Milk River Arts: A Sanctuary of Creativity for Disabled Artists

by | Jun 20, 2024 | ART, COMMUNITY, MAGAZINES & BOOKS, MUSEUM & GALLERY NEWS, PAINTING & SCULPTURE

After the death of his father and his retirement from the military, Aly Costanzo felt lost. That changed when his sister found Milk River Arts.

“It gave me a purpose,” Costanzo said. “I really had no purpose. My sister found (founder Sally Kemp) for me, and Sally started Milk River Arts from scratch.”

Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Photo courtesy of Milk River Arts

Milk River Arts is a working studio that pairs adult artists with disabilities, like Costanzo, with professional artist-mentors to help develop, exhibit and sell their work. The name is a nod to the painting Milk River by Agnes Martin. In discussing the painting, Martin wrote, “Cows don’t give milk if they don’t have grass and water. Tremendous meaning of that is that painters can’t give anything to the observer. . . . When you have inspiration and represent inspiration, the observer makes the painting.” 

“I love that Milk River, for Richmond anyway, is an imaginary place,” Kemp said. “It’s like a dream. It’s not concrete, no one can picture what it is, so it could be anything.” 

Kemp said starting something like Milk River Arts was a longtime dream.

“My parents lived out in the Bay Area in San Francisco, and when I’d go visit, there were organizations that were supporting, every day of the week, a hundred artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” she said. “It was the most dynamic studio vibe I have ever encountered. I always thought, ‘Why does Richmond not have one of these places?’”

Barry O’Keefe, an artist mentor with Milk River Arts, said the mentorship isn’t a teaching role in the traditional sense.

“You might build some skills, but it’s sort of incidental,” he said. “[Artist mentors] are almost like a coach. You’re listening to the artist for what they want to make, and then you might be in some way helping to bridge the gap between that vision and reality.” 

Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Albert Costanzo’s book his book Whiskey and Doo Rabbit: The Adventure to the Castle in the Sky

For example, Costanzo wanted to create a children’s book that he would illustrate himself. He spent three years at Milk River Arts working on 56 full-color illustrations to accompany an original tale about two time-traveling rabbits. 

“Part of making that happen was helping him structure the narrative and getting a designer and a writer in to help him with that part of it, up to sending it off to the printer,” O’Keefe said.

The result, Whiskey and Doo Rabbit: The Adventure to the Castle in the Sky, is now housed in the Library of Congress. 

“I like painting and drawing,” Costanzo said. “A lot of it I put into the book–the kids will like it, because I’ve got drawings and a lot of bright colors and paintings. And I like to draw. I’ve been drawing since I was a kid.” 

Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Photo courtesy of Milk River Arts

A key part of the studio’s mission is meaningful integration with the Richmond community, O’Keefe said.

“For a lot of our artists, it’s one of the key social experiences in their week,” he said. “It’s one of the main times that they are out of the house with other people and making things. It’s a very special thing, and if we never exhibited or sold any work, it would still be 100 percent worth it just for the studio time and what it means for them to be sort of seen and known in that way.” 

Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Photo courtesy of Milk River Arts

The studio is a place of joy and connection, O’Keefe said. It’s also a place for serious and meaningful work. Artists make money off of the paintings they sell, and just like at a traditional studio, there’s an expectation for consistency and diligence. 

Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Photo courtesy of Milk River Arts

“It’s like, I’m gonna show up to your house, and I’m gonna talk to your mom,” he said. “And then you’re gonna be getting in my car and driving for 30 minutes. We’re gonna talk about our lives, and then like I’m gonna physically hand you brushes for every stroke that you make in this painting. And then we’re gonna get back in the car. I’m gonna drive back to your house, and I’m gonna say hi to your mom again, and then I’ll see you next week.” 

Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Photo courtesy of Milk River Arts

Most days at Milk River Arts are calm. Kemp brings flowers, piano music plays quietly in the background. But some days, like on Validation Day, the artists and mentors kick into gear. 

The first Validation Day was born out of a desire to decenter romantic love as the driving force of Valentine’s Day. In 2019, coinciding with the  gallery exhibition These Are My Friends and They Remain With Me Forever, Milk River Arts held a parade celebrating all kinds of love. Artists passed out handwritten love notes to strangers–not declarations of romantic love, but notes of encouragement and friendship.

“Even if that’s the only parade we ever did, that part has to stay,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a cool feeling to be the recipient of one, and I’m gonna say it’s a cooler feeling to even be the ‘giver outer’ of them.”

Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Photo courtesy of Milk River Arts

The parade also showcased the artwork of Milk River artists.

“We made costumes for this Validation thing, and some were pretty big,” Costanzo said. “And they’re made out of paper mache and everything. And we march down Broad Street showing everything, people playing instruments, and somebody moves a giant puppet-like thing.”

That first Validation Day, Milk River Arts, in collaboration with All the Saints Theater Company, went rogue, assembling music and enough cyclists and walkers to ensure safety, not bothering with trivial concerns like a license to hold a parade. 

Milk River Arts by Kate Seltzer_RVA Magazine 2024
Photo courtesy of Milk River Arts

“I was like, this is a safe risk, and we’re going do it, and we did. We walked all the way up to the (Institute for Contemporary Art),” Kemp said. “We had so much fun and they noticed. So the ICA said, ‘don’t just come and stand outside, come inside and do something next year.’”

Since then, Milk River Arts Validation Day celebrations have taken place in collaboration with the ICA, Fonticello Food Forest and the Patrick Henry School of Science and the Arts.

“Sally and Milk River Arts support artists with disabilities,” Costanzo said. “They support artists with disabilities, and our institution supports the Richmond community. I want you to know that.” 

Find out more HERE

Photos by Terry Brown

Kate Seltzer

Kate Seltzer

Kate Seltzer is a freelance reporter in Richmond. You can hear her podcasts "In Absentia," about political dysfunction in Bridgeport, Connecticut and "Takeover," about the growing conservative power of the Supreme Court wherever you get your podcasts. Kate is, regrettably, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. Send her tips or your favorite recipes at kseltzer18@gmail.com




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