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Creative Vision Factory seeks to build on successful decade of work in Wilmington

Creative Vision Factory artists complete a mural at Stubbs Elementary School
Creative Vision Factory
Creative Vision Factory artists complete a mural at Stubbs Elementary School

The Creative Vision Factory in Wilmington enters its 11th year using art to help those facing mental health issues and addiction.

And this week, contributor Larry Nagengast examines how its evolved over the past decade – as well as the challenges it faces moving forward.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss the Creative Vision Factory.

Hemmed in by the increasing gentrification of downtown Wilmington, serving a population that hasn’t always been welcomed, the Creative Vision Factory has faced a daunting array of challenges in its first decade.

Now starting its 11th year, the art studio at 617 N. Shipley St., which doubles as an unofficial service center for individuals struggling with mental health issues, aims to build on its successes while wondering what its future might hold.

“The accomplishment of just being open for 10 years is something,” says Michael Kalmbach, the program’s founder and executive director. But he’s not sure how long it will be able to stay in its current location, and he would like to see the program find a way to do more work to address homelessness issues among its target population.

Michael Kalmbach is the founder and director of the Creative Vision Factory
Creative Vision Factory
Michael Kalmbach is the founder and director of the Creative Vision Factory

“The value of the Creative Vision Factory is huge. It’s priceless,” says Rita Landgraf, who was secretary of the state Department of Health and Social Services, the primary funder of the program, when it was launched in December 2011 as an outgrowth of the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice over the quality of care provided in the state’s mental health institutions.

“This was our opportunity to look at how we could become more holistic in our approach to people with serious and persistent mental illness,” she says.

CVF runs on a budget of about $400,000 a year, a combination of state and federal funds awarded by the Department of Health and Social Services.

The program now occupies “a unique niche” in Delaware’s social services landscape, providing “a welcoming and safe studio space for individuals in recovery,” says Alexia Wolf, chief of social determinants and support services in the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. “Some have found that being an artist is their calling in life. For others, it has been an opportunity for social connections.”

Several of these self-taught artists have enjoyed significant success – exhibiting not only in Delaware but also in Philadelphia, in New York City, even in Australia.

Kalmbach, an artist who fought through drug and alcohol addiction while in college, was instrumental in convincing the state to increase its emphasis on peer engagement to address mental health issues, Landgraf recalls. “He has been a solid advocate, a phenomenal advocate,” she says.

At the start, CVF was envisioned as a drop-in space, “like putting a high school art studio on the street,” says state Sen. Tizzy Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat who knew Kalmbach in his pre-CVF days, when he was running the New Wilmington Art Association, trying to build an appreciation for the arts at the community level.

CVF soon became much more than a place where folks struggling with their mental health could get off the streets, grab a cup of coffee and paint, draw or work with clay. CVF eventually became a place where its members could ask about how to apply for social services, where to go to find a job, how to get help finding a place to stay.

“We’re at this intersection of community art and constituent services,” Kalmbach says. “We’ve created this place where people can come in and be treated like actual constituents.”

The pandemic strikes

In 2012, 180 individuals made a total of 2,047 visits to CVF. Those numbers jumped to 7,974 and 713 in 2015, and 14,910 and 787 in 2019. Then COVID-19 hit. Due to Gov. John Carney declaring a state of emergency, shutting down many non-essential venues for (how many) months, CVF saw visits cut by more than half, to 6,957, but the number of individual participants increased to 848. Kalmbach believes the increase may have been the result of other service programs shutting down or reducing their hours.

“We didn’t even know we were overwhelmed. It took a full stoppage to give us perspective."
Michael Kalmbach, Creative Vision Factory founder and executive director

The pandemic shutdown forced CVF to recalibrate its operations. During the shutdown, Kalmbach and his staff (three fulltime and two part-time) focused on cleaning out the space and, in that time, they realized how overworked they had become.

“We didn’t even know we were overwhelmed. It took a full stoppage to give us perspective. If we returned to drop-in mode, we would have needed more staff, and a larger space, to do it properly,” he says.

