Simply ArtAble Staff

Jane Elias : Founder and Creative Director

I feel so fortunate to have been born into such a large, creative and diverse family.  It taught me to be sensitive to differences and to not judge on the surface.  Not all disabilities can be seen.  We are all very complex individuals with a lot of creative abilities as well as mental and physical disabilities.

I have always felt driven to use my talents as an Artist to serve the larger community which I got from my parents; my father  a Jr High Guidance Councilor and my Mother an Art and Music Therapist.  When I was in my teens I volunteered at the Dakota County Children’s Home for children with disabilities; I also went  to group homes to perform dance and music with adults with disabilities with my sister to accompany my mother.  Singing, dancing, creating with them stripped away my fears and inhibitions and I felt like I mattered.  When I was 17 one of my many sisters received the bonus of a child with cerebral palsy when she married.  I loved creating with Rachel and planning all her birthday parties for her and friends.  Rachel helped me see the world through a whole new light.

After I graduated from the U of M, I had no idea of where I was headed!  I traveled a very uncertain path;  to help cope with my own struggle with anxiety and depression, I became a community Artist.  I brought art to Nursing homes, Homeless Shelters, Schools, Bush Memorial Children’s Home, Free Arts MN, Hospitals, Clinics, Churches and on the streets of South and North Minneapolis.  I always felt more comfortable creating with others than being alone in a studio.

To serve the community, I opened Simply Jane Open Artists Studio in 2007.  I couldn’t afford much, but it was a lovely little corner storefront with a party room and restrooms down the stairs on the lower level.  This was not ideal for elderly and physically disabled artists.  As we grew I was certain that this WAS my path and I made the move to a new studio and made sure it would accommodate all people, all artistic abilities and those who are differently abled. I started out Simply Jane and came to be, Simply ArtAble. (read more about Jane) 

Lisa Bigaouette : Director of Development & Program Operations

Lisa is an experienced nonprofit management and fundraising professional. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs from the University of Oregon. She has worked primarily for environmental and sustainability organizations, but having known Janie for years and having witnessed the great work that Simply ArtAble does, she was excited to dive into a new issue area and use her nonprofit talents to further the Simply ArtAble mission. Lisa is responsible for all membership, fundraising, communications, marketing, program, and business operations for the organization. She admits that, prior to joining Simply ArtAble, her creative talents were basically limited to knitting, but she has quickly learned to paint in the Simply Jane style and loves it! 

Jean Birkeli : Studio Floor Manager

Jean Birkeli is a self-taught artist that has been painting for 25 years and been with Simply Jane since 2007. She has been commissioned to paint a variety of items including; landscapes, portraits and painted rocks. Jean has also been exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair in the Fine Arts Building and at local art studios in Minneapolis. She has been teaching art and crafts at Simply Jane for over 5 years and for the Minneapolis Park Board for over 16 years. Jean has a diverse background working with the elderly as well as teaching youth. For over 4 years Jean worked as certified nursing assistant in many nursing homes in 3 different states caring for residents on a daily basis. Also Jean and her family created May Day baskets for the past 9 years to give out to nursing home residents in Minnesota. Jean aided a girl scout troop for 9 years helping facilitate events as well as actively engaging a troop member with Down Syndrome in group activities. Jean greatly enjoys teaching art to people of all ages and abilities. Jean’s oil paintings and painted rocks are available for sale at the studio.

Mary Elias : Studio Assistant

Mary Elias is an MCAD graduate and has been painting, sculpting and performing her music throughout the US for the past 40 years. Mary’s “Jazz and Blues Series” (pictured right) cards and prints are available for sale at the studio.

Peder Hagen : Studio Assistant

Peder was hired through Autism Works  and has been involved in many artistic endeavors over the years. As a young child Peder was involved in the Mankato Ballet and the Mankato Children’s Choir. Peder was active in his high school theater department, appearing in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Les Miserables.” As a teenager, he worked at LifeWorks in Mankato, an organization for artists. In September 2005, Peder joined the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. In 2008 Peder exhibited his work at Midway Gallery in Minneapolis. His artistic background includes writing and color theory classes at North Hennepin Community College. Peder has been working at Simply Jane Studio since June of 2013 and loves it. Peder is passionate about the arts because he believes in the expression of humanity and personal identity through expressive forms of art.

Andrew Witkins : Party & Event Host

AndrewAndrew is a recent transplant to Minneapolis via Louisiana, where he taught middle and high school history. Previously, he was a children’s program coordinator in Madison, WI, where he saw firsthand the power of art to break down barriers and build up kids’ self esteem. Andrew loves having the opportunity to meet all sorts of fun and interesting people at Simply Jane. When he’s not working, Andrew loves listening to music, traveling, and playing with his one year old son.