ST. PAUL — Moved by the news that raging bush fires had killed and displaced millions of animals in Australia, Sidney James grabbed his watercolors, scoured the Internet for inspiration and spent four days painting a koala bear.

When James told his instructors at the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in St. Paul that he wanted proceeds from his new greeting card line to benefit Australian wildlife relief, he hoped he might make enough cash to send a couple bucks down under.

“If it gets sold, it gets sold,” said James, 22, of Minneapolis. “I thought they’d put them on the front table, in the reception area, and maybe some people would buy them. I didn’t anticipate getting much, but whatever we get is great.”

He wasn’t counting on Interact’s heightened push to get the work of artists with disabilities onto its online marketplace and into the hands of buyers.

As of Tuesday, Feb. 4, Interact had sold 200 cards, or 20 packs of James’ greeting cards, completely wiping out the first printing of his koala.

More prints are on the way. For James, who was born with cognitive disabilities and has been painting at Interact since 2016, the $500 in sales have been especially inspiring.

Half of the proceeds will support Interact’s arts instruction, and the other half will be donated to the Irwin Family Foundation, which continues the wildlife rehabilitation work of famed Australian conservationist and crocodile wrangler Steve Irwin.

While estimates vary, the World Wide Fund for Nature – Australia believes that 1.25 billion animals have perished in the bush fires, including upwards of 8,000 koala bears.

“This is really the first fundraiser we’ve done for somebody else, at least as long as I’ve been here,” said Visual Arts Studio Manager Joli Grostephan. “Our artists care a lot. They care about the community and they care about the world. A lot of people love animals, but I think artists really love animals.”

Quipped James, “I like animals more than humans.”

The Interact Center has provided clients with physical and mental disabilities a supportive environment in which to explore the arts since the mid-1990s.

The nonprofit received $490,000 from the Minnesota Department of Human Services in 2018 to revamp its website and market the artists’ work through online sales. The funds have also allowed Interact to hire an archivist and gallery director to exhibit the works of roughly 120 clients throughout the Twin Cities, and rent additional space for storage and shipping.

Copies of James’ work are available online at