Thursday, October 18, 2018

Artist of the Year – Joan Fabian

Sunday, September 16th was a beautiful sunny afternoon in Austin, Texas as a group of artists and VSA Texas supporters gathered to celebrate artists from around Texas who have empowered themselves and their community through their artistic practice. It was our inaugural Haven Allen Artist of the Year awards where we honored three artists for their achievements.

The Haven Allen awards are named in memory of former VSA Texas Board Member Forrest Haven Street-Allen. Haven was an insightful and caring person who had a history of helping others. When she passed away we wanted to honor her dedication, vision, and respect for all through this award. Our first award ceremony this year was a success and I think Haven would be proud to have her name attached to it.

We solicited nomination forms all year long in 2017. The award is open to any artist with a disability over the age of 16 years old in any discipline. Self-nominations are allowed. We received 10 nominations. Interestingly, all were for visual artists and none were self-nominations. Our panel of judges reviewed all of the applications and they chose San Antonio artist Joan Fabian as the very first Haven Allen Artist of the Year. She was notified this past Spring and then awarded this Fall.

Joan has been a long time artist with VSA Texas. She has been in several group shows and was our final solo show at Access Gallery before it closed in 2012. I think she was a natural choice for this award because of her notable achievements through the arts nationwide and worldwide, her shining spirit and giving nature toward helping other artists succeed, and of course, her beautifully constructed and painted images.

The cover of the catalog produced for Joan’s solo show “Culture of Color” held at Access Gallery in May 2012.

As the 2018 Artist of the Year, we are dedicated to promoting Joan in the community, so this blog is my introduction of her to you. Meet Joan Fabian! If you don’t know her, you should! Below is a video of why she was nominated for and given this award:


In the generous VSA Texas fashion, we couldn’t just give one award! We also gave the Spark Award to fused glass artist Jordana Gerlach and the Director’s Commendation Award to Jackson Sutton. And before you ask, NO! You don’t have to have a name that starts with “J” to win this award.

Our 2019 Nomination Form is out now, so start thinking about the winning artists in your life. We want to see nominations for visual artists, writers, musicians, performers, and dancers! To request a nomination form, contact us at 512-454-9912 or info@vsatx.org. The deadline is February 28, 2019.

Friday, October 12, 2018

One Night in Miami

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Miami, Florida, land of Palm trees and beaches. I was there to work with docents and staff of the education department at the PĂ©rez Art Museum Miami on accessible customer service and audio description. This was my third time working with this museum and its staff, and as always, it was a great pleasure. And the museum setting is fabulous too! We were in the Board Room, with wrap-around windows that overlook a water runway… and seaplanes landed throughout the day, bouncing through the wakes their pontoons kicked up. We had a lively conversation concerning best practices for interacting with patrons with diverse abilities, and then spent some quality time in the galleries talking about verbal description for some of the artworks.

In the lobby, For Those in Peril on the Sea by the London-based artist Hew Locke, 70 model boats are suspended from the ceiling. They are diverse in size and color, painted in strong reds, greens, and yellows; some are covered with plastic plants and artificial flowers. They include Chinese junks, Norwegian cruise ships, Indonesian fishing boats, cigarette boats and clipper ships.

For the second year in a row, my trip to Miami coincided with a Miami-based arts and disability conference that I was able to attend as well. This year, Forward Motion, a Physically Integrated Dance Festival and Conference, organized by Karen Paterson & Dancers, was my special treat. Although I wasn’t able to stay for the entire festival, I was able to see several of the Candoco dancers and Karen Peterson dancers perform an intriguing score incorporating voice, echo, translation, and space. It is based on a structure practiced by the British company, Dog Kennel Hill. It was adapted by the dancers working together at Forward Motion for this conference. In addition to Candoco (London) and KPD (Miami), AXIS Dance Company (Oakland) and REVolutions Dance (Tampa) were also performing at the Festival.

The conference consisted of several thought-provoking panel discussions concerning topics of representation in the arts and media, moving beyond inclusion, and intersecting disability, sexuality, race, religion, ethnicity, and gender. Whoa: three very diverse and incredibly important panels discussing some meaty topics!

Some quotes that have stayed with me include:

“Diverse doesn’t mean inclusive.” So true. Many people still struggle with the concept of inclusion; what it means in context of disability.

“I am not educating people… But maybe I am because I am being seen. I know I have the power to be seen.” I have always believed that if you live your life, and let other people experience you living your life, education can happen.

“Inclusion means, I’m included but you’re not. Inclusivity means our stories are included, therefore our bodies are included too.” This one made me think.

