A safe place for sensitive artists

Simply Jane/Artable founder Jane Elias: “I feel like my sensitivity is an amazing gift, and it makes me more compassionate towards others.” Photo by Jim Walsh

“We all have special needs here,” said Jane Elias of herself and the three-person staff at Simply Jane/Artable, the Diamond Lake neighborhood-based art therapy studio Elias founded nine years ago. “I am highly sensitive, which causes me a lot of anxiety and depression, and because of our disabilities, we’re all very intuitive and really able to figure out where people are at and how to work with them.

“So when I moved over here from our [first location on 48th and Nicollet], I pushed everything back so it’s all wheelchair accessible, and it’s an open studio so there’s lots of spaces, so if someone’s having a breakdown or they’re just overwhelmed by things, there’s space. Being a highly sensitive person, I took everything into consideration, so we have natural light, we don’t use any chemicals in the studio, we only play classical piano music, and we try to keep it very organic and very calming.”

And how. And it’s not only artists, or people with diagnosed disabilities, who move through this wacky world with their senses and emotions on red alert. The rigmarole of modern life can do a number on the lot of us, and Simply Jane/Artable serves as an oasis of creativity and calm where sensitive souls are set free to bloom anew.

“Painting is meditative,” said Elias. “You get outside of all the overstimulation of our world right now, and away from the computers, where everybody’s really wired in and not really present. You can’t help but be present when you’re painting.”

Elias and crew celebrates Simply Jane/Artable’s birthday November 11 with its annual gala and fundraiser featuring appetizers, a cash bar, a silent auction, and a performance and speech on accessibility and the arts by Duluth-born fiddle player Gaelynn Lea, who was born with a congenital disability, and who won this year’s NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert contest. Advance tickets can be purchased at simplyjanestudio.com and eventbrite.com/e/simply-artable-annual-fundraiser-with-musician-and-speaker-gaelynn-lea-tickets-27152307282.

“Gaelynn Lea said she would be honored to perform here,” said Elias. “She’s in a wheelchair and she plays her fiddle like a cello and she’s also a big advocate for speaking for those with disabilities and special needs, so we thought she’d be an excellent [spokesperson and performer]. Our first three fundraisers we had Kevin Kling, and he was wonderful.”

The second youngest of a boisterous clan of nine, Elias’s father was a guidance counselor who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her mother was an art and music therapist who took Jane and her older sister Lisa, an accomplished metal artist and blacksmith, to nursing homes and group homes to perform songs and skits for adults with special needs.

“Being highly sensitive, growing up in a big family was a very dangerous place for someone like me. I spent my childhood with a pillow over my head and in a closet,” she said. “I mean, I used to get so over-stimulated that I would faint. Everybody was always saying, ‘Don’t be so sensitive, don’t be so sensitive,’ like it was something you could control. And they took me to the doctor when I’d faint and he said, ‘She can’t kill herself, she’ll automatically breathe, so just ignore that behavior.’ So they did, and my siblings got such a kick out of making me faint.

“So I had to learn how to live here, so I pretended like I was somebody else so I could function. Now, over the years, the only place I really feel comfortable is in my home or here [in her studio]. I created a space that is calm and beautiful. I have a good friend who’s blind, and she comes in here and she goes, ‘Oh this feels so good. It’s so beautiful.’ She can’t even see it, but she can feel the energy that’s in here.”

Before opening Simply Jane/Artable, Elias was an in-demand illustrator and muralist who specialized in creating what she’s dubbed “healing environments.” When she became a mother, her kids took to painting and she started teaching other kids how to paint, and she opened her first studio up the street from Washburn High School.

“It was a beautiful environment, but the restrooms were downstairs,” she said. “And I soon realized that people were coming in for more than painting. Like, there was a teenager with autism who came every Wednesday night to paint, and I was getting people who were depressed, or people who were total recluses and then would come out, and people in wheelchairs, and lots of women who were like, ‘I haven’t done anything for myself and this is the first time I’ve had a chance to focus.’ And I realized that this is art therapy. So when my lease was up over there, I wanted to find a place that was accessible to all people.”

To be sure, other than paints and canvases, Simply Jane/Artable has little in common with the wine-drinking and paint-by-instruction joints that have become trendy in the last five years. But those franchises emboldened many first-timers to try their hand at painting, and Elias welcomes everyone to the cozy confines of her safe space.

“Now we have group homes coming in,” she said. “A lot of people with disabilities feel really isolated in their group homes, so we get a lot of them and their families. So this is a place where everyone can come together and it’s fellowship, a social thing. Once a month we do what we call Pizza Paint Parties, where we invite 15 of our special needs artists and then 15 people from the greater community – my friends, or my church people, or people who’ve expressed interest – and we get Pizza Luce and beverages and everybody paints a canvas and everybody sits down with a new friend and has lunch together and we all paint together and at the end we have a little art show where we honor everybody and what they’ve done, and it’s really cool.

“I spent a lot of time alone in the studio and terrified, and I didn’t know what to do and then I started think that this could be a really cool nonprofit. Now I have a grant writer who’s been with me for a year now, and we’ve been getting small grants here and there. We have this unique opportunity to raise funds by the general public coming in; doing birthday parties; we do ‘Paint The Greats’ where we paint the masters every other Friday night; we’ve done things with AARP where they had big parties here, and everything we’ve done has gone back into the studio.

“It’s grown so much. We go to hospitals and work with moms on bed rest once a month, and we’ve done work in hospitals with kids on the psych ward. There’s such a huge demand, and I think we’re just going to get bigger and bigger.”

Nowadays the Simply Jane/Artable calendar is filled with all sorts of painting parties and events, and Elias regularly fires up the studio bus for painting parties and field trips—and none of it would have happened had she not embraced her own sensitivity.

“It’s a gift,” she said. “I feel like my sensitivity is an amazing gift, and it makes me more compassionate towards others.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at jimwalsh086@gmail.com