Taliesin Project Puts DDD Members to Work in the Decorative Arts
The arts contribute more than $760 billion to the U.S. Economy, according to a report published by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts. This contribution outperforms other major U.S. industries, such as agriculture. The data further shows that the arts represent $9 billion in value added to Arizona’s economy. One small component of the arts in Arizona is the work performed by members of the DES Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) at The Opportunity Tree.
The Opportunity Tree is a DDD-contracted provider that employs 10 DDD members to create art in the form of candle holders, called candle “blocks.” Weighing about three pounds each, these decorative objects d’art of masonry and stone are sold exclusively at Taliesin West in Scottsdale and are among the gift shop’s best-selling items.
Taliesin West, a National Historic Landmark, is the winter home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture, and the sale of each candle block, originally created by a former School of Architecture student, helps fund the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. But the nonprofit organization needed a more sustainable production source to keep up with demand. The problem for the retailer was keeping up with demand. Thus, the “Taliesin Project” was born.
The Taliesin Project allows DDD members to be gainfully employed and provides an opportunity for personal creativity. The project includes five DDD members from the Phoenix Vocational Center and five from the Casa Grande Vocational Center.
The Taliesin Project also serves as an opportunity for the Foundation to carry on Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy.
“I grew up knowing who Frank Lloyd Wright was, but didn’t realize his legacy of inclusion and diversity and accessibility,” remarked Gina Griffiths, Director of Programs at The Opportunity Tree. “I didn’t know that those were his priorities.”
"I had never worked with people with disabilities before,” said Taylor Buttrey, Creative Arts Program Manager for The Opportunity Tree. After Griffiths introduced him to the Employment First philosophy, Buttrey had a new vision. “It became one of my goals to start creating art vocational opportunities for the people we serve.” Building upon that goal, The Opportunity Tree received word in May it will be a beneficiary of a City of Phoenix grant to build a digital studio. “Probably at the beginning of the fiscal year, we’re going to have three art vocational opportunities here,” said Buttrey.
Of course, creating candle blocks or other forms of art isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The Taliesin Project team members are selected through skill assessment and personal interest. Kelli O’Toole, Chief Executive Officer of The Opportunity Tree, noted, “The main thing is the member’s interest. It’s really what the members choose to do. And the ones who do it, absolutely love doing it.”
The Opportunity Tree offers DDD members a choice of group supported and center-based employment programs at the organization’s Vocational Centers located in Phoenix, Casa Grande and Maricopa.
“We have about 60 to 65 members [in Phoenix] gainfully employed in some sort of capacity,” noted Neal Hallihan, Employment Services & Youth Transitions Program Manager. “Down at Casa Grande [are] another 30. In Maricopa, we have two, with two more ready to go.”
“We’re very committed to Employment First and expanding a variety of employment options,” said Griffiths. Employment First is a policy Governor Doug Ducey put into place in 2017 to increase employment opportunities for Arizonans with disabilities. “I think the janitorial, courtesy clerk, landscaping [jobs are] so common... Some people enjoy that work, but not everybody does, so we’re always trying to come up with other opportunities.”
DDD Members and The Taliesin Project
Like a cookie recipe, Taliesin Project team members must first measure each component – sand, cement and water – before mixing the ingredients together to make “desert masonry.”
“They have to get the mix just right,” noted O’Toole. This is one of the steps DDD member Ethan Gadola likes best.
“You get to get dirty!” said Gadola with a grin.
The next step is to layer the rocks inside a silicone mold, then add in a layer of mortar. It’s the selection and placement of the rocks that allows the member’s creativity to come into play. This part of the process is what DDD member Patty Morris likes best. Because each candle block is handmade, each is unique.
Once the mold is filled, a scraper is used to level the base. The mixture rests for one hour than the piece is popped out of the mold. The final step is to glue a layer of felt to the bottom of the block. The finished pieces are bubble wrapped and shelved until shipment to Scottsdale.
The teams produce candle blocks about three times a week to meet their production quota. During winter visitor season, they produce 20 candle blocks per month. During the summer season, production is lowered to 10 per month.
On delivery day, a few members of the Phoenix and Casa Grande teams travel to Scottsdale to stack their wares in a storage room at Taliesin West. After unloading, the team heads over to a nearby spot to gather more rocks for the next batch.
“It’s very important to keep everything organic and natural, to keeping a sense of place [that is Taliesin West],” said Buttrey.
Ginny Carter, Operations Manager at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, pointed out a few of the guidelines for the rocks being collected. “They want to get a certain size. Flat. With a unique color because the [mortar] mixture that they use turns out very grey, so we want to get something that will kind of stand out.”
Although only a short time in the works, the Taliesin Project, which started in January 2019, is proving to be a successful collaboration between the two organizations and for the members of DDD who want to work in a creative field.
“It’s been great to facilitate this partnership,” said Carter. “It’s definitely a win-win for everybody.
For information on the full range of DDD Employment Services, please visit the DDD member employment services web page.
DDD member Ethan Gadola from the Casa Grande vocational center holds up a completed candle block.
After delivering each month’s production, a few of the Taliesin Project members collect rocks for the following month’s production of candle blocks.
After delivering the May production quota of inventory, Patty Morris inspects the candle blocks on display at the Taliesin West gift shop.
A new meaning of a rock collection. These hand-picked rocks are used to decorate the Taliesin West candle blocks.
Desert masonry candle blocks are available for purchase exclusively at the Frank Lloyd Wright gift shop at 12345 N. Taliesin Dr. in Scottsdale.
By Lyn Riley