Economic Development Joins HANDS with the Arts

“Hats off to HANDS”: Area not for profit celebrates 25 years in its own Valley Arts District

HANDS Inc. – the not-for-profit redevelopment corporation – celebrated its 25th anniversary recently with a tour of some of the places it helped transform by connecting housing, education and the arts.

The Orange-based agency’s reach has extended throughout Essex County and had a key role in creating the Valley Arts District of Orange and West Orange.

HANDS is an acronym for Housing and Development. It was founded in 1986 by South Orange's Patrick Morrissy, who is its executive director. HANDS has transformed unused and derelict commercial and industrial spaces in and around the valley section of West Orange and Orange into 38 residential and commercial arts spaces.

This winter, a former Orange firehouse will be turned into commercial space and six apartments where artists can live and work. The Kelli J. Copeland Artist Lofts, which will house eight artists and feature three commercial arts spaces, is under construction near existing HANDS tenant galleries: Oualie,  directed by Newark's Toni Thomas, and

Craig Sawyer, chairman of the HANDS Board of Directors, praised the work the organization has done, "We are so proud of  what HANDS has  been able to accomplish with your help. Neighborhoods have been revitalized. Contaminated industrial sites have been reclaimed. New businesses occupy HANDS' buildings. Over 100 families have bought an affordable HANDS home." 

Morrissy took supporters on a bus tour of Orange and explained that HANDS tries to find empty properties that need rehabilitation and relies on financial partners to turn them around. He said his goal is to help community members and make neighborhoods more stable.

One of the places on the tour was a complex HANDS owns and created for Luna’s needs by revamping an old house and adjacent commercial space on Valley Road in West Orange. Luna’s managing director, actress Mona Hennessey was one of the speakers, as was Eric Fullilove, the chief financial officer of a humanitarian relief organization.

South Orange film maker Duncan Pettigrew’s showed “25 Years of HANDS,” which intercut 1980s footage of Morrissy in action, shots of renovated housing, testimonials from first-time home owners and thoughts from arts district resident and artist Jody Leight and Maplewood’s John A. Savittierri, a master woodworker who relocated his studio from New York City to the Valley Arts District.

Savittieri lamented artist loft neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan are too pricey for artists to afford, a phenomenon that HANDs actively seeks to prevent happening here:

“Our apartment is near both art galleries in HANDS renovated buildings and the parking lot for a local oil distribution company,” Leight said.

Among the area’s galleries is IronWorks, where arts district executive director Lorena LaGrassa has her office and holds shows.

Twenty four area artists contributed works--many with a housing or community theme--for an art show and silent auction that LaGrassa curated for the celebration at Luna. Seventeen sold with proceeds benefitting HANDS outreach.

Among the contributors was , the master artist and program director for the arts district’s ORNG, Ink., a studio where student artists study, make art and offer design services. Malbrough, with the assistance of three ORNG, Ink mentor artists, led the symposium audience in creating a collaborative mixed media art work.

Speaker Molly Rose Kaufman is a HANDS community organizer, who said she is carrying on in her grandparents’ footsteps. They too were community organizers, in Orange.

 “I think this is a compelling place to be.” Kaufman said in a follow up interview, “and HANDS is an extremely relevant organization if you want to be part of creating a more equitable and just society.”

Learn more, including volunteer opportunities and events, by visiting the websites for HANDS, Inc.  and Valley Arts District, Inc.

Contributing artists included Lisa Suss, Lynne Toye, Jennifer Levine, Robert Lach, Julie Levine, Lorena La Grassa, Kathleen Heron, Jody Leight, Jody Lee, Gayle Mahoney, Susan Napack, Krystle Lemonias, Susan Evans Grove, Mike Malborogh, Vladimir Jean, Matt Gosser, Eric Beckerich, Susan Lisbin


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