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Artists Helping Artists: Breaking Barriers And Building Community Through Creation

The process is every bit as important as the product

By Spencer van Vloten

BC Disability

Based in Burnaby, Artists Helping Artists (AHA) supports and promotes the creative journey of artists with a range of abilities and needs.

Spencer van Vloten talked with Katelyn from AHA about how she's seen art build community, break barriers, and bring out the outstanding and often overlooked talents of persons with disabilities.

Spencer: Tell us what Artists Helping Artists does

Katelyn: AHA is an art studio collective where individuals of all abilities and skill levels come together to make art of all kinds! We provide artists with studio space, affordable materials and the opportunity to pursue their aspirations concerning artistic expression.

When not in a pandemic we invite different volunteers to run workshops and we assist artists in advertising and selling their work via community art shows, online sales and pop up galleries.

During the pandemic we have been offering a variety of online courses, art kit deliveries and partnering with other programming that offer engaging artistic content.

​AHA believes art is a vital element in tolerance and inclusion and a large percent of our membership is made up of artists with complex needs. Registration is open to any person over the age of 16 who would like to create art or who would like to support artists in the production and marketing of art.

Spencer: How do the artists help each other?

Katelyn: Artists at AHA help each other simply by being there. Sometimes it’s as a sounding board to get feedback on a piece. Often times it’s to work alongside one another in group projects.

But above all, the thing I have noticed most is the support and encouragement the artists give one another. I am continually hearing “you’ve got this!” or “that looks so good” popping up around the studio.

Part of being a member of AHA also means the opportunity to put on their own workshops! We’ve got folks who came in just to ‘see what AHA is all about’ who are now regulars who teach their own workshops or suggest new programming.

The talented artists of AHA use many different colours and styles

Spencer: Is there any particular support that disabled artists need that non-disabled artists usually don’t?

Katelyn: We have adaptive equipment to ensure that everyone has an even playing field when it comes to creating. We have moveable desks that were specifically made for folks using wheelchairs, paintbrushes with thick grips for folks who have low muscle tone, and our videos are close captioned so everyone can engage with art.

AHA also has staff that are eager to assist with any artistic skill-building that needs to take place. If we don’t know how to do it, we find volunteers who do!

Spencer: What affect do you see art having on the lives of persons with disabilities?

Katelyn: One of the biggest changes I see in folks in their confidence. Usually when folks first attend AHA there is a reticence, a belief that “I’m not an artist”. The first thing I tell them is, ‘Everyone is an artist. You just haven’t found your medium yet.”

The first thing I tell them is 'everyone is an artist. You just haven't found your medium yet'

For example, we offer not only visual art workshops but dancing and music as well. We like our folks to be exposed to as much as possible so they can find what they’re truly passionate about.

I’ve also seen such confidence grow in our artists. I had one fellow who started at AHA making basic geometric shapes. Now, almost two years later he’s doing stunning landscapes, portraits and trying every medium he can get his hand on. He has high aspirations for finding paid and volunteer work.

The talented Dennis works on a new masterpiece

Spencer: What does it mean to your artists when they make a sale?

Katelyn: One of the biggest joys I have is when their artwork sells. When I hand over their payment every artist has the biggest smile. One man told me, “I’ve never been paid for my art before. I’m a real artist now.”

We have one woman who went from sitting at home every day to running workshops at AHA and now volunteering for the Deer Lake Art Gallery. Not only that, she launched her own small business selling her amazing crochet work! She directly attributes AHA for making that possible.

The other effect I see is pure joy. When folks are learning something new or they’re really engaged with a piece they’re working on, there is this quiet calm that comes over them. Art is one of those things that is inherently soothing for many individuals. This is why art needs to be accessible for all who desire it.

Spencer: What can be done to help more persons with disabilities get involved with art?

Katelyn: The barriers that limit individuals living with a disability are the ones that face most disenfranchised individuals. Expense, accessibility and stigma.

AHA actively fights to reduce these barriers every day. Finances should never be a reason someone can’t create artwork. Everyone has the right to create artwork if they want to. We like to focus on what each person’s talent is and how we can nurture that. And every show we have, every workshop we run helps to lower the stigma around individuals with a disability.

We are so lucky to have supporters like Opus who donate supplies to our program to keep our costs low. People donate anything from new canvas and paint to hot chocolate for our artists and we turn around and try to share what we have.

A strong sense of community guides AHA's work. Artists learn together and support one another.

Spencer: Are there any platforms which are helping disabled artists gain exposure?

Katelyn: Because a large population of our artists have physical or developmental disabilities, their art is often overlooked. This means fewer chances to get their artwork out into the public and even fewer chances to be paid a fair price for their artwork.

Kickstart Disability is one of the platforms that have helped so many of our artists engage with a wider community and share the artwork they create with their 10x5 Artist Talks. That is such a huge support to the art community as a whole. They also highlight the importance of individuals of any ability being paid a fair price for the art they create!

Outside of AHA, the world is not accessible. It can have many barriers in terms of cost or support. And that’s why we’re working everyday to remind people that this world was meant for all, not just a select few.

Spencer: How can people support Artists Helping Artists?

Katelyn: AHA and similar programs can be supported in the following ways:

  1. Supporting us on social media channels, like Facebook and Instagram

  2. Attending (in person or virtual) our art shows or galleries

  3. Giving a platform to artists living with a disability

  4. Paying artists with a disability a fair price for their artwork

  5. Be part of our community! Do you have an art show you want us to participate in? See a partnership opportunity that will highlight the inherent value of our participants? Reach out! We love meeting new people!

Spencer: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Katelyn: As you will see from my answers, AHA is not an island. It is run by the Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion, an organization that values art, it’s supported by companies who see the benefit of low-cost/low barrier programming and its artists are encouraged by initiatives that acknowledge their inherent value.

My point is that community is the lifeblood of any arts-based programming. So be a part of your artistic community!


Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to!


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