Carl Phillips finds inspiration for his art in many places — especially comic books and superheroes.

“I like Iron Man, Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Doctor Strange, Thor, Captain America, Aquaman,” he said.

On a recent summer morning at his workspace at Gateway Arts in Brookline, Phillips was hunched over a tracing of Iron Man and Shazam that he had outlined in black and was getting ready to color in with red and yellow markers.

Phillips is one the artists who works at Gateway Arts, a nonprofit studio that supports adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to have a career in the arts. Gateway provides them with professional studio space where they can work, a gallery to show their art, and a retail shop where they can sell their pieces. Artists come from all over the Boston area to work at the studio. Now approaching its 50th anniversary, Gateway is one of the oldest of its kind in the country.

There are currently about 90 artists who work at Gateway, a number that dipped during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gateway had to close for three months at the height of the pandemic, pause some of its programs, including pottery and jewelry-making, and enact social distancing policies in its studios. But it’s slowly returning to its pre-pandemic activities. It hosted its first in-person exhibition show in March of this year.

GBH News recently visited Gateway Arts, and found that the studios were buzzing with activity, as people painted, drew, sculpted and crafted. Phillips was dancing to The Beatles next to his workspace.

Phillips, a Cambridge resident, has been coming to Gateway for 20 years. In addition to drawing he has learned embroidery, weaving and pottery. He says that art makes him happy.

“Art is beautiful. It's nice. It's good,” he said.

Inspiration comes from everywhere for Phillips. Some of his favorite embroideries he’s created include a pie chart he saw on a TV commercial, a horseshoe and a bright orange traffic cone. He proudly showed off an embroidered die that he stitched with black and white thread.

Carl H. Phillips holds his embroidered die
Artist, Carl H. Phillips holds his embroidered die
Jacob Garcia GBH News

“It's very good. I love to come here and work,” Phillips said about Gateway.

Gateway’s focus is on art as a career, not necessarily art as therapy — all Gateway artists can sell their work in the Brookline Village shop, where they earn 50% from the sales. The other 50% goes back into Gateway to support its programs.

Artists are not required to have previous art experience, but they are expected to have a serious interest in a career in art. Most artists get financial support to come to Gateway through state agencies like the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, and the arrangements usually expect an artist to produce a certain number of works per year. There is no limit on how long an artist can stay at Gateway — in fact, there are a few current artists who have been there since its founding.

“They [the artists] are held to a high standard. And as a result, it's a really productive but collegial and joyful environment,” said Gateway Director Greg Liakos. He says fostering a career in art can often unleash a new world of opportunities for the people who come to Gateway.

“An artist who may have difficulty articulating their feelings or their experiences verbally can come here and express in complex and profound ways their life experiences with a paintbrush or a pencil or a pottery or jewelry,” Liakos said. “And the level of artistic achievement here every day is truly remarkable.”

Gateway started in 1973, when state institutions for people with mental health challenges and developmental disabilities were shuttered. Gateway was formed in response to that de-institutionalization, to help adults transition from those state facilities into their communities.

“Gateway, in the beginning, yes, did art, but it also taught people how to function in group homes, take care of themselves, cooking, cleaning,” said Bil Thibodeau, Gateway’s artistic director.

But while art was not always the focus, Thibodeau said it has always been a key element of Gateway.

“It's beautiful how proud the artists are of their work,” he said.

"Art is beautiful. It's nice. It's good."
-Carl Phillips, Artist at Gateway Arts

One of those proud artists is Alison Doucette, who lives nearby in Brookline. Her mom was an art teacher, but Doucette didn’t consider herself an artist before coming to Gateway nine years ago. She quickly picked up weaving, and then making scarves and then embroidery. “It was soothing and you just kind of felt comfortable in that work,” she said about discovering her love of art.

A team of facilitators who are working artists help the artists at Gateway hone their craft in weaving, painting, drawing, embroidery and found art. Doucette says her favorite part of coming to Gateway is the staff. She says they have encouraged her to “get out of my comfort zone on colors a little bit.”

That progress is visible on a work of hers that’s currently hanging in the studio’s gallery: an embroidery on canvas featuring a sunset-colored wine glass against a vibrant blue background. She chose the colors “because of the beach, most of the beach colors are kind of tropical or light tropical,” she said.

Alison Doucette with embroidery of Robert Pattinson
Alison Doucette holds up her embroiderey of actor Robert Pattinson
Jacob Garcia GBH News

Like Phillips, Doucette is also inspired by pop culture. She has made embroideries of George and Amal Clooney, Prince Harry’s wedding, "Judge Judy" and one of “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson.

It can take two months or more for Doucette to complete a work. Once it’s finished, she gets to sell it in Gateway’s store in Brookline Village and online.

“It's nice when people buy it, and knowing that they enjoy other people's artwork and know that they have a piece of your art at their house,” she said. Doucette said she is excited to start promoting and selling her work outside of Gateway.

Works at Gateway’s shop sell for a range, with greeting cards costing $5 and tote bags at around $20, to large canvas paintings that sell for up to $800. Most of Doucette’s canvas embroideries sell for around $100, while Phillps’ works range from $40 to $300.

Liakos says the artists’ success in selling their work to help support themselves illustrates how talented they are. “When they come here, we talk less about their disabilities and more about their abilities,” said Liakos. “There’s a lot of joy in here.”