When CVF reopened in late 2020, it created a schedule of with three two-hour shifts a day, limited to eight participating artists per shift to meet the state’s social distancing guidelines. Last year, CVF tallied 7,190 visits by 771 individuals.

Through the pandemic, CVF’s efforts took a strong turn toward one of Kalmbach’s top priorities: finding housing for the program’s homeless clients.

Landgraf was part of a group created by the state to screen the vulnerability of the homeless population to the virus. Soon the Sheraton hotel in Wilmington became a temporary shelter, she says, and “Michael was there on the ground, gathering people” who needed a place to stay.

When New Castle County purchased the former Sheraton hotel off Interstate 95 between New Castle and Newport in October 2020 with plans to turn it into a residence for the homeless, Carrie Casey, now the county’s general manager of community services, reached out to Kalmbach and scheduled four focus groups at CVF with people who had experienced homelessness. “When I look back, it was the most important thing we did,” she says. “It was very impactful.”

Murals and Mosaics

Early on, Kalmbach strove to make CVF’s clients a greater part of the Wilmington community. His first breakthrough came in early 2013, when the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation funded a mural project – depicting 350 years of Delaware history on a 200-foot-long warehouse wall opposite the Kalmar Nyckel Shipyard on the Seventh Street Peninsula.

Creative Vision Factory artists pose in front of the 200-foot mural facing the Kalmar Nyckel shipyard that paints the picture of 350 years of history on Wilmington's Seventh Street Peninsula.
Creative Vision Factory
Creative Vision Factory artists pose in front of the 200-foot mural facing the Kalmar Nyckel shipyard that paints the picture of 350 years of history on Wilmington's Seventh Street Peninsula.

Artist Carl Bailey, who worked on the mural, found that the project involved more than just painting. “I went to the library and read about the Indians that lived here,” he recalls, describing his research for the portion of the mural that portrays the arrival of European settlers.

Funding for such projects CVF raise its profile, but it also put some cash in the artists’ pockets.

“Michael keeps a list of names. He gives people assignments for two or three days,” Bailey says. “Everybody’s happy. You make a little money. He spreads it around.”

A monument sculpted by Creative Vision Factory artists honors those buried in the Spiral Cemetery on the grounds of Delaware State Hospital.
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
A monument by Creative Vision Factory artists honors those buried in the Spiral Cemetery on the grounds of Delaware State Hospital.

Other projects followed, not only painting but also a series of mosaic walls– inside Stubbs Elementary School on the East Side, on the back wall of the Christina Cultural Arts Center opposite the CVF building and at several parks and gardens.

The mosaic work would soon extend beyond the Wilmington city limits. In 2016, CVF artists and others in Delaware’s recovery community built a monument honoring those buried in the Spiral Cemetery on the grounds of Delaware State Hospital. Due to a construction flaw, that monument deteriorated, but it was reassembled and rededicated in December.

Also, within the past year, CVF members have created mosaic benches at Winterthur, at New Castle County’s Hope Center residence and at the Duffy’s Hope Garden, one of the mosaic mural sites.

While Winterthur, the mansion Henry F. du Pont transformed into a museum of American decorative arts, might seem an odd pairing for CVF and its mostly self-taught artists, there is a growing relationship between the two, says Catherine Dann Roeber, the museum’s interim director of academic programs.

Mosaic bench designed by Creative Vision Factory artists at Winterthur
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Mosaic bench designed by Creative Vision Factory artists at Winterthur

Students in Winterthur’s material culture program, which is affiliated with the University of Delaware, visit CVF as part of their introduction to artistic and cultural sites in Wilmington, Roeber says. CVF gives those students a better appreciation for the work that went into creating the items in the museum’s collection. “It helps us understand the processes of people making things. It puts the humanity back into it,” she says.

Artists gain recognition

For some participants at CVF, having the opportunity to express themselves through art is therapeutic.

