Hands on: At this art class for people with disabilities, there’s no lecture, no homework and no giggle police 

Karlee Ancho, 14, and her sister Ava, 8, of Sparks, sat squished on a bench, giggling.  

Karlee held the end of a handmade contraption—a wide PVC pipe connected to a coffee-can-sized, makeshift drumhead. A teenage volunteer poured a few tablespoons of salt from a mason jar onto the drumhead and showed Karlee how to hum with a bit of force into the pipe. The salt grains jumped into the air and landed back on the drumhead in neat, concentric circles—physical traces of the soundwaves she had just made.  

The giggling escalated, then escalated some more. 

“Karlee, you get to be loud in here,” the nearest adult assured her. 

The drum-and-salt contraption looks a lot like a school science project, but it’s part of an art-class series at Sierra Arts Gallery, called UnchARTed Waters, for people with disabilities. The class is zero percent lecture. There’s not much emphasis on technique, and only just enough instruction to advise students on how to have the most possible fun with the materials at hand.  

Elsewhere in gallery, instructors sat at tables overseeing projects like leaf rubbings, making ink splotches with an eyedropper, and “drawing” designs into matboard with staplers. The idea is to create as comfortable and nurturing of an environment as possible. 

Heather Gallagher Smith, UnchARTed Waters cofounder and instructor, greets a student at the door of Sierra Arts Gallery. Photo/Kris Vagner

The program was first developed in 2019 by local educators Robin Heywood and Heather Gallagher Smith, in conjunction with the Down Syndrome Network of Northern Nevada. UnchARTed Waters drew fewer than 10 participants in its first year. Pandemic shutdowns, staff turnover and other inconsistencies put the program on hold in 2020. In 2021, to adhere to COVID protocols, only two participants could attend at a time—but Heywood didn’t seem fazed.  

“The obstacles we’ve faced have forced us to think more creatively and explore new ways to achieve our goal of providing free art programs for our neurodivergent community members,” she said. 

The “free” part is important.  

“Parents and caregivers have enough financial burdens, so it feels right to provide something they don’t have to budget for,” Heywood said. 

Nate Trevino, 21, creates a design with pencil marks and staples. Photo/Kris Vagner

UnchARTed Waters isn’t the only program in Northern Nevada offering art workshops for people with disabilities. Arts for All Nevada offers Weekly Wonders—free, 90-minute drop-in sessions for teens and adults with intellectual disabilities in Reno, Sparks and Gardnerville.  

UnchARTed Waters is open to participants of all ages with developmental disabilities. Students are required to bring an adult unless they live independently. The next sessions are Thursday, Jan. 11; Sunday, Jan. 14; Thursday, Feb. 22; and Sunday, Feb. 25, at Sierra Arts Gallery, 17 S. Virginia St., Reno. Students may attend one class or all of them and may drop into each three-hour session at any time. Registration is recommended. For class times and registration, call Sierra Arts at 775-329-2787.  

In June, artworks created in the classes will be on display in the gallery.