Thursday, August 25, 2016

Why You Should Fund the Arts

Art is one of the most important things about being alive and yet, it remains a distant 4th place priority in most education systems. Not everyone is an artist, but then again not everyone is a scientist or mathematician.  The world would be a very boring place if we were all so well-rounded.

In my personal experience, I have found that art is something so intrinsic to my happiness and ability to express myself that imagining life without it seems impossible. I’ve been lucky enough to make a little money from my chosen form of expression - photography. One of the things I’ve learned since I started working at VSA Texas is that no matter what age, ability or income bracket you fall in, art is a viable career option.
Photo I took of my son at the beach in Costa Rica a few years ago
My son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was 3 years old. He did not start speaking clearly until he was 4, but ever since I can remember, he built things, he drew things, he sang, he danced. He did so many things to express himself before a full sentence came out of his mouth and I know that without art, he would have not been able to show me exactly who he was and what was on his mind.
Photo of bathtime art my son made when he was just learning to speak
Sadly, art hasn’t been a high priority in education for a long time. What if we spent as much time encouraging creativity as we did teaching students how to pass standardized tests? What if we allowed children to draw all over their homework, or better yet, draw the answers to their homework? The ‘what if’s’ could go on forever, but why not try focusing more on what we know works for students and make real change?

This is why it is so important to fund the arts. When you send a young person to one of our internships or camps, our dance class, our writing workshops, you are not giving someone the gift of passing their time. You are giving them the gift of an opportunity to do something that would have otherwise been impossible. You give them the gift of a new career path. You make art a priority.
Photo of my son and I at our house last year
At VSA Texas, our mission is to create an arts-inspired community that welcomes all abilities. Contributing to the creation of new artists will always be something worthwhile. 

To support the diverse, arts-inspired programming of VSA Texas, please click here to donate. Every little bit counts!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Creative Veterans Unite!

Coming up at the end of this month is an event celebrating our first exploration of adding Veteran Writers to our Distinguished Artist Veterans program. As those of you who have followed our veterans program knows, we have been hosting an annual exhibition of visual art every year since 2009. The exhibit is always a juried call for art, and brings us new and exciting artwork by veterans from all over the state of Texas. We have featured sculptures, paintings, drawings, jewelry, and so much more. But never writing until now! Our new project is called The Re-Integration Project and we started by hosting some writing classes for veterans in the Central Texas area. Over the course of two six-week long classes, a total of ten men and women learned about different writing styles including poetry, personal narrative, screenwriting, and fiction. The classes were taught by local writers Stephanie Whallon and Cecily Sailer. We also had an assistant from the Military Veteran Peer Network who helped us while also writing his own work. Below is a short excerpt from Gene Hooper’s story “S-13: A Day at Sea”

Nick wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew that rumors onboard a ship travel fast. And he knew that if he wanted answers, he needed to move to his next watch station on the bridge. Maybe there is something to all of it, he thought, and he raced through the ship to the bridge.
When Nick entered the bridge, things were calm, so he reported to the officer of watch. Nick announced his presence with a strong deep tone. “Officer of the watch, Seaman Stone, reporting for duty. Permission to relieve the helmsman.” 
“Permission granted,” Lieutenant McDaniel responded. The deck watch was always uptight and very formal. Traditions, professionalism, and commutations were key components to keeping a ship out of harm’s way out at sea.
Nick took his place at the helm. The bridge was too quiet, the kind of quiet that speaks loudly. He felt as though everyone knew something but was afraid to tell him. He wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, but he already didn’t like it.

Gene Hooper writes fiction informed by his experiences as a veteran and his naval expertise. “S-13” is his first story, which sheds light on some of his core values. Being new to writing, Gene has spent time with great educators through VSA Texas’ veteran writing projects and learned new writing skills. He will continue writing and building his skill set. Gene also works with veterans with PTSD. He believes in the healing power of writing, and believes it can provide encouragement. Gene’s full story can be found in the chapbook that is being printed for the reading and art exhibit coming up on August 31st. We are partnering with the Aural Literature program of the Austin Public Library and featuring a reading of literary works by our veteran writers as well as displaying artwork by veteran artists from all over the state in our 7th Annual Distinguished Artist Veterans exhibit.
© 2016 Alec Carvalho, Wave in Birch, carved wood, 12” x 12”
We will have work on exhibit by 11 artists from all across the state including Laredo, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. We asked the artists to relate their work to a theme that corresponded to the writings we received. For example, Alec’s piece Wave in Birch relates to the theme of Ownership of Experience and Life Choices.