And finally, this one is attributed to Annie Segarra, (artist, activist, YouTuber): “Inclusion is being invited to a party that is not equipped to have me there. Access is being invited to a party where I can make my own decision. Maybe I don’t want to dance, but I have the choice.”

All the panelists were very engaged and could have talked longer given the opportunity.

I ended my time in Miami wandering the Wynwood Walls, a neighborhood of warehouses that have been transformed by muralists. I discovered a poet, Jess, (@poemshop-js) who writes poetry on his manual typewriter outside one of the coffee shops. When asked to write a poem about One Night in Miami, he obliged:

The summer air blazes into 
  October, pausing 
a moment 
   to let the sun hide.

   The cotton candy clouds of 
    technicolor sunset 
now drift in simple notes 
       of stray slate 
  and dove gray. 

   We can breathe, 
finally. There is 
     opening and room, 

where the sauna and 
  red glow made us melt 
  inward at noon, 

    now we can stroll 
calm in the open 
    beneath the waning moon.

           The music of evening 
    calls the convocation, 
cars with made-up faces pass, 
swirling the dust of the street. 

Another night before 
             the weekend, in this city 
    where the ocean 
         and Everglades meet.

Jess Allen and his typewriter sit at the edge of the sidewalk, observed by two passers-by.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Namaste, y'all!

Well Namaste to you, oh loyal followers of this temple of contemporary wisdom, whose scrolls are being unraveled to be feasted upon by the fellow valiant and worthy.

Okay, I will not pretend to know what that means. It just sounded funny in my head. *Crickets* Yeah, let’s move on.

I’m Snehi Jhul, and I’m a millennial bard. I’m a musician, actor, and author who’s going back to college for a degree in geography. So, I basically toggle between plotting things and plotting things. (Ha! See what I did there? Huh? Huh? Ahem.) I started working at VSA Texas just two weeks ago, and boy, am I loving it! More on that in a minute.

Here's a photo of me (in case you wanted to put a face to the name).

I’m told I was born in India, but I don’t remember it happening. Is that normal? Anyways, I moved halfway across the world when I was one. I feel I was born as the epitome of mankind’s intelligence, and every skill I now realize I don’t have, I blame it on early childhood jet lag. So it’s quite handy.

I slay new dragons in my mind every day, and their being invisible is the only reason I haven’t been knighted yet. Those sneaky beasts. I always come out with a good story though, and whether I act or sing or write or dance or paint or play each day depends on which story I want to tell myself.

This is when VSA hired me as a work-study, battle-worn but back. On my first day, I made posters. Yep. I was getting paid for this! Then I helped out with one of our Library Live concerts this September, and got to meet some devilishly talented artists. I even got an autograph. (Thanks, Devin!) These people didn’t let disability own them. They owned it back. Booyah! (Wait, do people even say that anymore? Am I getting old?)

Devin Gutierrez performing for the Library Live crowd. He's a talented singer and piano player!

It’s so refreshing to work here, and I get to help out with a bunch of different things. In the first week, I learned how audio descriptions work, how captioning works, and most importantly, what the WiFi password here is. *Grins*

Want to hear about some of this fascinating stuff? Oh yeah, sure, imagination is great, but we can add another dimension to enjoy. I learned that VSA Texas provides audio descriptions at live plays, with descriptive narrations of the actions taking place on stage. You get an uber-cool gadget you tune in on and with an earpiece that makes you a better-looking James Bond, you get to follow along like a boss. I got to try it on when testing the equipment, and man I looked good! Oh, yeah, bring it on!

On top of that, I learn a lot about the world in the process, from voices mainstream society might not think to listen to. Everyone here has a drive to do some good in the world. Help us help you help the world!

Me? I’m personally in it for the stories. :D

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Encouraging Artistic Entrepreneurship

Earlier this month VSA Texas was invited to present at the Houston Arts Partners Conference. The Houston Arts Partners collaboration was created in response to a specific request from Houston area education administrators for a more efficient and effective method to access arts educational resources in Houston. The 2018 Conference was called "Synergy" and all about highlighting arts partnerships for students with diverse learning needs. Well this sounded right up our alley! So we put together a panel presentation called "Encouraging Artistic Entrepreneurship: How Artists with Disabilities Navigate Today's Gig Economy."

Our panel consisted of four young Houston artists. First, Wes Holloway. We have known him for quite some time at VSA Texas. We met when he was attending UT Austin. Wes paints amazing realistic pieces and is currently focusing on smaller collage work. He is a teaching artist and volunteers for United Spinal Association.

The next artist on our panel was Grant Manier. We met Grant when he was just a teenager starting out on his journey of art. He does eco-art using recycled paper. His most recent endeavor is a book he wrote with his mom called "Grant the Jigsaw Giraffe."

