BRATTLEBORO—One may have noticed a new presence where the Shin-La’s sushi bar used to be on Brattleboro’s Main Street — Angel Boy Art Resource Center.
In business since 2006, Angel Boy has occupied the space between Twice Upon A Time and Shin-La Restaurant since March of this year.
The towering, plate-glass windows are covered with colorful handprints, and hand-painted signs announce just some of the contents and activities beyond the door: “art by those with disabilities,” “free art therapy,” “vintage modern homemade jewelry,” and “non-profit resource center."
“Framed prints,” and “photography, watercolors, pastels, [and] pencil sketches” fill the walls, and “[m]ost of the art is accompanied by a biography of the artist detailing his or her special needs and how art plays a role in their life,” says the organization’s press release.
“I’ve always wanted a gallery,” Angel Boy founder and president Sara Vitale said, noting the space allows her to “engage with people” and provide “education and understanding about people with disabilities.”
Part of the education is a display of what Vitale describes as “famous people with disabilities.”
“Stigmas don’t necessarily apply to celebrities with disabilities,” she said, adding Angel Boy’s “biggest goal is to reduce the stigma” of disability, and “that happens through immersion.”
Vitale described Angel Boy as a judgement-free space.
“We understand people have their stigmas,” she said. “But, we also understand we can break those stigmas by learning and understanding."
“We named it our ‘Resource Center’ because this space is much more than just an art gallery for people with disabilities,” Angel Boy Vice President Kim Gove said in the press release.
Some of the art in the gallery was created by Vitale’s clients. She said she provides “in-house art therapy for kids with social, cognitive, and physical disabilities.” Those who can travel “can walk in and do art projects when the art therapist is there” Vitale said, adding the sessions at Angel Boy, and in clients homes, are free.
The cost of the art therapy sessions is partly paid for by proceeds from the sale of jewelry displayed in the center. Vitale said all the pieces were donated — although she described some as “modern,” she said “we focus on the retro-vintage angle."
Angel Boy is named after Vitale’s youngest son, Louis Angelo. “He was nicknamed ‘Angel Boy’ since he was born,” Vitale said.
When Louis was born with what she calls “special differences,” Vitale said she began studying counseling, focusing on people who have children with special needs. She said she also mentored with an art therapist at Shriner’s Hospital, and earned a degree in psychology.
On the walls are a few collaborative pieces between Vitale’s clients and the stars of the ABC television show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
The Vitales were chosen from hundreds of families to appear on the show, and in 2007, the show’s producers arranged to build them a new home in Athens with handicapped-accessible and energy-efficient features.
“The stars of the show signed the canvases,” Vitale said. She then put masking tape over the signatures and had children participating in her art therapy sessions paint the rest of the canvases, providing a sort of background.
Vitale hopes to sell or auction the pieces, with the funding supporting Angel Boy’s efforts.
Another fundraising event Angel Boy is hosting is at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15 at the Latchis Theatre — a screening of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Admission is by donation.
The 1993 film, starring Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, and Mary Steenburgen, is “perfect, because it deals with so many types of disabilities, especially depression,” Vitale said.
“It’s a very real, honest movie. It’s in-your-face, but not offensive or rude, but it’s enough to make you feel,” said Vitale, noting in that way, the film is “like Angel Boy."
In addition to jewelry to wear and art to look at, Angel Boy also offers books to read. Near a few overstuffed chairs sits a bookshelf with non-fiction selections on art, disabilities, child psychology, grant-writing, and other topics.
“Anyone can borrow them,” Vitale said.
A four-legged feature of Angel Boy is Fezzik, the in-house therapy dog.
“Anyone can visit and love him and get kisses,” Vitale said. She explained Fezzik is trained to work with people with special needs. He will hop up onto the arm of a wheelchair so those sitting in one can pet him; if it is easier for a child to reach down to pet Fezzik, he is trained to plunk down on the floor.
“He’s our ambassador,” Vitale said of Fezzik. “He knows when he sees those wheelchairs, or kids with cognitive disabilities, he turns right into ‘therapy dog.’”
For those who prefer their furry friends inanimate, Angel Boy houses a giant teddy bear who awaits hugs from visitors.
One section of Angel Boy’s southern wall is covered with art and photographs, but is separated from the rest of the space by a half-wall supporting potted plants.
“We have this planter barrier so people can keep their comfort level,” Vitale said.
This section holds what Angel Boy’s organizers call the “Forever Young Wall.”
“It’s babies we worked with who died,” Vitale explained. She said for many of her young clients, the clock is ticking, and they and their families have an immediate need for more resources and support to manage their special needs.
“Some of our clients can’t wait until tomorrow,” she said, noting today “is their tomorrow.”