Co-founders Kristin Otwell and Joan Burleigh met on the North Coast at a women’s art group. Joan had a background in social work and teaching and was working at the Harrison Street house group home as a supervisor for adults with developmental disabilities in Fort Bragg. Kristin had recently relocated to the area from the East Bay where she had worked as a teacher of severely disabled young children, and also had been a volunteer at the Creative Growth Studio in Oakland, CA – the first program of it’s kind in California for artists with developmental disabilities. When Joan and Kristin shared their backgrounds, Joan got excited and proposed they join forces to create an art program for her clients at the group home for one afternoon a week.

“We started as volunteers in 1992 painting on the dining room table with the six residents of the home,” says Kristin. “Soon friends asked if they could join as well.”


At that time they realized that they needed a bigger space and funding to pay for art materials. “We got a $500 grant from Thanksgiving Coffee, and moved into a borrowed space in 1996. We formed a non-profit in 2000, and officially named our program, “Art Explorers,” from an idea from one of our students. We expanded into a weekday program in 2002, with the support of two grants: one from the Redwood Coast Regional Center and one from a private foundation. Amazingly, out of the six original art students, four of them are still with our program 22 years later!”

Art Explorers has thrived at four different locations, blessed with the loving support of our community, numerous volunteers and a core group of dedicated long time staff members.