SAFETY HARBOR — In downtown Safety Harbor, there is a turquoise house with a white fence, a series of colorful patio chairs under umbrellas and a vertical sculpture of a dolphin in bright neon colors.
The cheerful building at 176 Fifth Ave. N is the newly renovated Harborside Studios — a one-of-a-kind place designed for teaching and displaying the artwork of developmentally disabled local residents.
The studio is a project of UPARC, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to make life better for its clients. With funds mostly from state grants and private donations, the organization provides group homes, apartments and opportunities to enjoy a fuller life, including the bright new art studio.
One recent morning two groups of students, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, reflected that mission's success: They were painting, working in clay and eagerly engaged in their projects and with each other. A sense of joy emanated from the two art rooms where work was in progress.
Valerie West faced her students in the smaller of the two rooms, where eight men and women were painting abstract designs with tempera.
"We do everything," she said, pointing to a display wall, "from painting on plexiglass to papier mache to puppetry."
Tonya Elliot, 49, takes classes there five days a week, as does her sister, who also is developmentally challenged. Elliot said she loves coming to the studio.
"I love blending colors and painting with Valerie," she said of her teacher. "She got me inspired."
UPARC had operated a studio in rented space in the building since 2004. But in 2012, the nonprofit purchased the building, gutted it and then began an extensive renovation.
Sheldon Hershman, executive director of UPARC, stopped by the studio one recent morning. He spoke of the newly renovated space with pride.
"We were fortunate to secure grants from the Pinellas County community planning department along with private donations," Hershman said.
Most of those donations come from the UPARC Foundation. The fundraising arm of UPARC, the foundation has been raising money for the past 30 years. The art studio is the latest project to benefit from its efforts.
"We now have about 43 people enrolled," Hershman said of the art classes, "but on average 25-30 of them attend on a daily basis."
The studio, which provides art lessons up to six days a week, has three teachers who move briskly among the students, shifting gears week by week on the form of art they teach.
Studio director Michelle Ault said she needs a fourth teacher to work part time. Ault, who has worked in various divisions of UPARC for the last 18 years, now hires art teachers for the studio, plans lessons along with them and helps select art projects she thinks will sell. She seeks other venues to display the students' work and plans their exhibits.
At the front of the new studio is a large gallery with the fruits of the students' labor displayed on four walls. The quality of the work gives no apparent clue to the developmental challenges of the artists.
Paintings of flowers, comic figures and common household objects are done in modern, often abstract, designs in eye-catching colors. Strands of ceramic beads are draped over small stands on the gallery tables. Nearby are ceramic platters, plates and bowls and other personal ornaments such as rings.
Prices are affixed to all art pieces.
"We try to determine the price by how much time the student invested in the work and the appearance of the finished project," Ault said.
The artists receive 60 percent of the proceeds of their sales; the rest goes to purchasing new supplies.
Ault also has promoted the artwork beyond the walls of the gallery.
"We participate in all activities here in Safety Harbor," she said, including Kiwanis events, the popular wine festival and Third Friday, a monthly city festival featuring music, vendors, food and art.
Ault said she has found her work with Harborside Studios particularly gratifying.
"The biggest reward is walking in the door in the morning and knowing the difference art makes in their lives," she said of the students. "Over time, their attitudes and personalities have become more positive and relationships have blossomed."
Hershman said he has gained insights into the nature of both art and artist.
"This art challenges people's preconceived notions about people with disabilities," he said. "It reminds me that you can't limit people."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]