Treasured Wilmington art studio, drop-in center for people ‘on edges of society’ is closing

The Creative Vision Factory has been a mecca and safe haven for people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, or homelessness, and sometimes all three.

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Ken Segal standing in front of a wall of brightly colored artworks

Ken Segal, a staffer and artist at the Creative Vision Factory, shows off his wall of fluorescent art. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

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When Althea Wilson walks around Wilmington, usually singing gospel music and often searching for somewhere to sleep, she keeps her eyes on the ground, hunting for heart-shaped rocks.

When Wilson finds one worthy of collecting, the diminutive 58-year-old takes it to her art studio, draws a heart on its surface and paints it bright red.

Althea Wilson posing for a photo with her painted rocks visible inside the window.
Althea Wilson shows off her painted heart-shaped rocks. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Then she displays it in the front windowsill of the downtown Creative Vision Factory — an unassuming brick building on Shipley Street that doubles as a daytime sanctuary for dozens of people grappling with mental illness, substance abuse or homelessness, and sometimes all three.

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“I’ve got an angel heart in the background. Cat’s eye,’’ she said, pointing to about a dozen rocks. “There’s one blowing bubblegum.”

Wilson’s creations aren’t high art by any stretch. But they’re hers, and they’re a big part of how she expresses herself and finds joy during what’s been a hard life.

“I’m currently experiencing homelessness again, hopefully for a short period of time,’’ she said in late February. “This is my lifesaver.”

The studio, filled with hundreds of paintings, drawings, sculptures, glass murals and other artwork, has been a fixture on Shipley Street for 13 years. Other works created by clients adorn a city school, a nonprofit center and a graveyard for patients who died at the state psychiatric hospital.

art workspace
There’s no shortage of art supplies and space to create. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

But the Creative Vision Factory’s days are numbered, and the doors will shut for good sometime this spring.

Wilson says the impending closure breaks her own heart.

“There’s no place like this place,’’ she says, bursting into tears. “It means a lot to me. It has helped me grow inwardly tremendously. It’s bringing out the best of me and the more potential I see in myself that I can do better. I can do better. I can do better.”

Pointing to her precious rocks, she makes a pledge: “I’m not gonna give up this collection here.”

Rocks painted red sit inside a windowsill
Althea Wilson’s painted heart-sharped stones occupy a key piece of real estate — the front windowsill. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Michael Kalmbach, who has run the studio since it opened 13 years ago, says it’s closing for a multitude of reasons, primarily financial viability and encroaching gentrification.

The Creative Vision Factory is one block off Market Street, downtown Wilmington’s main artery, in an area that’s home to hundreds of new apartments, fancy restaurants, breweries and even WHYY’s Delaware office.

Michael Kalmbach sitting in his office
“For a 13-year period, something really cool kind of blossomed here on Shipley Street,” says Michael Kalmbach.

Kalmbach said he realizes that downtown developers and some residents and office workers won’t miss the group of men and women who wander in and out of the studio and don’t hesitate to stroll to the corner to smoke weed. But he’s proud of what the artists have been able to accomplish.

“It’s been a wild ride,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve accumulated. There’s been a lot of art-making but also a lot of community, a lot of friendships. For a 13-year period something really cool kind of blossomed here on Shipley Street.”

The Creative VIsion Factory building, with new apartment buildings seen next door
Hundreds of new apartments have been built near the Creative Vision Factory (foreground), including a new one that towers above the studio in the 600 block of Shipley Street. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Kalmbach hopes to reopen in some form at another existing day center located four miles away in the town of Elsmere. But he knows the new space and the vibe there won’t be the same, and that many of his current artists won’t be going to the facility that’s located in a residential neighborhood in the same building that houses Elsmere’s municipal offices and police force.

“People come here from all points of the city,’’ Kalmbach said of the downtown location. “What’s really been key about it is it’s very centralized. It’s close to tons of transit lines, check-cashing places and pharmacies.”

“The sad fact is that while there may be some who try to follow us and hang out with us in Elsmere, just the sheer math securing bus passes to get there’’ will prove insurmountable for many. “It’s definitely a hike, and outside of the terrain that they’re usually navigating.”

A man sitting at a computer
An artist/client listens to music on a recent morning. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Joanna Champney, director of the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health that provides funding to six drop-in centers statewide, says the Creative Vision Factory has provided a “wonderful” safe haven for people in need.

“The piece that makes the Creative  Vision Factory unique is the focus on artistic engagement, getting people to get their creative juices flowing,’’ Champney said. “They can come in and paint and do ceramics — all sorts of great artistic activities — and while they’re doing that, they’re building relationships with staff who are listening to what the person’s needs are and their skills and being able to connect the clients to services in the community that could benefit them and enhance their life.”

‘When somebody’s engaged in making, they’re in the moment’

The Creative Vision Factory has been a labor of love for Kalmbach, who has also struggled with addiction.

He oversees meditation and check-in meetings where the artists open up about issues they are facing. He cleans the toilets. He also has the tall task of managing folks who come and go from the studio, sometimes squabbling with each other, inside or out on Shipley. He’s even revived a handful of overdose victims with Narcan.

