreach connected to ARC of the Bluegrass. Bader joined Burris, and for a while, they were the only paid staffers of ARC, an organization that provided housing and services for adults with disabilities. ARC closed in 2005 due to bankruptcy.
Well before that, in 2001, Bader had suggested to Burris that they strike out on their own.
“Crystal said, ‘We should try this ourselves and call it Latitude,’ and I instantly said yes,” Burris says.
The independence allowed them to build the program the way they wanted, although it has never been easy. Neither art nor social services is seen as a lucrative field, and Burris credits his and Bader’s spouses, Robynn Pease and Shaun Webster, respectively, with lots of support.
In the beginning, they were in a space at Mecca Dance Studio that owner Teresa Tomb allowed them to use.
“We literally had no start-up money,” Burris says. “I don’t even think she mentioned rent, but we wanted to pay a portion of what we made. I think or first payment was $22.”
The center is primarily supported by billing for services through Medicaid and private donations. It also makes a small commission from sales of art, but Burris says most artists at Latitude sell work through galleries, in which case sales terms are between the artist and the gallery.
Latitude has had its artists show work around Lexington. At Third Street Stuff, owner Pat Gerhard maintains a regular space for Latitude artists; other places include the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and Institute 193, where Dunahoo’s exhibit Sheltered Environment just closed.
Dunahoo, Baker and Ralph Reynolds have had work exhibited in New York and elsewhere in the country.
Burris and Bader say they feel as if they have opened eyes in the social services world and in society in general to the value of arts to people with disabilities, and the untapped potential of people who are perceived to have limited skills.
During the past decade, they have been drawn to a stronger advocacy role.
They cite projects including a day when they went to the stoplight at Broadway and New Circle Road, counting the number of cars in 100 light cycles during which people ran red lights (They tallied 107). The point was to document one of the scenarios that makes it difficult for people with disabilities to get around, and to use the skills of Latitude clients to do it.
They also have sponsored inaccessibility tours of downtown Lexington, illustrating to many people how difficult it is for a person with disabilities to get around the city.
“In general, downtown does not work for people with disabilities,” Burris says. “It’s acceptable but not good.”
The 10th anniversary of Latitude has prompted the group to step back and contemplate the next 10 years.
Burris and Bader hope to see a greater emphasis on advocacy.
“I remember long hours of learning a bureaucratic system that offered no support to get through it,” Bader says. “You don’t hear people say they want to be great in social services.”
Another goal is greater integration between disabled residents and the rest of the community.
The sign in front of Latitude on Tuesday morning says the yoga classes are open to all, although all participants were disabled residents or their companions.
“We really want to make it clear that this place is open to everybody,” Burris says.