Passion & Joy at Emily Davis Gallery
In March 2020, Gallery Director Arnold Tunstall was eager to bring an exhibition titled Passion & Joy to the Emily Davis Gallery at the University of Akron Myers School of Art. Then the pandemic swept in, bringing the exhibition to a screeching halt, and robbed many of both passion and joy in the process. Two years later, the show has finally reemerged and is a welcome breath of fresh air, bringing together works by artists from both Passion Works Studio and Planet Joy Studio. This cheery and bright exhibition features work that takes on even deeper meaning given the state of conflict between Russia and Ukraine—proof that joyful art can still take on a political undertone.
Art helps us confront difficult issues, and our current chapter is reminiscent of the early twentieth century, when many artists began to question how they could return to painting picturesque landscapes after witnessing the atrocities of the first World War. We are reaching a similar point in the wake of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we should let go of art that evokes joy. While art that challenges us to think critically is necessary, that same art can still bring us happiness and comfort. Passion & Joy at the Emily Davis Gallery embraces an inclusive, collaborative model of creating and is evidence that nuance and beauty can exist synergistically.
I had the opportunity to meet Susan Dlouhy and Patty Mitchell, the minds behind Passion Works Studio. Passion Works is a collaborative community art studio located in Athens, Ohio that supports artists with developmental differences. “We don’t make apologies for making joyful art,” said Executive Director and Founder Patty Mitchell.
Passion Works also acts as a consultant and helped bring Planet Joy Studio into existence. Planet Joy opened in Medina, Ohio in 2018 and operates under a similar model to Passion Works, allowing artists with developmental differences to create imaginative and collaborative art.
Passion & Joy is a significant exhibition because it exposes the public to different ways of approaching art and makes the arts accessible to all. The exhibition was hung with the intention to elevate the perception of artists with developmental differences, amplifying the voices of people who are often dismissed. You can expect to find plenty of wildlife, explorations of architecture, and bold colors. Another quality unique to this exhibition is that you’ll see multiple artists listed on the labels, demonstrating the collaborative model of creation.
Appalachian Foothills is a menagerie of woodland creatures offset by brightly colored flora, celebrating the wildlife indigenous to Southern Ohio. The psychedelic explosion of life and color is a reminder of the remarkable natural world around us.
I was impressed by the number of carefully constructed quilts in the exhibition. Horse & Snail, for example, is an intricate amalgamation of small fabric scraps. Like Impressionist paintings, when you step back, you see the formation of a horse with a snail on its back. The whimsical composition is elevated by the attention to detail required to assemble the quilt.
The Night Garden is an exquisite example of contrast. Poppy shades of yellow, violet, orange, and blue are heightened by the impact of a black background. This piece was made possible by collaboration—artists draw the flowers, and the drawings are then enlarged and projected onto the canvas, where they are filled in with paint.
Never Give Up is an abstracted architectural scene depicting none other than professional wrestler John Cena’s house. Again, bold hues pop against a black background, and the variety of shapes draw your eye throughout the painting.
A timely addition to this exhibition is a series of “Russian paintings.” While Patty was studying at Ohio University, she lived next door to a Russian Fulbright student who came to Ohio to study special education. This student wanted to take Passion Works back home to Russia, so Passion Works began working with Russian people to help replicate their process overseas. A series of paintings were created in both the United States and Russia that could be hung in Russia’s U.S. Embassy. Works such as Growing Strong Foundations depict Russian architecture. Due to the state of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, there has been a pause in exchanges with people living in Russia. Nonetheless, the “Russian paintings” are evidence that Passion Works can collaborate with anyone around the globe.
Aside from the Russian paintings, I found the works represented in this exhibition to be meaningful in myriad ways. Passion & Joy raises the voices of artists with developmental differences through art that is cheerful and comforting. It is absolutely worth the visit to the Emily Davis Gallery, and I look forward to seeing Passion Works Studio’s future collaborations.
Passion & Joy is on view through April 15, 2022. The Emily Davis Gallery is located in Folk Hall at 150 East Exchange Street in Akron. Gallery hours are Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.