A collaboration between university art students and individuals with disabilities is poised to reach beyond its workspace.

The Collaborative Arts Project between Fort Hays State University’s Department of Art and Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas began a year ago with a handful of FHSU students and individuals served by DSNWK at the Reed Center, 317 W. 13th.

The project is now housed at DSNWK’s Employment Connections, 660 Commerce Parkway. A ribbon cutting is scheduled for 9 a.m. April 23, and an exhibit of collaborative art including weavings, paintings and multimedia will be on display at the Hays Public Library, 1205 Main, during the Hays Arts Council’s Spring Art Walk on April 26.

Amy Schmierbach, FHSU professor art, started the project out of a need she saw in the community. Her 11-year-old son, Lucas Albers, has autism, and Schmierbach said she believed there should be more inclusiveness in the art community for people like her son.

“If I think my community needs to do better, it needs to start with me,” Schmierbach said.

A $5,000 grant from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission in the Department of Commerce and matching funds from DSNWK allowed Schmierbach to expand the project last fall. With the funds, she hired five students who worked several hours a week with individuals. After a student told her she would have more time for the project if it were a class, Schmierbach approached her department chair about doing so.

This semester, six FHSU students are working with about a dozen or so individuals in a workroom at Employment Connections on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in a Social Practice course. The individuals work on their projects from 9 to about 11 am., and the remaining 45 minutes offers lectures and visitations for the students.

Social practice is a term coined in the 1970s, Schmierbach said.

“It’s about working with people. It’s more like activism and trying to promote causes,” she said.

The grant from Kansas Creative Arts also allowed Schmierbach to purchase a floor loom. Previously, members of the collaboration had used small table looms, which are still in use. Tuesday morning, Danielle Wittman, Hays, was using one to make a scarf from colorful yarn.

The program has benefitted from donations as well. Dr. Katrina Hess donated another floor loom, and The Shepherd’s Mill in Phillipsburg donated a large amount of alpaca yarn, Schmierbach said.

Schmierbach stresses the project is a true collaboration.

“We’re teaching them some basic skills, but we’re just allowing them to be creative,” she said.

The students and even Schmierbach are learning some of those skills as well. Schmierbach took up weaving only about seven or eight years ago, she said.

“Half the class didn’t really know how to weave for the project. So they’re learning skills. They’re not masters at the craft. So we talk about what if we wait to be a master, we’ll never do this. So let’s go out and learn with everybody,” she said.

The project teaches the individuals involved some focus and socialization, Schmierbach said.

David Scott started with the program last year. He will have three framed weavings in the art walk exhibit. The piece he was working on Tuesday was an abstract construction of yarns in bright colors.

“Sometimes it’s not about skill, it’s about outlook on life, not being inhibited. They are just doing what they need to do and they are so focused on these tasks,” Schmierbach said.

Laura Krug, a graphic design major from Hays, worked on a tapestry on a standing loom while Karen Thorns worked on her own beside her, each of them using strips of fabric.

“I’m learning just different ways to help people who communicate differently,” Krug said of the class.

Last summer, she worked at the Kansas State School for the Blind, Kansas City, and said she would like to continue to work with those with disabilities in the future.

“It has just been really neat to see the interaction,” with the FHSU students and individuals, LaVonne Giess, employment services manager at Employment Connections, said.

The individuals even now talk about being part of Fort Hays State, she said.

Megan Pfannenstiel said she has gained some focus from working with the project as well. The art history major will graduate in May and hopes to continue working with the project through the summer and next fall.

Before becoming involved with the collaboration, she wasn’t sure what her career path would be.

“I didn’t really know which way I wanted to go. Once I started this project, it just clicked and made sense that you want to work with community and art together,” she said.

Marisa Kistler and Michaela Nietfeld said the class was helping prepare them for careers as teachers.

“There will be people that accommodations need to be made for. It’s showing us how we can do that and it’s still creating art. And it’s so fun,” Kistler said.

They were assembling multimedia pieces using watercolor paintings by individuals, adding some of their own touches with lettering and some writings by Tyler Jones. The pieces will be framed for display.

Schmierbach said she would like to see the program continue to grow. The class will not be offered each semester at FHSU, but she would like to find a way to continue it between class offerings.

Ultimately, she would like to see the Collaborative Art Project turn into an art center — a studio that focuses on those in the IDD community — that becomes self-sustaining through art sales.

In the meantime, Schmierbach said she and her students will focus on collaborating with the individuals to help them be seen in the community.

“This is what I know how to do. I know how to bring people to the community and make art,” she said.