Group of people meditating in a room together
Artist/clients gather for the morning meditation and check-in session at Creative Vision Factory on a recent day. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

But Kalmbach has always treated these men and women with compassion and understanding. He always has a pot of hot coffee going. In the colder months, he provides single-serve ramen soup. He tries to connect people with bus passes.

“A significant number of people are reliant on the space for restrooms, for email connectivity, connective services and, you know, art-making on top of all of that,’’ Kalmbach said. “When somebody’s engaged in making, they’re experiencing present body awareness. They’re not thinking of the terrible thing that just happened to them or thinking about the next thing that’s gonna happen to them. They’re in the moment.”

Michael Kalmbach sitting in his office with lots of boxes piled up
Kalmbach’s office doubles as a storage room for coffee stirrers and other supplies. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)
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And that’s been the whole point. Peer-to-peer support and providing a welcoming, secure space so struggling souls can heal and maybe even thrive.

“When we see people get better,’’ Kalmbach said, “they usually have three things: a home, a  sanctuary and some purpose. When those three things are in line for an individual, things start to really bounce back in your life. You start to have some agency. You start to do things for yourself, get more involved.”

Michael Kalmbach cleaning a toilet
Michael Kalmbach does it all, and that includes keeping the bathroom clean. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

‘As a community we’re missing out on so much transformative art’

Others outside Delaware have taken notice and visited Creative Vision Factory. Leah Harris, a mental health advocate and writer based in northern Virginia, lauds the studio as groundbreaking.

“I’ve never encountered anything like it,’’ Harris said. “Not only is it run by artists who themselves have lived with addiction, mental health challenges, trauma, but it’s also going so above and beyond the way the people are usually engaged through the arts in a mental health setting, which is, sorry to say, coloring books and popsicle sticks.

Leah Harris and Michael Kalmbach pose for a photo
Mental health advocate Leah Harris calls Michael Kalmbach’s drop-in center a groundbreaking facility. (Courtesy of Leah Harris)

“Another thing that makes this program so unique is that it’s not tucked away or hidden away in a building somewhere, isolated from the rest of the community. That’s so valuable because it helps break down very common and persistent attitudes of prejudice and discrimination against people who are called clients, who grapple with addiction or mental health or being unhoused.”

People hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the building's entrance.
Artists/clients gather outside as they await the start of a recent afternoon session. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Will Eberle, who runs the Vermont Association of Mental Health and Addiction Recovery, said Creative Vision Factory essentially flipped the script on how such centers for “people living on the edges of society” are run.

“Most of the programs are really about kind of doling out units of support, trying to keep people through these cycles of crisis, and providing kind of the minimum amount needed to do that,’’ Eberle said.

Will Eberle smiling for a selfie
Will Eberle, who runs the Vermont Association of Mental Health and Addiction Recovery, praises the “revolutionary approach” to helping people on the edges of society. (Courtesy of Will Eberle)

Instead, Creative Vision Factory adopted a “revolutionary approach that was like, ‘Your unique talents and and gifts to offer the community in the world are from the art that you’ve got inside of you,’ and the most important thing is to get that out and to support you in that and then the rest is just details.”

“You’re able to connect with people so much faster and so much deeper than if you’re kind of jumping through these hurdles by having to talk about diagnoses or if they’re engaged or compliant with the program, or what phase of change are they at?’’

Three photos of Knicoma Frederick creating his artwork
Knicoma Frederick spends a recent morning working on a drawing, sharpening his pencils, and showing off his work. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Eberle said that as impressed as he has been by the model for healing, he was even more stunned by the quality of the art when he visited a couple of years ago.

“I was blown away,’’ he said. “I just had no idea it was gonna be that good. Some of the paintings were just astonishing. And just this idea that people in the community that are totally written off as subterranean or out of the fold of society’s protections, totally ignored, left to languish, and then all of a sudden you see what they’ve got inside them in the art domain, is just absolutely mind-blowing. It makes you realize that as a community we’re missing out on so much transformative art when we don’t create the conditions that make that possible for the most vulnerable people.”

Closing means many artists are ‘just going to be in the wind’

During a recent visit, staffer Ken Segal took attendance and wrote down each client’s goals for the day. Segal also does art to help him cope with bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Segal, a wiry, upbeat 64-year-old, is married and has a house in Newark, but calls the Creative Vision Factory his salvation.

Ken Segal sits at a table
Ken Segal keeps daily attendance and records each artist’s goals for the session. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“It’s like home to me. It really is a place where a lot of people can achieve,’’ Segal said. “We have programs for some folks to get into art and some people just come to drop in and hang out, drink coffee and socialize. I think we serve an important function in this neighborhood and it helps me in my recovery.”

Segal shows off his art — fluorescent paintings in broad strokes that glow under ultraviolet light.

“It’s all faces and figure paintings. This one here is supposed to be angry Ganesh. It’s a character from Hinduism —  it has an elephant head and the body of a fat man. He’s supposed to be very chill.”

A quote hanging up
Inspirational sayings are placed throughout the Creative Vision Factory. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Segal says he’s looking for a new job and studio, but with the clock ticking down, he’s concerned for his fellow artists and daytime friends.

“I have no idea what they are gonna do,’’ Segal said. “We’ve got quite a few that, I don’t know, they’re just going to be in the wind.”

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