Local artist lends a hand to help others

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By Sara Miller

Mitch Andasola’s last name means “one who walks alone” in the Navajo language. In many regards, the name is fitting for this artist, who works as a therapist at the Wheat Ridge Regional Center.

And while Andasola spends his days working side by side with developmentally disabled adults, he walks alone in his artistic innovation. Andasola single-handedly created a program called Helping Hands Pottery at the center. Helping Hands allows Andasola’s students to explore their creative tendencies while developing new skills and generating income for the center’s vocational training program.

“I wanted to develop a program that would appeal to a market — that being art collectors,” Andasola says. “Through Helping Hands, a collector can have a beautiful piece of art that is worthy of displaying. At the same time, the program is benefiting the adults at the center. The money from art purchases goes back into the program, providing more developmental opportunities for our guys.”

Andasola’s students are all adult males who are dually diagnosed with developmental disabilities and mental illness. His class meets five days a week, and the students take part in all aspects of making ceramics.

“Typically we like to have individuals work in an area that they show interest in. We try to put them someplace where they are going to have the best environment for learning. The guys in my classroom tend to like artistic thing or are OK with getting really messy,” says Andasola.

Andasola’s latest projects are decorative platters or bowls — perfect for display on a wall or flat surface. The class meets every day, and students participate in all parts of the creation of each platter. On one day, the class may stop by the kiln to pick up plates that have been fired. Another day may be spent preparing the fired plates for glazing.

Andasola even has one student who loves to reconstitute clay. This process consists of adding water to dried out clay to obtain a malleable product for re-use.

“This guy is really talented,” Andasola says. “He could run the classroom on his own if he wanted to. This program offers him independence and freedom and allows him to be part of something artistic.”

The plates sell for $75 to $100 each. Each plate has initials etched on the back. These initials represent each individual who worked on that piece — students, staff at the center, and Andasola himself. In the first year of the program, Helping Hands had two gallery showings and began creating custom pieces as well.

“Many of the initial phone calls that I got were from artists wanting to purchase the plates. Even a lay person can see the beauty of the piece, but someone who has worked in the field can also appreciate the extensive time that it took to create these pieces,” says Andasola.

Trained as an artist in his own right, Andasola creates original pieces in his home studio as well. In addition to his work in pottery, Andasola creates jewelry and woodcarvings and is currently experimenting with stone-carving techniques.

“You name it, and I’ve explored it,” says Andasola. “I’d like to start doing things in my own art on a larger scale. I’d love to get some commission from cities or parks — maybe even some churches.”

Meanwhile, Andasola is content spending most of his time teaching art to the men of Wheat Ridge Regional Center.

“I’ve always been interested in working with people who had some type of need. When I heard about the position at Ridge, it seemed like the perfect fit. Developing the Helping Hands program just took it one step further. It allowed me to share my love — art — with others in a meaningful way.”

The Helping Hands pottery is on display at the Evergreen Public Library through August. For more information on the Helping Hands program of the Wheat Ridge Regional Center, call 303-463-2765. For more information about the art of Mitch Andasola, call 303-888-5630.