Another artist who relates to that theme of Ownership of Experience is Ruth McIntosh. Ruth combined art and writing in her entry by framing a poem that is embedded into handmade paper created from the pulp of her old military uniforms. Her piece is called PTSD and she noticed something interesting about her finished work:

“I randomly tore the edges of the paper on which the poem is printed, however, unknowingly I created the outline of a face. The lines of the printing also just happened to suggest a face. This is amazing since the last two lines of the poem are, 'PTSD has many faces. One of them is mine.' It is as if I subconsciously made a self portrait.”
© 2015 Ruth L. McIntosh, PTSD,
Handmade paper and inkjet printing on paper, 16” x 20”
We invite you to see and hear from these veterans at our Re-Integration Project Reading and Opening Reception on Wednesday, August 31, 2016 from 7:00-8:30 PM at the Terrazas Branch Library, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez Street, Austin, TX 78702!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference in Pittsburgh August 2016

Hi there. This is Silva reporting from Pittsburgh. There is something so special about being in the same place and space with people who share your passion, your struggles, and who know what you mean when you talk about breakthroughs in your work. That’s how I felt at the Intersections Conference.
This image, jumbled words arts education emblazoned with the words
VSA Texas wearing sunglasses, was created by Celia Hughes
using at the “Cool Tools, Hot Topics”
workshop at Intersections 2016.
Krissie Marty from Forklift Danceworks and I got to present “Learning in Motion,” a workshop on creative movement strategies that employs the elements of dance in alignment with National Core Arts Standards. We had a room full of people who were eager to hear what we had to offer and as eager to contribute from their personal experiences. We had so much fun presenting to the group that I forgot almost instantly how nervous I was. I feel like we also got lucky as we were presenting on the first day at the first time slot so I got to enjoy other people’s workshops for the rest of the conference.
Krissie and participants in build-a-phrase action!
One of my favorite workshops was led by a Wolf Trap Institute For Early Learning Through The Arts teaching artist, in collaboration with two special education classroom teachers. They were presenting material that they have been working on for two years and in which they have combined books with music and movement. I love it when I go to a session and know that I can use the material in my work immediately. It is like filling your toolbox with brand new shining tools. Here is their website so that you can check them out:
Valerie from the Wolf Trap Institute demonstrating her boat and sailor!
Next year the VSA Intersections Conference will be in Austin, Texas – my hometown now – so keep your eyes open for the dates and make sure to come and share your work and meet other professionals in the field.
In this photo, Sharron Rush of Knowbility, plays with floating silver mylar pillows
in the Andy Warhol Museum at the opening reception.
For more information about how you can get involved with Intersections 2017 in Austin, Texas contact

Thursday, August 4, 2016

VSA Texas Unsung Heroes of the Week: Gene and Dave

This week we have the privilege of introducing our dear friend, Gene Rodgers, to tell us the history of The Gene and Dave Show in his own words:

Have you ever wanted your own television show? Have you ever wanted to be your own producer, writer, director, and on-screen talent? These are questions that never occurred to Gene and Dave when they were involved in performance arts. They just wanted to share their creative talents with as many people as possible. Well, look at us now!
Gene and Dave with an image of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue,
Town Lake, and the Austin skyline digitally placed behind them
Dave and I, both electric wheelchair users, were involved in VSA Texas-sponsored live performance group called Actual Lives Austin. We wrote stories about events in our lives and then shared the stories on stage. One day during rehearsal, Dave approached me and said, "Hey Gene, I’ve got an idea for a script, and you’re the only one I know crazy enough to do it with me." Well, I was all ears. We immediately wrote the script for a skit called ‘Who Works Monday.’ I had a friend film us. I edited the video on my computer, and we posted it on YouTube. It was about a guy who hired several attendants and had trouble keeping track of who worked on which day. It was a parody of Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s On First.’ See it at

