Local nonprofit helps people with disabilities tap into their inner artists

Beer Bottle Drawing (1)

Victor Van’s art // Photo courtesy of the artist

“Art makes me.”

This is what art means to Victor Van, a Minneapolis artist with autism. His art depicts things he loves: cars, wine bottles, even beer labels.

“He would grab bottles and has always been fascinated by them,” Van’s mother, Yawa Vanthanouvong, explains about her son’s artistic inspiration. “Even as a little kid, he would collect, clean them, and then draw them. He eventually went on websites and picked ones he liked and drew his version of them.”

In addition to his years spent drawing, Van’s art skills have also flourished thanks to the visual and performing arts program offered at Partnership Resources, a local nonprofit that has helped people with disabilities for nearly 55 years by forming partnerships between clients and their community.

Bottle and Cars Drawing (1)

Victor Van’s art // Photo courtesy of the artist

Partnership Resources is an entitlement program, meaning it is partially funded through Medicaid. Mental health legislation promoting care and support blossomed in America in the 1970s, due to shifts in public attitudes on mental health. Mental health policy peaked when President Carter put a comprehensive survey of mental health care into effect, the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

At present, Partnership Resources works with about 300 adults with developmental disabilities and varying functional levels. Clients include individuals with Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy. The organization has 63 job sites where clients work to learn new skills in new settings. It also facilitates over 30 volunteer sites, as well as its two locations, in St. Louis Park and Minneapolis.

Among nonprofits that help secure job placement for the developmentally disabled, Partnership Resources is unique in its dedication to the arts—added 12 years ago, its art program directly connects clients with trained artists. Branded PARTnerships (with the A, R, and T displayed as white paint strokes), the program has taken off.

“Our art program really changed our company,” says Dan Reed, Partnership Resources director of marketing and development. “Some of our most successful artists have some of the biggest challenges.”


Victor Van’s notebook // Photo courtesy of the artist

Among those artists are men and women with cerebral palsy, and those who are paraplegic or quadriplegic. “So for them to create the art is extremely laborious,” Reed says. “But some of them make a lot of money.”

Van is among those artists.

“He’s an artist savant,” Reed says, explaining how Van crafts cars out of empty cereal boxes. Sharing the art Van and others do is part of Reed’s job—a way for him to “introduce the world to some of this stuff our folks can do.”

“The performing arts [are] taking center stage,” Reed says, in part referring to the nonprofit’s recently completed year-long project with the Children’s Theatre. The partnership included clients partaking in two performances.

Partnership Resources also adds new activities based on the increasingly diverse population it serves. Sometimes it’s a song sung in someone’s native Russian language; other times it has led to Somali art incorporated into classes.

But as receptive as clients have been to the art program and other new programs, Reed says the mission ultimately is to “help clients become more a part of their community.”

“And that’s through work, through volunteerism, visual, and performing arts,” he says. “It makes them more well-rounded citizens, and can make a community more well-rounded with the inclusion of the people we support.”

For some, becoming a more well-rounded human being may just come down to shaping a pile of clay. The sculpting helps focus the eyes, while the feel of the oily, smooth material tantalizes fingertips and relaxes the mind.

Van says it best. “I like art and now I like to work with clay,” he says. “Art is challenging and the patience keeps me really focused. I lose track of time. Art centers me, but doesn’t overtake me.”


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