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Creating magic at North Pole Studio

North Pole Studio's mission is to "increase opportunities for artists with autism and intellectual / developmental disabilities to thrive as active members of the art community." Hannah Krafcik explores what makes North Pole Studio tick.

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gallery wall with rectangular, horizontally oriented art
A wall of art at North Pole Studio featuring many paintings by Davis Wohlford. Photo by Hannah Krafcik.

Upon walking into North Pole Studio earlier this Spring, I realized I was entering a realm of certain magic. The space was open, quiet and warm, nestled in NW Marine Artworks, Portland’s largest professional artist studio collective. The walls – covered in colorful paintings, collages, and sculptures – seemed to absorb the echo of any extraneous conversation, such that I found myself dialed into the surrounding hues and texture. Several artists sat at tables spread throughout the space working with focus in a variety of mediums. Some wore headphones, amplifying the aura of concentration. 



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North Pole makes its mission to “increase opportunities for artists with autism and intellectual / developmental disabilities to thrive as active members of the arts community.” Given my own lived experience as a autistic artist, I sensed how this studio would be a supportive place to work given its alchemical mix of stimulation and comfort, a springboard for ambitious art-making. I felt at ease here, surrounded by peer artists with rigorous practices. 

I journeyed to North Pole several times this spring, at the initial invitation of Executive Director Carissa Burkett, hoping to learn what this progressive art studio is all about – what makes it tick. During my dialogue with artists and staff, I found my answer: North Pole operates holistically, providing a generative context for art-making that is aware of sensory factors, while also building bridges to different professional artistic opportunities in the wider community. 

Man in blue shirt fashioning a small, soft sculpture in hot pink
Davis Wohlford at work on his “Misfit Toys.” Photo by Hannah Krafcik

One of the first people I spoke with was Davis Wohlford, the studio’s founding artist, who gave the space its name, “North Pole.” I learned that Wohlford has been making art since he was very young. He currently works four days a week for four hours a day at North Pole, where he creates work across a number of mediums including collage, drawing, and sculpture. His pieces frequently contain animals or other characters living in specific environments, such as jungles, farms, or other geographies. His subjects coalesce into unique cosmologies of belonging. Wohlford’s artistic concepts are also spurred by his love of and interest in making movies. Even as we spoke, he was sewing a small doll, one in a set of his “Misfit Toys,” based on characters of the same name from the classic 1939 stop motion film, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Like many of the other North Pole artists I spoke with, Wohlford expressed a decisive hunger for sharing his work with the world. When I asked what his dreams were for the future of his art, Wohlford responded that, among other things, he intended for it to be hung in art museums and sold to his clients. 

North Pole’s mission is to help all its artists achieve whatever goals they might have for their practice, and this work begins with maintaining a space conducive to creation: 

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“When we founded North Pole, our intention was to create a studio that was going to be more accommodating to people that needed a higher level of individualized support and a more intimate, quiet, controlled environment, so a space that wasn’t as loud and rowdy…” noted Sula Willson, the studios’ Co-Founder and Director of Creative Partnerships. 

Man drawing at a long table in North Pole's art studio space
Adam Richards at work at North Pole Studio. Photo by Hannah Krafcik

“I have been surprised by how many artists have said this is the first place where they felt like they could just be themselves, like one of the first places they’ve ever had in their lives,” she emphasized. 

Prior to North Pole, Willson worked with fellow educator Mary Ellen Andersen at Victory Academy, a K-12 private school in Sherwood that serves “Oregon’s children, teens, and young adults affected by Autism and related learning differences” (as noted on the school’s website). Willson worked in job placement and workforce development, Andersen taught art, and Wohlford was a student of both.

Toward the end of his tenure at Victory, Willson began to sense a transition in her relationship with Wohlford from student-teacher to more of a peer. “I was supporting him with finding a placement after High School, to go continue making his art, and through his senior year he’d been starting to gain a lot of traction selling artwork,” recalled Willson. 

Meanwhile, Andersen had been experimenting with an Open Studio model in her art classroom: “we saw artists Davis [Wohlford] – and there were a handful of other artists – who knew exactly what they wanted to make,” remembered Andersen. She discovered that traditional art lessons were not as valuable to these artists, “We completely changed the way we structured those art classes so that they were really nurturing their expression.”

Andersen found that what these artists had to share was “important and provocative” and “a way of expressing a story about themselves that, otherwise, people wouldn’t be able to see.”

Andersen also noticed that preserving “space bubbles” — ample personal space for artists to work individually in a shared studio — was critical for artists to “feel safe in creating exactly what they wanted to.” 

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Man with mask holding up a fiber composition featuring a menorah
Aaron Cunningham holds up his woven menorah hot pad. Photo by Hannah Krafcik

In 2020, Andersen and Willson decided to put their work experience and research to the test, launching North Pole together with Wohlford as the studio’s founding artist. Andersen took on the role of Director of Studio programs, implementing her “open studio” model to positive results. 

From its inception, North Pole’s administration has striven to foreground transparency: “we really wanted to make sure that artists were involved in the board, and knew what was happening with the organization, and were involved in decisions, and were involved with their pricing structure,” said Willson. “We just feel like it’s so easy to accidentally be exploitative or intentionally [be exploitative] in this field.”  

