GREAT BARRINGTON — The studio is full and spirits are bright. And Eric Schumann is putting his artistic stamp on tea towels when someone tells him they've heard he's a gifted poet. He looks up, almost dreamily.
"I am," he says, twinkling.
Across from him, Diane Paoli is threading beads and hex nuts for a batch of bracelets that will be sold at The Red Lion Inn's gift shop.
"It's relaxing," Paoli said, noting that she has made many of the popular bracelets and loves doing it.
Schumann, 60, and Paoli, 67, were two of about a dozen artists with disabilities downtown Tuesday morning making things that will be sold in shops around the county to benefit Community Access to the Arts, a fast-growing nonprofit that is "bursting at the seams," says Executive Director Margaret Keller.
The expansion is why CATA has embarked on a $3.2 million capital campaign, its first ever, most of which will go toward doubling its space in new headquarters and studios at Jennifer House Commons on Stockbridge Road. The rest will fuel the growth of programs.
A groundbreaking with state lawmakers will take place June 10.
Since CATA was born 26 years ago in dance therapist Sandy Newman's Stockbridge living room, it has ballooned so that the original office and studio on Railroad Street are too tight for staff and participants in programs that span 12 art forms and a spectrum of disabilities.
There is a need to do even more hiring, Keller said.
CATA now runs programs for 800 people — a 70 percent increase in the past five years.
It has 47 partners in Berkshire County and New York's Columbia County that include seven school districts, numerous residential homes and communities, museums and life-sharing organizations.
A faculty of 25 brings dance, theater, writing and the visual arts to many of these locations, and also holds programs at the downtown studio.
"We work to keep it affordable," Keller said in an interview at CATA's office. "We are serving a very low-income community and working with partners who have budget issues."
The nonprofit is respected statewide, said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who sits on the capital campaign's steering committee along with state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
Pignatelli, who once brought CATA dancers to the Statehouse to perform, said he doesn't like to use the word "disabilities," but rather "special abilities." He said the work CATA is doing is the reason the state, for instance, bestowed one of its larger grants to CATA recently — a $200,000 facilities grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Pignatelli has earmarked $50,000 in the current House budget for CATA's annual operations.
"I see very few organizations that can stretch a dollar like CATA," he said, noting that this gives the nonprofit credibility that attracts other competitive private grants as well.
Sparks and passions
The way CATA faculty and volunteers work with the artists is its foundation.
"I love it — it's my heart," said Sandy Van, a six-year volunteer who was sitting with Paoli as she made bracelets.
On Tuesday, participants from Lee Middle and High School and Pittsfield-based Berkshire County Arc were making art with staff and volunteers, and telling stories about Memorial Day grilling.
Earlier, choreographer Dawn Lane had explained that CATA faculty exposes people to a variety of disciplines to notice what lights a spark, then helps them pursue their passion.
"They might be nonverbal and might not be able to tell us," Lane said. "It's about noticing a moment when someone is deeply engaged in an art form."
It all began in 1993 with Newman, whose approach was to honor each person.
"Even if someone was just rocking back and forth forever, I would just say, `You're a dancer,'" she said. "Even one stroke of color, and I say, `You're an artist.' I knew that the arts was such a perfect way for people to find themselves, because there's no right or wrong, there's no one perfect way to do something."
CATA artists are paid for their performances and receive commissions from the sale of their artwork, which is curated, matted and framed for shows, Keller said.
"Those are fun checks to write," she said.
Staff artist Bianca Gigli, sitting amid piles of artwork, says each is so meaningful that it can be hard to decide what goes into the show. She chooses "a piece that really emphasizes what that artist is about, and where they excel."
Lane also watches people overcome fear.
"We've grown a stand-up comedian," she said of a man who, a couple of years ago, wasn't comfortable in small workshops but can now perform a solo act in front of 400 people at the annual CATA gala at Shakespeare & Company, for instance. "He gets applause before he even starts."
"There are so many of those stories," Keller said.
To keep all this going strong, CATA is building two new studios, one for dance and performing arts, and the other for visual arts and writing. The new building will be fully accessible so that everyone can enter the building together, whether they are on wheels or on foot. It's a location with easier access from points north and plenty of parking, Keller said.
She said CATA's community donors make it possible to do this work so professionally — 75 percent of the annual budget comes from donations and grants.
"People in the Berkshires understand the power of the arts," she said.
Newman is thrilled about the new location, and how it will help the nonprofit reach even more people.
"It's really about noticing every human being, and I just wish the whole world could do that better," Newman said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.