Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

How I Became a Successful Artist


Kathy Donahue, with assistance of Dan Reed

I am your typical working woman in her 50s. I balance my life by juggling a busy work schedule, dabbling in several interests and hobbies, and spending time with my family and friends. But how I got to this point in my life was anything but typical - and that is my story.

I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1951. Like many baby boomers, I come from a family with a few siblings. They were important in my life then, and my brother Jim and my sister Joyce remain a big part of my life today. School was a big struggle for me. I seemed to be bumped from school to school, always trying to find a school where I could fit in. I think the reason why I had to keep changing schools is that I needed special supports and hardly any schools even offered special education. One example of my troubles was that at one school some of the other kids were "shaking me down" for money. I actually took money out of my savings in hopes of not being beaten up. Once my family found out about it, they sent me to a different school. Back then, we really didn't feel welcome in schools - it was rough on me and my family.

One place I felt welcome was at Christ Child School in St. Paul. I learned a lot from Sister Anne Marie. She had a positive influence on my life. She got me enrolled in the school. I am not sure what would have happened to me had I not gone there. They knew how to teach us so we could understand. She had faith that we could learn and encouraged us to succeed. I met a lot of good friends, some I am still friends with today. We connected with one another. In fact, we had a reunion a few years back. It was nice. We had a lot of great teachers. We even learned to square dance and made our own outfits.

After Christ Child, I attended Henry High School and graduated in 1970. High school was good. I liked it. My favorite classes were cooking, history and sewing. I went into regular classes but I had tutors help me in study halls. The tutors helped me a lot.

After graduation, I stayed living with my family and worked at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, bussing tables and doing dishes. My parents taught me many things including the importance of being independent and to be able to take care of myself. I strive to heed my parents' advice daily. I feel proud and happy that I am quite independent and self-confident. By working in restaurants, I learned a lot about people. I got to watch them and when bussing tables I got to talk to people. They got comfortable with me and I with them. I took the bus to work downtown - right in the middle of the action. I learned my way around Minneapolis, as well. It is fun to know what is going on around town, and to this day I try to attend as many community events as I am able. I love living in Minneapolis.

My father died when I was 27. My mother had passed away many years before, so I had to find a new place to live. I lived with my sister for a few years, but I wanted more independence. I ended up living in some pretty large group homes. Back then there were few options for people with disabilities to live in smaller settings such as houses or apartments. Twenty years ago, I moved out on my own and have been independent since then. By living in my own apartment, I get to do what I want to do when I want to do it. That is a great feeling. I receive help on an occasional basis. In fact, I still receive assistance through the Supported Living Services. It is a really good program that keeps me on a good path. I can't imagine what would happen to people like me without their support.

My Artistic Life

I always liked arts and crafts. My favorites are Christmas decorations. Holidays have always meant a lot to me - they inspire me. You can see it in my art. Holidays give me something to look forward to and to celebrate.

I am not the only person in my family who is interested in art. My brother and other relatives dabbled in art. It was always around me. But I don't think I actually had a real art class until 2001 at Partnership Resources, Inc. (PRI). PRI is an agency that supports adults with developmental disabilities through vocational, recreational and cultural opportunities. It was the first place that believed that I would get something out of formal art training.

At PRI I studied Japanese and Chinese art, Picasso, Georgia O'Keefe and Frida Kahlo. I love studying how other artists draw what they see and feel. I try to relate to them and add my spin on it. I love seeing how it turns out.

From my art training I have gone in several different directions with my art. I produce art for PRI's Holiday Card line. My artwork is on the cover of some of the holiday cards (and also all-occasion cards). It is a wonderful feeling when I see people buying my holiday cards. By choosing one of my cards, it kind of says, "I see the importance of the holiday through the artist's eyes and heart." And those are my eyes and heart they are talking about. That feels nice. Beyond my holiday cards, recently I have ventured into other styles and techniques of painting.

My inspiration for my paintings comes from different places. For instance, the first time I saw a Picasso piece, I loved the angles. Real cool. I like the way he looks at life differently. Perhaps, kind of like me. I connected. People tell me that they see Picasso in my work. What a compliment! I am working on my own version of a Georgia O'Keefe painting. I love how my colors are blending. I think it will sell well.

My pieces have touched others to the point that I have sold several of them. PRI exhibits our art, prints, cards and products throughout the Twin Cities at corporate headquarters, university settings, and retail stores, such as coffee, frame and gift shops. Our art is also displayed and sold at regional art fairs and PRI fundraisers and celebrations. Much of our artwork is also available on the PRI Web site. We often hold "Meet the Artist" luncheons and receptions where the public gets to meet us and hear our stories. It gives us a chance to form a bond with our hosts. We often make friendships from our partnerships. Quite often my art is purchased by the host exhibitor. People buy art from artists that they identify with. It really works well. PRI plays a big role in our success, marketing and supporting us all along the way. I believe that a bond is formed when someone buys my art. It is a wonderful feeling.

I am working on an interesting piece right now. I love angels and I am combining my love for angels with a likeness of me. I guess it is kind of a self-portrait that combines who I am and who I would like to be. I want to share with others what I love about life through my art.

My advice for other women who want to be artists is to find a good art teacher and a good organization to partner with. It makes a world of difference. Being an artist doesn't mean you have to go it alone. Check out organizations that might be a good fit for you and go for it. Be prepared to supplement your art work with a paying job. It keeps money coming in and keeps you in front of people.