We then had Alisha Momin. Alisha was a participant in our Opening Minds, Opening Doors program when we took that to Houston. She creates jewelry, scarves, and potpourri as well. Alisha is an outgoing and adventurous young woman who enjoys making art and especially enjoys the part where she can meet people as she tries to sell it.

And finally Megan Fry, a young woman with whom we recently became acquainted. She uses an interesting technique called eye gaze to create digital art. She is also a college student at University of Houston. This was the first event we have done with Megan and she was delightful.

Grant, Alisha, April, Wes, and Megan at the HAP Conference after their presentation

At the conference, we had an hour long discussion about working as an artist with a disability. I don't have room in this blog to tell you everything, but here are some highlights!

  • Most of our panelists were interested in art from a young age. Their advice to teachers: let your students with disabilities give it a try. Don't assume they can't do what everyone else is doing. Find ways to adapt and ask them how they want to adapt the lesson. Be ready to explore with them!
  • Making the art is what comes naturally! But what about showing and selling your work? You might need a manager. And in many cases that is a "Mom-ager" or a "Dad-ager." They can be very helpful on the business skills, the transportation, and always the cheerleading!
  • Working as an artist at home can have its challenges. Sometimes you need to get out of the isolation of working at home. Get out and see the world for inspiration as well as networking opportunities.
  • Pricing your work is not easy. One tip is to start with a base price based on size. But whatever you do, never underestimate your worth!


I always enjoy an event where I can show off the talents of VSA Texas artists. Each artist did a great job talking about their work and were very professional panelists. We had a great time at the 2018 HAP Conference!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

September Fun with VSA Texas

Hey folks! This is Eric here to tell you about all we have going on over the next few weeks, and we hope you can join us and participate in one or more of these exciting events!

Let's start with this weekend. This Saturday evening, September 15th from 7:00-9:00 PM we have our monthly Lion and Pirate Open Mic for writers, musicians, and other performers that we co-host with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities at Malvern Books (613 West 29th Street, Austin, TX 78705). It's a really fun community event with a very supportive, open, and encouraging vibe, and it's free! So if you haven't been, I strongly encourage you to attend and perform, read, sing, or share whatever talents you possess, or simply relax and enjoy the entertainment! Not only is it a fun time with performances you are sure to remember, it's also a lovely community of friends who bond over performances and common interests.

Then Sunday, September 16th from 2:00-4:00 PM in the afternoon we will present our first-ever Artist of the Year Awards at the swanky Sterling Event Center (6134 US 290 East Frontage Road, Austin, TX 78752)! This award ceremony was launched to recognize the many fantastic artists with disabilities who create art and live in the state of Texas. We will have delicious hors d'oeuvres, beverages, live music from acoustic musician and troubadour Wayne Napier, and other fun activities, and Ron Lucey, the current Executive Director of the Governor's Committee on People with Disabilities, will serve as our emcee! And did I mention it's also free?! I would tell you more about this year's award recipients, but I'm sure the artists themselves and the art they will have on display will do a much better job Sunday. Okay, okay… Here's a preview of the art, but you still need to attend the ceremony to meet the talented artists behind the artwork!

Intricate, layered abstract painting mounted on wood with a myriad of vibrant colors

Painting of a safari scene with lion, tourist, and parrot

Beautiful blue fused glass pendants

The fun will continue next Saturday, September 22nd from 2:00-4:00 PM with the latest installment of our quarterly concert series at Carver Branch Library (1161 Angelina Street, Austin, TX 78702)! This time we are excited to welcome two new comers to the Carver Branch stage: Devin Gutierrez, a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter whose greatest influences are Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Chicago; and Sean & Tristan who cover hits of 50s rock 'n' roll legends Chuck Berry, The Penguins, Elvis, Ben E King, Bill Haley, Frank Sinatra, and others. As with all of this month's events, it is free. The doors will open at 1:45 PM, and the show will start at 2:00 PM.

Then, last but not least, Saturday, September 29th from 1:00-3:00 PM our local chapter of Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD) speakers dubbed the ‘Speaking Advocates’ will tackle the timely topic of disability in the media with speeches, lively discussion, and a whole lot to think about! As usual, we will meet in Room 101 of the AGE of Central Texas Building (3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705). All are welcome! Please just send me an email at eric@vsatx.org if you plan to attend.

So come out, get creative, and celebrate art with us!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Another Year of Judging Films By and About People with Disabilities!

