Jennifer Brooks
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The artist peered at the camera through gauzy swirls of tulle netting, ripped from a wedding dress he was reassembling into something wonderful and new.

"Tulle Virus," fabric artist BDG Wolfe captioned the selfie, adding a new update to the Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts Facebook page.

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The coronavirus might shut down almost everything else, but the art goes on.

Interact is a visual and performing arts center for people with disabilities. For more than two decades, it's been a place for artists to show the world what they can do after a lifetime of being defined by what they can't.

Now, they're showing the world what they can do in the middle of a pandemic that's shut down Interact, the surrounding city of St. Paul, and most of the globe.

"Let yourself feel just as you are feeling and be just as you are," an artist named Victoria wrote on her canvas, filling the space around the words with bright blues, magentas, greens and golds, twined with birds, butterflies and blossoms. She posted it on Facebook with the hashtag #ArtWorkingFromHome.

At Interact, they're painters and sculptors and writers and actors. Not people with physical or developmental disabilities, or mental illness, or debilitating injuries.

They're creators who can sell their artwork and sell out performances at the Guthrie and take their shows on tour overseas.

"I had never explored art before coming to Interact, but I love it," Bonnie Thorne, artist and upbeat "studio grandma," said in a statement shared by her advocate.

"I just want to bring joy to people," said Thorne, who paints colorful portraits and vibrant street scenes. "If I can do that through art, then I'm happy."

Jeanne Calvit founded Interact in 1996 as an experiment in "radical inclusion" in the arts. It's a space where adults of different ages, different diagnoses and different abilities come together to create together.

At least it was, back when coming together for any reason was a safe thing to do.

"I've heard this from many of our artists. They say: Before I came to Interact, I was someone who was less-than. Something was 'wrong with me,' " she said. Once they started performing or making their own art, they'd tell her, " 'I'm a creator. I'm giving back.' It totally shifted people's self-image."

People with disabilities, Calvit said, are the largest marginalized group in the world. The only group routinely greeted with the question: "What's wrong with you?"

" 'What's missing? What's your flaw?' is kind of how you define yourself," Calvit said. "We want to turn that paradigm upside-down. 'What is your power? What is your supercreative power?' "

When the pandemic shut the art center, it cut Interact off from 70% of its funding — the fees agencies like the Minnesota Department of Human Services pay to support the 150 participants in the center's day programs.

Calvit launched a fund­raiser, hoping to bring in enough donations to keep the lights on and keep 25 staff on the payroll until the center can reopen.

For now, staff are delivering care packages full of stay-at-home art supplies to their artists, who are filling the days at home writing plays, composing music, making art and spreading joy.

"We all miss them," said Joli Grostephan-Brancato, visual arts department manager at Interact. "We're just a community of artists who work together. It's just the coolest job you could ever imagine."

Interact's Facebook page is a kaleidoscope of art as creators check in to show their work in progress: Landscapes, portraits, abstracts.

An artist named Bart mixed batches of alcohol ink at home and posted the results online: "Each piece has a different blob of color," read the image description. "Together the cards create a bright rainbow that looks as good as Skittles taste."

If you'd like to support Interact, you can buy art that looks as good as Skittles taste. The shop at Interactcenter.org offers paintings, ceramics and jewelry for sale, as well as a chance to work with one of the artists to commission a piece.

You can also donate to Interact at givemn.org/organization/Interact-Center-For-The-Visual-And-Performing-Arts.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008 Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks