Open Hearts Art Center was developed by three women who had a passion for creating a program that combined their love for art with their desire to make a difference in the lives of differently-abled adults. Based on a holistic approach to habilitative care combined with the use of multiple forms of expression, Open Hearts Art Center has been serving adults with disabilities since June of 2005. With only a small amount of day programs for adults with intellectual disabilities in the western North Carolina area, and none that focused solely on the arts as a therapeutic approach, Open Hearts has been a one of a kind program for the members of our community.
Seeing inherent value in each individual’s artwork as an avenue for self-growth Open Hearts emphasizes the visual arts. Our staff encourages daily reflection of each student’s rich history and personal story as a source of inspiration for their work. In addition to two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms of art, Open Hearts also encourages expression through performing arts such as music, dance, movement, drama and theater. Offering a variety of choices increases the opportunity for everyone to exercise their imagination.
Open Hearts became incorporated and received their 501-c3 nonprofit status in 2004. In 2005 they received their Medicaid provider identification number to provide billable services though the Division of Medical Assistance as well as state funded services through our Local Management Entity, Western Highlands. The Board of Directors was developed consisting of students, parents, case managers, art advocates and community members. The directors fund raised, acquired in kind donations and received support from community members to procure monies needed to begin serving this population. June 1st2005 Open Hearts began offering classes and have grown ten-fold since their inception.
Sonia Pitts, Jessie Francis, Debbie Harris
Sonia Pitts, Jessie Francis, Debbie HarrisSonia Pitts is a native of Asheville, where she grew up taking art classes from local instructors in early childhood. She graduated from the University of North Carolina in Asheville in 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology where she focused on Creative Arts Therapies. Sonia has been working with adults with intellectual disabilities for over 15 years, and was a co-founder of Open Hearts Art Center. Sonia oversees human resources, various program operations, outcome development, corporate compliance, as well as assists in strategic planning, and organizational goal monitoring. Sonia enjoys spending time with her family and friends, photography, urban exploration, mixed media design, traveling, gardening and seeing live music.
Jessie Francis studied Human Services at Montreat College and ended her time there with an internship with a young artist who had autism. That led to working with other adults living with various developmental disabilities. Most were artists and Jessie, a lover of the arts, had found her place nurturing the expressions of this population. Jessie co-founded Open Hearts Art Center and is the Director of Finances, overseeing all fiscal operations. She loves her administrative, behind the scenes work in this creative, inspiring setting where every day is bright and bold with color and life. In addition to her work, Jessie's days are spent with music, dance, yoga, reading, travel on the brain, the outdoors, and her friends and beautiful family.
Debbie Dearborn Harris, Co-Founder and Director of Clientele and Events of Open Hearts Art Center is a lover of all things art, family, travel and music related. Her art education began in High School where she attended the North Carolina School of the Arts then later graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from Appalachian State University. She now lives vicariously through the artists of Open Hearts Art Center, nurturing their talents, creating events to cultivate their self-confidence and bring awareness to their vast abilities.
Bri GelsingerOffsite Services Qualified Professional
Bri attended Fresno State in California for five years, studying for her Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies and in the Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling program. After school, she worked for 5 years with a non-profit is Arizona, where she ran a day program for adults with severe mental illness. Although she LOVED her job, she wasn’t happy living in Arizona, and she took a year to figure out where she wanted to make her next home. She traveled all over the country, working on organic farms and living out of her car. During that time, she visited Asheville, and within 24 hours, she knew she wanted to make it her forever home.
When she's not working at Open Hearts, Bri is an artist, focusing on painting. She is passionate about the arts, since it has played such a major role in her life. Bri shares, “Art has always been a way for me to express myself and work through whatever it was that was troubling me. To me, life is like a canvas. You can paint whatever you’d like on it. If you decide it doesn’t work for you anymore, you can start all over again and paint something new. I am so happy to have found Open Hearts and am excited to see where this journey takes me.”
Bryan OttavianoProgram Manager
Bryan is a performer, writer, healer, director, and choreographer, hailing from New England. He has been working in professional theatre for nearly twenty years. Some of his favorite roles include Horatio in Hamlet and Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown’s Christmas.
Bryan has been working with the differently-abled his entire life, sighting his aunt as a major inspiration to give back to a world that has blessed him in so many ways. Coming to work at Open Hearts eight years ago was like coming home. You can find him as the resident jester, filling the days with smiles and laughter.
Melissa DownStudio Manager
Melissa is originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State. She moved to South Carolina in
1994 and received her Studio Art Degree from Columbia College in 1998. After some time adventuring
in Canada and Vermont, Melissa moved back South, settling in Asheville in 2003.
In 2005 she gave birth to her son, Desmond. Her relationship with him led her to spend many years of his early life at the West Asheville Playschool as a founding parent and teacher, collaborating in its experiential and play based learning environment. During her summer months, she explored the arts with elementary aged children in various summer camps of her design.
In 2016 Melissa was hired at Open Hearts Art Center, where she happily works in its ever-evolving, vibrant arts community. She is passionate about inspiring and empowering people of all ages and abilities through the creative arts and, of course, being inspired, herself, by those she is privileged to work with. Melissa enjoys spending time exploring the outdoors,
gardening, and cooking with her family.
Salley WilliamsonDevelopment and Communications Specialist
Salley Williamson grew up in the lowcountry of South Carolina. After high school, she migrated to Montana, where she lived for 10 years before moving to Asheville in 2008. She received a BA in Social Work from Carroll College in Helena, MT and then went on to earn a MA in Fine Art, Integrated Arts and Education at the University of Montana, Missoula and a MEd in Curriculum and Instruction at Montana State University-Bozeman. She traveled for three years as a one-woman show with the Art Mobile of Montana, a nonprofit arts outreach program that provides access to contemporary art exhibits and hands-on art lessons.
Salley has worked at Open Hearts Art Center for over six years, serving in various roles on the staff. In 2017, she was awarded Forty under 40 in Asheville, recognizing rising stars in the business community, for her work at Open Hearts.
In her spare time, Salley enjoys spending time on her farm in Asheville.
Seth McPhersonSeth is an Asheville native--born and raised--and grew up with an older brother on the Autism Spectrum. A writer and music-lover, Seth appreciates all forms of art and loves to encourage others in their creative pursuits. He spent 18 months traveling through New Zealand and Asia with his wife before joining Open Hearts Art Center and regards his travels as one of the greatest times in his life.
Sidney GuidaI began working at OHAC Spring 2016, after volunteering for two years.
I always had it in my hopes, and the time was right.
I'm semi-retired, which means I bring a variety of experiences with me.
My basket of experiences includes a BFA in Fine Art at SMSU, studies in art teaching K-12 and Early Childhood, mother of 4, CNA in senior facilities, and home health aide. The love of natural textile fibers and upcycling tends to be where my creative muse takes me. All of these skills are useful here at OHAC.
In short, I'm a caregiver and artist and loving it!
Talia ScarpelliTalia Scarpelli joined Open Hearts in April 2017 after several months of volunteering and getting to know the many artists. Previously, Talia studied art at the University of Alabama, where she wrote political cartoons for the school newspaper and did graphic design work for several campus organizations. She enjoys teaching zine-making classes with Open Hearts at Firestorm Cafe in West Asheville and also makes zines in her free time.
Tara BrummettQualified Professional
Tara Brummett is an Asheville native, who became a part of Open Hearts Art Center in August of 2015. Tara enjoys spending time on the water with her husband, son, and faithful pup-panion. She has a B.S. in Therapeutic Recreation from Mars Hill College and has been working in the human services field for over 20 years.