Gabriel Antunez loves drawing, imagining inventions, and making “yo mama” jokes. He’s a super creative 13-year-old boy from St. Petersburg, Florida who dreams of having his own art gallery. Gabe is also an artist for We Are Lions, a non-profit artistic community for people living with disabilities.
“We give [the artists] a sense of pride that they belong in this world,” founder David Schwartz says. “There’s nothing more empowering than being recognized for something.”
Headquartered in Chicago, We Are Lions teams up with nonprofits and artists from all over the United States, as well as some based in India and Israel. The organization’s infrastructure creates job opportunities throughout the creating, selling, and packaging process.
Purchasing We Are Lions’ product, including T-Shirts, phone cases, and stickers funds job opportunities and breaks down the stigma behind mental illness and disability. Artists receive 50 percent or more from store profits.
“We utilize the community on every level. From the people who make the art, [to] the people who sell the art, [and] the people manufacture the products,” Schwartz says. “It’s completely run by people with disabilities in their lives, and what I do is just curate that.”
Gabe, one of the youngest We Are Lions artists, was discovered by Schwartz on an Artists and Autism blog. After seeing his work, Schwartz reached out and they began collaborating. Autism, a bio-neurological developmental disability affects one in 68 children and is one of the conditions We Are Lions artists live with.
We Are Lions focuses on defining its artists by talent. By creating a community that bridges a gap between the able-bodied and those with disabilities, Schwartz hopes people become more comfortable interacting with one another.
“There are so many people who are so afraid of people with disabilities and mental illnesses, and there’s such a stigma that they can’t be helped or they don’t have anything going for them. That’s not fair. [Art is] such a raw form of expression and can change they way people think about stigma,” Schwartz says.
We Are Lions allows its artists to express themselves in their own terms. Candace ‘Candy’ Waters is a 13-year-old girl who paints vivid images of balloons and flowers and illustrates her view on her world. She’s also non-verbal and autistic.
“She has an understanding of colors and how they interact with each other. She beams with excitement and joy when we get out the paints, it lifts her mood every time,” Candy’s parents Robert and Sandy write on her artist page.
Candy’s paintings have appeared in two books, “Artism: The Art Of Autism” and “The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions.” Her work hangs on the walls of Illinois Senator Dan Kotowski’s Chicago Office and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s Chicago Office.
“We share common stories and struggles and relationships. It is so important to share that with others around the globe, because then people don’t have to feel so isolated and lonely,” Schwartz says.