A lot of folks told us they really enjoyed it and that we should have our own TV Show. That was all the encouragement we needed. Just several years previous, I became a certified producer at public access Channel Austin. My show was called "Geno’s Place." I just had to go to the public access studio, learn how to operate a camera, and learn how to get that media edited and back to the station for broadcast. Well, it was a little more complicated than that, but in essence I was already a producer.  Dave and I just needed to come up with a show theme and start putting shows together.

Our TV show had pretty humble beginnings. Celia Hughes, at VSA Texas, helped us find funding. We set up some lights in my apartment and filmed ourselves in my living room. Then we started using a green screen, which allowed us to digitally change the background of our set. Once Channel Austin remodeled their studios, we started to film there. Since we were able to use our own digital cameras and edit our shows on our computers, we created shows in a fairly accessible venue.
Gene and Dave seated at a table with 2 microphones
in the Channel Austin studio. Behind them a blue screen
covers the entire wall.

The editing station at Channel Austin shows the process of
digitally placing an Austin postcard behind Gene and Dave.
Being co-hosts of The Gene and Dave Show has allowed us to meet all sorts of people in all sorts of situations. We can always be seen at SXSW. In fact, Dave interviewed R2D2 there. We get to interview folks at public and private businesses to learn more about how they include people with disabilities in their activities. Our show covers many disability-related topics, including employment, recreation, health, and many more. We can be seen on Time-Warner channel 16. All shows are archived on our website at

Gene and Dave sit on either of R2D2 as Dave, microphone
in hand, conducts the interview.
Contact us at and

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Body Shift: The Element of Time

Hello, friends!  This is Olivia, project coordinator for Body Shift, VSA Texas’ and Forklift Danceworks' acclaimed mixed-ability dance project.  Every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month Body Shift offers a class we call Elements in which we practice improvisational dance in an inclusive way by using the DanceAbility method.  You can find a general overview of what to expect from Elements in my blog post from April 28, 2016 here.  In DanceAbility, we work with four basic principles that are the building blocks of choreography.  These include sensation, relationship, time and design.  Oftentimes we will choose one of these principles to narrow the focus in order to increase the students' understanding and awareness of how to make use of these elements.

In class last Saturday, after working to develop our awareness of moving from internal sensation and how to be in relationship to a partner, I led the group through an exploration of time.  Time is relative to the person and the pace that is reasonable for their body.  You can do a quick improv wherever you are as you read this… Choose one body part and begin moving it in whatever way feels good to you.  Notice the sensation that is generated from that movement.  Continue with the same basic moves but now try doing them fast (whatever fast means to you).  Then try doing them slow (whatever slow means to you).  Try going back and forth between fast and slow while moving a different body part or your whole body and add in the option to be still whenever you choose.  As you are moving, continue to see if you can stay aware of what it feels like as you move.  Staying in tune with sensation when moving fast is a more advanced skill and takes practice.  Continue moving fast, slow and being still and now add in the awareness of duration.  How long do you choose to move fast?  Slow?  Be still?  Notice if you fall into a pattern of doing the same speed for the same length of time and challenge yourself to mix things up – sometimes longer stillness; sometimes moving short and quick or long and sustained, etc.  After practicing with time as a solo, you can also work with a partner or in groups.

Last Saturday we went from working with fast, slow and stillness in duets to quartets to the whole group into an open improvisation at the end of class.  Below are two short clips from our exploration in pairs.  Notice the diverse range of choices people are making about what fast, slow, and still means.  Also notice how long they choose to stay with each as well as the way they are affected by their partner.  Sometimes one might choose to follow their partner's pacing or they may choose to contrast.

