Ashlea Karkula is a 36-year-old Northeast Minneapolis visual artist with a developmental disability and an eye for vivid color and action that would be the envy of many painters. Her heavily-layered works in acrylics have been in exhibitions throughout Minnesota, including We Are Not Disposable (2020), Randomland at The White Page (2019), Groundswell at Artspace Jackson Flats (2019), and Work with Your Quirk at the Bridgewater Lofts (2019). She also serves on the board of directors and advocates for the Northland 300, an annual snowmobile fundraiser for the Special Olympics.
The State of Minnesota helps provide occupations for people with disabilities. After Ashlea’s mother died, Ashlea’s aunt, Kathy Karkula, development director for Special Olympics Minnesota, looked around for a new service for her. They found Interact, which operates a “progressive” art studio, part of a movement to provide professional studio space, materials, and assistance to adult visual and performing artists with disabilities. Interact’s website notes, “Artists with and without disabilities work side by side every day as peer creators to express disability as an experience of profound fullness rather than lack.”
Ashlea’s social worker arranged for her to be a client, and she’s worked at Interact for seven years, using Metro Mobility Monday through Thursday to get to her 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift. Although the COVID pandemic kept her home for months, she’s now back at Interact’s St. Paul studio.
Also on Interact’s website is a photo of Ashlea’s left hand, holding a paint brush. She has a type of dystonia, a neurological condition that causes her right (and dominant) hand to lock in one position. Her art shows how much she has overcome that difficulty, as well.
Ashlea’s subjects are animals, sea creatures, flags, Halloween, hot dogs, snow, crazy faces and imaginary beasts; she paints mostly on canvas, but her work has also appeared on tee shirts, hats and boots. One of her most recent pieces is a three-by-four-foot canvas, “Midway at the State Fair Candy Art,” with candy taking the place of paint. It took about three months to create, because she likes every part of her canvasses to be covered, and she continually ordered different candies online from around the country to complete the work. Asked about her inspiration, she said, simply, “I love the Midway!”
Along with her painting, Ashlea is a Special Olympics participant (her favorite sports are softball, basketball and bowling). At home, where she lives with her aunt, her responsibilities include taking care of her 4-year-old dog and a new puppy, which she is training herself. She is close to her two sisters, Chelsea and Brittanie, and does yard work and laundry.
Kathy Karkula said that Ashlea was in various services for the intellectually disabled but they were not a fit for her, and Interact has greatly encouraged her and has promoted her art through shows and at their gallery. Karkula added, “She loves to help anyone that needs absolutely anything. Her dreams of the future are to make people smile when they look at her art. We call her art ‘Ashlea’s Art with Heart,’ as her whole heart is always in everything she does. Know that people like Ashlea are no longer looked at as artists with disabilities but artists with individual capabilities.”
Interact will hold a 26th anniversary celebration Oct. 28 at the Nicollet Island Pavilion from 5-9 p.m. Tickets are $60, and there will be a cash bar with light appetizers. Masks will be available at the event and are strongly encouraged. Proof of vaccination will be required. More info/tickets: InteractCenter.org
Ashlea’s work can be seen at https://gallery.interactcenter.org/collections/ashlea-karkula
Below: Ashlea Karkula used candy to create “Midway at the State Fair Candy Art.” It’s part of the exhibit at Interact’s Oct. 28 anniversary party on Nicollet Island. (Photo by Mark Peterson). Photo from the front cover of Northeaster is “Ashlea Karkula Hot Dog Americana” (courtesy of Interact Gallery)