“For some of these individuals, being an artist is the first positive source of their identity,” says Anne Bowler, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Delaware. “CVF provides the feeling that you matter, that you count. It’s something these individuals don’t often get, but it’s something we all need,” she says.

Sculpture by Eliseo Gonzalez
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Sculpture by Eliseo Gonzalez

“CVF has been transformative,” says Landgraf, the former Health and Social Services secretary, pointing to not only its clients’ artwork but also to “the support they get from one another, supporting each other’s health and well-being.”

“Art heals some; art saves some, but the biggest thing is that art gives a voice,” says Wilmington artist Nancy Josephson, a CVF supporter who lives a block away on Market Street.

Other participants have soared to heights they might not have imagined.

Painting by Gerardo Gonzalez
Creative Vision Factory
Painting by Gerardo Gonzalez

Kalmbach connected with Alex Baker, director of the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia, known as one of the world’s premiere sources for self-taught art, shortly after Baker returned from a stay in Australia, where he had spent four years as senior curator for contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

Baker came to one of CVF’s spring exhibitions and the works of Eliseo Gonzalez, Geraldo Gonzalez and Knicoma Frederick caught his eye.

Before long, all three were part of an exhibition at Fleisher/Ollman and Baker then included some of their work in the “Yo, Melbourne, We’re from Philly” exhibition he curated for Arts Project Australia in September-October 2019.

Creative Vision Factory
Painting by Knicoma Frederick

Frederick and Geraldo Gonzalez have also had their works exhibited in New York – Frederick at the LAND Gallery in Brooklyn, which features the work of artists with developmental disabilities, and Gonzalez at the annual Outsider Art Fair in 2020, showcasing the work of self-taught artists.

Moving forward

For all that CVF has accomplished, Kalmbach is still trying to find more clarity in its future.

“We’re still trying to figure out what is our niche, what kind of role do we serve in this larger ecosystem,” he says.

In some respects, the Shipley Street location is itself an issue. With Market Street’s revitalization continuing and large Buccini/Pollin Group apartment buildings – one complete, the other under construction – overshadowing it on the north and south, the CVF finds itself as “unlikely neighbors to people who are being drawn to live downtown,” says Josephson, the program’s artist neighbor. CVF’s clients represent “a population typically not embraced by gentrification,” she says.

Landgraf, having worked in government, understands the concerns of the city government and the boosters of downtown revitalization. “It’s understandable that the city feels that a disproportionate share of individuals with mental health problems land there,” she says.

But she recalls hearing many similar discussions in the 1970s and 1980s. People with disabilities and mental illness, they’re a marginalized population. There’s much more work to be done,” she says.

Landgraf sees Kalmbach as trying to foster a solution by giving CVF’s clients an opportunity to engage with their neighbors through their artwork, thus showing that they’re adding value to the community. “If we can bring about a solution through that lens, we can all benefit,” she says.

Meanwhile, Kalmbach who says the challenges of working through the pandemic resulted in him receiving a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, is contemplating a possible move. The current lease isn’t a problem; it permits a one-year renewal when it expires on June 30, he says.

“Art heals some; art saves some, but the biggest thing is that art gives a voice.”
Wilmington artist Nancy Josephson

But it’s hard to grow the program without more space, and the encircling gentrification is concerning. If CVF must move, he says, it will have to be within Wilmington because as many as half his clients lack stable housing and almost all of them rely on public transportation. A downtown location with the so-called Creative District that extends from Market Street west to Washington Street would be preferable but any city site close to bus lines could be workable, he says.

Josephson hopes CVF will continue to thrive, regardless of its location. “There’s some great work coming out of there,” she says, attributing much of its success to Kalmbach, who she describes as “a superhero and a humble servant.”

Kalmbach, while uncertain of CVF’s long-term prospects, takes pride in the relationships the program’s clients, while struggling on the outside, have established while inside the building. “They may not have much,” he says, “but when they come in, the first thing they do is share what they have with one another.”

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.