North Pole operates with two primary programs: a Main Studio Program for member artists who pay a fee (starting at $100/month for 6 hours of studio time a week) to work onsite and access materials for art-making and an Exhibiting Artist Program for members who do not work out of the studio. North Pole also offers classes and workshops and provides exhibition opportunities for all its artists with collections of work. In fact, Willson’s full-time job is connecting North Pole artists to opportunities, which range from exhibitions to commercial commissions. Last year alone the studio brought in $45K from sales, commissions, and licensing of North Pole artists’ work.

The studio primarily sells artwork through its website as well as twice yearly NW Marine Artworks Open Studios as well as twice yearly fundraising events; 75% of art sales that happen through these avenues go directly to the artists, and the remaining 25% are spent on programming and materials at the studio. Additionally, North Pole works with other partners such as the Outsider Art Fair in New York City as well as various local galleries and sites. 

“There are a lot of artists that come in with such a complete self-assured aesthetic that hasn’t been taught at all.” said Willson of the North Pole members. “It’s a really innovative group of artists.” 

Executive Director Burkett—a local artist and arts administrator with experience working with artists experiencing developmental disabilities—joined the team at North Pole in 2024, bringing a wealth of perspective to the role. Burkett explained that she was attracted to North Pole because it was not a registered Adult Day Service provider with Direct Support Professionals, like the progressive art studio she previously worked at, but rather simply a 501(c)(3) nonprofit art space. In her words, this “pulls us out of that systemic thinking of serving more numbers and the ‘client’/ ‘provider’ role, which can often be dehumanizing.” She said that the organization has been able to set better wages and work loads for their employees than typical Direct Support Professionals working in the Day Service industry. Burkett also pointed out that Co-Founders, Andersen and Willson are educators with robust prior experience serving the population North Pole serves.

Man in gray shirt displaying a painted composition with Tudor-style buildings
Max LaZebnik at North Pole Studio displaying his drawing of Oregon’s Enchanted Forest theme park, one in a series of landscapes he is creating for a forthcoming gallery show. Photo by Hannah Krafcik

When I spoke with Andersen, Burkett, and Willson, I asked the team if they had any thoughts on the recent surge of late-diagnosed and self-diagnosed folks – for instance, those who identify with and/or pursued and received an autism diagnosis in adulthood – and how this might impact the future of North Pole’s programming. In response to my query, Willson shared that in the past year they had received many more inquiries from adults who had studied art who were seeking a diagnosis, had self-diagnosed, or had received a diagnosis in adulthood. These folks were often looking for “communication and logistical supports,” such as connections to galleries; however, the team believed the kind of services they were seeking ultimately fell outside the scope of what North Pole offers. 

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“Some applicants, especially Art School graduates with professional portfolios, established websites, etc., are seeking a higher level of gallery representation than our Exhibiting Artist Program can provide,” explained Willson in a follow up email exchange we shared about this topic. She noted that decisions to admit members into North Pole’s programs are “primarily about the artists’ work and whether we feel we can support its success.” This remains the case regardless of diagnosis status.

Man holds up a composition with pen-and-ink drawing with a bus and cityscape.
Austin Brague displays his drawing of a vintage TriMet bus and Portland street scene. He is backed by a poster of a drawing by Adam Richards. Photo by Hannah Krafcik

Presently, artists practice in many forms of visual media at North Pole, and most of them seemed enthusiastic about more professional opportunities: When I visited open studios, I spoke with Austin Brague, an artist known for his realistic drawings of cityscapes in pen and ink. Brauge talked to me about his upcoming commercial commission for OnPoint Community Credit Union and the bus wrap he designed for Trimet last year. 

Aaron Cunningham walked me through a number of his works across different media, including 2D visual art and fiber work, and even showed me a CD of music he had made. He told me about exhibiting two drawings at the Museum of Flight, something he would like to do more of. Ocean Stever, a writer and visual artist, shared a recent work of apocalyptic collage with me, imagery that, for her, represents “the beginning of something different.” She confirmed her desire to do commissions. 

Circular collage composition anchored by sunflowers at the bottom and the words "where death is the cure" at the top against an ecru map
Ocean Stever’s collage project. Photo by Hannah Krafcik

Max LaZebnik, who was preparing for a show of landscape drawings at 7 C’s Gallery, talked about his want to put his voice out into the world and stand up for neurodiversity — something he has done in the past through projects like his Trimet Bus wrap commission. 

Burkett echoed this desire for more visibility for neurodivergent artists: “I don’t see the inclusion of neurodivergent artists’ work in these larger institutions in the way that I would like to,” she said. Willson added that North Pole has its work cut out when it comes to platforming its member artists such that curators “have those artists on their radar,” holding them in mind when curating shows. 

This is a two-way effort, requiring local institutions to meet the efforts of North Pole artists and staff. 

The prolific work of North Pole’s artists coupled with their undeniable ambition offers a wealth of perspectives and experiences to showcase and explore. Only time will tell if cracks in the siloed nature of the art world will fully break down when it comes to the work of neurodivergent artists working out of progressive studios. But in the meantime, North Pole artists and staff seem up for the challenge. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver
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