A socially savvy pre-teen sees an opportunity to create an inclusive arts space — and the rest of her family helps make it happen.
It’s a Tuesday evening, after-hours, and a group of artists in Spring Valley Village are hard at work. Amy, a soft-spoken artist with Down syndrome who entered the wide-open space wearing fresh red lipstick, is carefully assembling a whimsical, 3D sculpture made of found objects. She weaves yarn around a white shoe, then adds multicolored beaded necklaces, one at a time. A small stuffed animal peeks a beaded eye through a web of rope and string, and a toy car sits on the table off to the side, waiting to find its place within the masterpiece.
This is Sandal Gap Studio, an inclusive haven where people with special needs can create art. It’s the brainchild of, well, a child: Ace Eicher, a barefoot pre-teen with shoulder-length brown hair and the charisma and confidence of a future CEO, wanted a place where people like her adopted older brother and sister with Down syndrome, Archie and Sevy, could come together with people of all abilities to make beautiful works of art and express themselves in a fun, creative way. One afternoon, Ace and some friends were sitting around the family kitchen table. “They all started painting with Sevy, and they were all communicating,” says Ace’s mom, Lisa. “A lightbulb went off. It’s art. That’s the thing! That’s what brings everybody together and makes everybody equal.”
After a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, the nonprofit — which hosts an official grand-opening party on Nov. 16 — took off. Lisa, who operates it, attributes the initial success of Sandal Gap to Sevy’s creations. “When Sevy started painting and people wanted to buy her art after I shared it on Instagram, I realized ‘Oh, this could be a career for her,’” says Lisa, a mom of four wearing paint-stained shoes and sporting a blonde pixie ’do, “so I started researching how to appropriately price her art.” Today, Sevy is an internationally collected artist.
Other Sandal Gap artists like DJ — a cool, confident guy with swagger for days — express themselves in ways that fit their personal interests. “I’m a songwriter. [Writing songs] makes me happy, and I feel tied to my emotions,” says the 27-year-old with Down syndrome and thick-rimmed hipster glasses. “Also, I do rap.” His lyrics line the studio, written out in multicolored painters’ tape stuck to the walls.
For her part, Lisa participated in an inclusive schooling environment growing up, and as a teen, she and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Joey babysat a child with Down syndrome, all of which equipped her and her family with the tools to succeed with their venture. “People, I’ve found, are so scared to ask questions, which hinders them from getting to know these amazing people,” she explains. “It’s a place where questions are welcome.” Lisa handles fundraising, clerical tasks, communication and more, all to keep the studio running smoothly.
And, as Joey astutely points out, “she also homeschools our four kids and trains for American Ninja Warrior on the side.” (True story! She’s appeared on the NBC competition show twice.)
And founder Ace sums up her aspirations for the artists and friends at Sandal Gap: “My hope for them is to be big artists, to have a great life and to have good relationships with people, so that they can have a great career.”