Five years ago, I was asked by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD) to be a judge for the documentary short category of their annual Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival. This international film festival is unique for a number of reasons, first and foremost because all films submitted and screened either feature characters or real people with disabilities, or explore disability issues, and in keeping with that mission, many of the films include people with disabilities in their cast and crew. From the judging perspective, what sets the festival apart is its insistence to judge each film almost entirely on how well it presents a fresh or creative look at the experience of living with a disability; at times this means that a film with a high production value may not clinch first place if it relies heavily on tired disability stereotypes. As someone with a background in the film industry, this placed me in a unique position, one that has taught me a great deal over the past five years.

What I have learned is there are many ways to approach the criteria given me and just as many viewpoints. It is up to us as judges to adhere to that criteria but also our responsibility to judge the art of the storytelling and remember that "art takes risks." For Cinema Touching Disability, a memorable work is one that simultaneously embodies artistry, technical competence, and content that advances disability culture. Whereas some competitions want to encourage and empower emerging filmmakers to generate innovative films, Cinema Touching Disability seeks films at the cutting edge of social, cultural, and personal perceptions about experiences with disability. These films encapsulate just about everything: romance, relationships with peers or animals, nature, adventure, or just everyday experiences; some may contain a sense of humor, drama, or even action and suspense.

When viewing films outside of this competition, I find myself asking if we should judge films solely on their technical qualities (sound, editing, cinematography, etc.), or should we also allow for the effort put into accurately portraying or including underrepresented communities, like people with disabilities? The story may not be well-developed, and some of these filmmakers may not have much experience, but don't all filmmakers start out that way – with no experience, but just an idea? That is not to say the quality of the execution of their ideas is not important, as that is often what engages the audience in the first place, but film technique is certainly not all that matters.

The video below offers a more in-depth view of what the Cinema Touching Disability event means for the Austin community:


The Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival is now in its 15th year here in Austin, Texas. Each year, the films get better, and we see more international submissions, which gives us a glimpse into how other countries view the filmmaking process and how different cultures perceive what folks with disabilities want to and can achieve. You can learn more about the Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival and find updates for future events here. The 2018 festival will be held at the Alamo Drafthouse Village in Austin October 19-20. See you there!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

OMOD's Speaking Advocates

Hey all! This is Eric, your friendly OMOD coordinator, here to tell you about the newest addition to our Opening Minds, Opening Doors program: our Speaking Advocates group that meets every last Saturday of the month from 1-3 PM in Austin. We have now been meeting for six months and have grown a dedicated group of 10-12 members, but we have plenty of space for more folks to join!

Here's an overview of what we do. Each month we vote on a new theme to speak about during the next meeting; recent themes include "technology and accessibility," "hobbies," and this month's theme is "art." Once we choose a theme, 2-3 of our members will volunteer to each prepare a 3-5 minute speech on that theme to deliver at the next meeting. Folks who have prepared speeches present in the first half of each meeting. Then, in the second half, all other members present are welcome to give 1-3 minute impromptu speeches on the same theme. After every speech, the entire group offers the speaker constructive feedback, meaning what they did well and what they could improve if they decide to continue working on their speech for future presentations.

Meet the Speaking Advocates! A diverse crew of vibrantly-dressed adults with disabilities gathered around a long table during one of our monthly meetings

If it sounds a lot like a Toastmasters club, it's probably because we took a field trip to a Toastmasters meeting and adapted the things we liked about it to fit our group. While Toastmasters is a world-renowned organization for aspiring public speakers, there are aspects of it that do not translate well for people with disabilities. Namely, they do not have the same emphasis on accommodations. Sure, their locations are often wheelchair accessible, and most everyone is welcome to attend their meetings; however, our Speaking Advocates group devotes time to helping each person find the best way to present their speech, knowing that not everyone can effectively stand up and read a speech off a piece of paper they can hold with their hands. Sometimes the only way someone can present a speech is by remembering a general storyline, looking at a series of sketches on notecards, or using a slideshow to help prompt the speaker. Moreover, whereas Toastmasters follows a standardized rubric for judging each person's speech, we don't expend energy pushing someone to perfect skills that simply lie beyond their abilities, which is not to say we don't push our speakers, just that we meet each speaker where they are and work on bringing out the best presentation possible, whatever that means for each new speaker.

And did I mention our Speaking Advocates group is FREE?? All you need to do is send me an email at eric@vsatx.org to RSVP. And show up, of course! So come join us! Our next meeting is this Saturday, August 25th, from 1:00-3:00 PM in Room 101 of the AGE of Central Texas Building (3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705). We'll be talking about art. And if you don't want to get up and speak at your first meeting, no worries! Anyone is welcome to attend and get a sense for what we're all about. See you there!