“In improvising, when you move, and how quickly or slowly, can be just as important as what you are doing… The goal is to control time rather than be controlled by your habitual sense of timing… Spontaneity is not always the best choice.  Making the same movement but choosing to do it at a different time or doing it faster or slower can change the movement and its relation to the rest of the improvisation. ” (Alito Alessi, founder of  DanceAbility International and Joint Forces Dance Company,

Below are short clips of each of the quartets from last class practicing Fast, Slow and Still:

Hope to see you in class August 13th!  Elements takes place every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month at the Townlake YMCA in Austin from 2:30-4:30pm.  Like Body Shift on Facebook and visit our website for more details:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Tell Me A Story!

Hello! It is I, Nicole, project facilitator for Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD) at VSA Texas. I’m here to tell you about some kick butt entertainment in Austin, and it's entertainment that you too can participate in: STORYTELLING! Recently I investigated several storytelling venues for our OMOD speakers, and boy was I impressed at the selection! And it's all around Austin, at FREE or affordable prices. Yes, I said free and well worth it too. So if you’re tired of the movie scene and want to hear real personal stories from your fellow Austinites or tell some of your own, then I encourage you to check out one of these six storytelling events:

(Note: I have primarily investigated the physical accessibility of these venues, specifically the entrance and wheelchair seating, so please contact the individual event organizers for information regarding parking, bathroom accessibility, and other accommodations. Stories at these events are also intended for adults, so there may be some themes unsuitable for children. Also, unless otherwise noted, to tell a story at one of these events, you must contact the individual event organizers to sign up.)

1. The Living Room

Review: Indoors, a little pricey but worth it. Stories go on a little longer than I would like (10-15 minutes), but still good usually. Typically an older crowd. The "stage area" is wheelchair accessible.
When: Every first Saturday of the month at 7:30 PM
Where: Scottish Rite Theater at 207 West 18th Street, Austin, TX 78701 (Note: the venue might changs, so make sure to check the Facebook page or contact the organizer before going.)
Cost: $15, cash or check ONLY
For more information: Visit, send an email to, or call 512-441-6085.

Image courtesy of Backyard Story Night.
(Description: a crowd of about 100 people seated in foldable
chairs and oriented toward the Scoot Inn's outdoor stage,
where a blond woman in bright clothes tells a story.)

2. Backyard Story Night

Review: Excellent storytelling (5-6 minute limit per story; biggest crowd by far), outdoor seating, and there is usually a food trailer to order food and drinks. Or you can bring your own snacks! Be sure to also bring your own chair or blanket to sit on. Unfortunately, the stage is not wheelchair accessible.
When: Every other month, usually the first Sunday. Doors open at 7:00 PM. Show starts at 8:00 PM. (Note: the next show will be Saturday, August 21st, so it's a good idea to check the site for accurate and up-to-date details.)
Where: Historic Scoot Inn, 1308 East 4th Street, Austin, TX 78702
Cost: Suggested donation to a different non-profit each event. The amount is up to you, so give what you can.

The stage at Testify before showtime.
(Description: Two female sign language interpreters dressed in black sign to each other.
To the right of the interpreters is an elevated stage on which a man plays acoustic guitar.
Also on stage is an empty stool and a microphone stand. Behind the stage the word
"testify" in black text is projected over a white screen. Red curtains cover the walls on
either side of the stage. A disco ball hangs in the foreground.

3. Testify

Review: Intimate setting. Must be 21 or older. You can order drinks and food from your table or the bar. Mostly younger to middle-aged crowd. Stories are on the longer side like The Living Room, but compelling. Sadly, the stage is not wheelchair accessible, but ASL Interpretation was provided at the last two shows by SOULumination Interpreters, so that's a plus!
When: Every last Thursday of the month. Doors open at 7:00 PM. Show starts at 7:30 PM.
Where: Spider House Ballroom, 2908 Fruth Street, Austin, TX 78705
Cost: $5 cash/$6 for credit cards
For more information: Visit or

4. Central Texas Storytelling Guild

Review: Smallest group (usually about 8-10 people), but you will hear some good stories and you can sign up to tell your own story when you arrive. The "stage area" is wheelchair accessible. No time limit specified.
When: Every second Tuesday of the month at 7:00 PM
Where: Episcopal Church of Resurrection, Parish Hall, 2008 Justin Lane, Austin, TX 78757
Cost: Free or by donation
For more information: Visit, send an email to, or call 512-258-3345.

