Catherine Tonning-Popowich is a Michigan artist who has practiced art her whole life. Thanks to her associate degrees in both fine arts and commercial arts, Tonning-Popowich has made a career out of her passion.
In 2017, she applied for the Artist in the Community grant from the Arts Council of Greater Lansing and received the news that she had been awarded the grant on the same day that her grandson, Ethan, passed away. Ethan was born just six and a half years earlier and had severe disabilities. Through her grief, the grant acted as a distraction and provided her with a way of seeing a brighter future for her work.
Tonning-Popowich realized that she had enjoyed taking care of her grandson, so she developed her Art Has No Barriers program in which she teaches art to others with disabilities in the Lansing community.
Tonning-Popowich considered several important factors when starting the program. She wanted it to be all-inclusive so “anybody who wanted to paint could paint.” She also wanted the program to be free. “I don’t want to charge the people for it. I want them to be able to come out and have free fun and get away from their daily grind.”
At the end of the program, she lets the students pick two or three of their favorite paintings to frame for an art show. Friends and family can come and enjoy the artwork, and there is even a reception afterward. In terms of what this class means to her students, Tonning-Popowich said that painting is “a way for them to tell their story.”
Five years down the road, Tonning-Popowich would love to see the program continue to be free. Art Has No Barriers participants can even be refunded for their bus tokens used to get to the studio. She understands how difficult caring for a loved one with a disability can be and adding expenses on top of that is not something she wants to do.
Tonning-Popowich knows how difficult it can be to care for someone with disabilities and how the program can benefit each individual. She hopes the program will offer them a few hours to set their troubles aside and just paint.