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Alchemia teachers find joy in connection

At one time or another, everyone has had that one special safe spot where they can be their true selves. That one place they can walk into and feel like they belong. In Petaluma, the staff at Alchemia art gallery create that “second home” sensation every day.

“I’m having more fun in my life,” says Mary Lester, of Petaluma, Finance Manager for Alchemia, and (starting in September) quilting instructor at the gallery. Says Mary, “I have a connection to people that I didn’t in my previous jobs.”

Alchemia, a non-profit organization headquartered in Santa Rosa, with its gallery located on Kentucky Street, features both fine arts and performing arts for adults with developmental disabilities. In 1998 the organization started as a social theatre group around a Petaluma kitchen table.

Now it flourishes in locations throughout Sonoma and Marin Counties.

The students, who range from age 22 and above, come in day to day, to not only learn about various art styles, but to produce their own original art to display for the public. Currently, several student artists are featured in the show “Kindred Two.” The exhibition displays a main theme of original animal portraits and ceramics.

Mary has taught a variety of art classes at the gallery for about eight years, and has spent even longer as an advocate for people with disabilities. She also spent many of her past years working with the Alliance for Technology Access (ATA), a network of technology resource centers that strives to connect people with disabilities to technological tools. However, she found that the position did not quite supply the joy of working one-on-one with people.

At Alchemia, Mary does find that joy.

“I am just way more connected to incredible people,” she says, “both the artists and the teachers.”

Mary adds that even though the organization is available to help students grow artistically, it also serves to help them shape their character and their confidence.

“I’m at a loss for words in terms of how far some people have come,” she says. “It’s awesome.”

Alchemia’s theatre arts department is known around the community for putting on original productions, including “Wabi Sabi” and “Little Red,” that are, as Mary describes them, “about teaching people to be good self-advocates, and being aware of how to protect themselves.” “Little Red,” an adaptation of “Little Red Riding Hood,” featured stories from students’ own life experiences.

As for future art shows to look out for, Alchemia plans to produce an exhibit centered around Day of the Dead, which will be displayed in Aqus Cafe throughout the month of October. Dates for the display are still pending.

Staff member Sidney McNulty teaches theatre, singing and dancing at Alchemia, while pursuing her own performance career in other theatre companies as well. Like Mary, Sidney is always inspired by her student artists and by how they shine in the spotlight.

“Every day I come to work, it is a blessing,” she says. “(The students) are so free and confident, and able to tell people ‘I’m an amazing actor’ or ‘I’m a great dancer!’ That is such a gift.”

For ceramics teacher Nuala Creed, who has shaped the program since 2001, Alchemia has changed her life in all the best ways.

“They have such big, open hearts,” Nuala says of her student artists. “You come in here and something might be bad in your life. You’ve got that sadness and you carry it, but when you’re here, you leave that behind.”