5. Beyond Our Backyard Storytelling

Review: Great outdoor venue by Town Lake! Light wheelchair off-roading possible but avoidable. You can bring snacks, drinks, and your dog. In the least, bring a chair or blanket to sit on. Stories are internationally-focused, 5-7 minutes max. The "stage area" appeared to be wheelchair accessible, but you probably want to see it before you sign up to tell a story and/or bring a strong friend or attendant to help you if necessary.
When: The inaugural Beyond Our Backyard Storytelling event was Sunday, May 1st at 7:30 PM, but the next event has not yet been scheduled. Check their Facebook group for updates.
Where: Hostel International Austin, 2200 S Lakeshore Blvd, Austin, TX 78741 (Located in the back)
Cost: Free

Image courtesy of Hyde Park Storytelling.
(Description: A man dressed in black with a white hoodie stands on an elevated porch
serving as a stage illuminated in green light and tells his story to a crowd of about 100 people
seated cozily on blankets on the ground in a backyard. Audience members at left clap.
Fiesta style lights hang in the air over the audience.)

6. Hyde Park Storytelling

Review: Outdoors, in an actual backyard, so wheelchair users: brace yourselves for some light off-roading. It can also get pretty crowded and tight, so arrive early to get a good space. Bring your blanket or chair to sit on. You can also bring snacks, drinks, and your dog (hey, dogs like stories too, you know). Stories are 5-7 minutes. Only downsides: neither the stage nor bathroom are wheelchair accessible, but it is still a fine venue to see other storytellers!
When: Every other month, the last Saturday of the month. Seating starts at 7:00 PM. Stories start at 8:00 PM.
Where: 5001 Duval Street, Austin, TX 78751
Cost: Free
For more information: Visit

And of course, you can always join us for our monthly Lion and Pirate Open Mic at Malvern Books, which we co-host with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and where you can share stories and other talents in a 100% accessible environment. The choice is yours, but I hope to see you at one of these events soon!

If you have any questions or need assistance signing up to tell a story at one of these events, please don't hesitate to leave a comment below or contact OMOD project coordinator Eric Clow directly at

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Introducing Our New Development Director!

Hey folks, it’s VSA Texas blog time from Lynn. I will gladly say we here couldn’t be happier to introduce Janelle Matous as our new Development Director! She’s been here less than three weeks and has already written two grants, completely set up a new office, read through new grant opportunities, AND got us a new puppy mascot, Maisie. I could say more but TA DA! Janelle will let us all know more about herself in her own words, so without further ado... Take it away, Janelle:
Janelle and new puppy Maisie
"Since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to do two things in life: share art and help people. I somehow ended up lucky enough to have a job that lets me to do both. VSA Texas has allowed me to put my years of fundraising experience to use supporting a cause that is near and dear to my heart: making it possible for people of all abilities to expand their connection to the arts.

"An artist myself, I know firsthand how important creative expression is to the development of a mind, no matter what age. Art helped me overcome crippling social anxiety at an early age and watching my son grow up and choose art as his primary form of expression has only deepened my understanding of something I’ve known all along; that art has the power to communicate across language barriers, to bring people together, to inspire, to change the way we look at the world and to make us better humans. We all contribute something to this life, no matter what our ‘job’ is. For some, art is their job. Making it possible to access your dream is paramount to the success of humanity.
Janelle ready for work at her new desk!
"None of us live the same life as another, and what we create is not the same as another in turn. When we welcome diversity in abilities and perspective, we only enrich our own understanding of who we are as people. Once I learned about VSA Texas, it was only natural for me to want to work here. VSA’s programs not only offer accessibility to the arts, but also inclusion in the arts. I am so honored to be part of an organization that celebrates all abilities and sees the importance of creativity in our world, and I look forward to a successful year making more art happen in our community!"