Thursday, May 25, 2017

Connections

Hi VSA Texas friends! This is April, and I have been working hard on our veterans program lately. We have an exciting event planned for June 15th from 6-8 pm at Art979 Gallery, 210 W 26th Street in Bryan, TX.

Invitation for the 2017 Distinguished Artist Veterans Showcase that includes a painting of a gecko by Mary Ishler and a poem called The Desert by Judy Smith.

This will be our 8th annual Distinguished Artist Veterans art exhibit and we have something different planned. This year it is all about connections! We expanded our program in 2015 to include The Re-Integration Project writing classes. Our second publication of writings by veterans is out at the printer now and it is filled with 100 pages of poems, short stories and screenplays.

Cover of The Re-Integration Project publication including an abstract marker drawing by Valerie Short called Everyone’s Dream.

How is this about connections, you ask? Well, we have connected our veteran writers with veteran artists and songwriters by asking the artists and musicians to choose a piece of writing from the book and create a response. The art has been coming in all week to my office and every artist who drops off artwork is excited to tell the story of how their work was inspired by the veteran writers. Denise Knebel was here this morning from San Antonio. She created a painting in response to a short story “Terminal” by Thomas Orlando. In this story a junior officer butts heads with a colonel, but by the end of the story, their relationship becomes one of mutual respect. The connection that the officer makes with the colonel in the beginning of the story comes back around to him in the end. We find a similar storyline in Perry Jefferies “Club-Footed Frankenstein.” As Denise explained it, so much of what happens in the military is about connections between people. She portrayed that in her acrylic on canvas, “Connections…for us all.”

An acrylic painting with many layers including images of figures and planes overlaid by square patterns of purple bars, dripping veins of green and yellow, and circles of gold.

Beyond the art, we are also working with veteran songwriters. As they turn in their songs, I am finding a theme to the music. Most of the songs are soul- or country-influenced and all of them are about love. With titles such as “Tornado of Love” by Glenn Towery or “People Just Need Love” by Rick Milisci, the songs bring about a feeling of love and the connection each of us has with everyone else.

I am telling you, this is going to be a great event! If you can’t make it to Bryan on June 15th, I urge you to take a trip to view the show while it is on display until July 15th. Or visit our website, because I will be posting the writings, songs, and art there soon.

Finally, I want to say, this project would not be possible without funding support from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. In the spirit of connections, I want to share with you a fantastic blog by one of the Peer & Family Support Program mentors that was published on the Reeve Foundation's blog recently. The blog, written by Julie Rodes, describes her journey from being a patient with a new spinal cord injury to her recent acceptance into medical school.

Stay connected!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Horticultural Arts

Hi there. This is Celia and I want to tell you a little bit about a wonderful new program we have added to our weekend classes. In partnership with Mobile Art, this Sunday is the fourth class in a limited series we are calling Horticultural Arts. The classes are part playing with flowers and part healing. Led by organic gardner Mary Kraemer, the experiential workshops explore how flowering plants and their essence influence our lives in ways both seen and unseen. This Sunday, we will learn about taking photographs of plants and flowers and will begin to assemble a photo book. Here are some of my photos taken recently in the Northeast:
Tulips in Spring

Garden of earthly delights

Bleeding Hearts and Lilacs

I am looking forward to improving my technique on Sunday! Classes are only $10 and walk-ins are welcome. I hope to see you there!

And here is Lynn Johnson on her Zen meditation reflection experience:

Hmm. I must say I have been intrigued from the outset, and there are seven more classes coming up with a kaleidoscope of offerings. The one I attended recently was “Flower Gazing Meditation, Mini-Japanese Zen Garden Making, and Learning Basic Meditation,” the latter essentially meaning to breathe and focus for about 3-5 minutes. It was very relaxing just breathing, which for me after all sorts of allergies and bronchitis, is a gift in itself. Mary read different meditation pieces, and we sat quietly and listened. As for the rest of the two hours... I cannot replicate nor remember beyond being in the present Zen moment, and we were all there.

I did notice large plastic jars filled with what appeared to be rice and sand colored dirt, some small plates, a collection of little gardening utensils, and a bowl of rocks. Everyone was asked to pick four rocks, representing different things such as "fresh" and "clear," a wall, and two other items I frankly don’t remember because I was still so focused on breathing, but I really liked my selection of rocks. We held each one in our hand and did a slight meditation holding the thought of the rock we had chosen.

Afterward, we put those aside, and then we got our small plastic bowl, and we chose our dirt to start making our mini-Zen Garden. Loved this process! I chose a dark, reddish dirt that had an interesting smell and tossed my rocks into the dirt very much like the “Chance Dance” that Phillip Glass, the great composer, used to do with modern dancers, playing music as the dancers improvised as they went along. So I chanced the Zen Garden rock throwing, letting the rocks land where they may.

We got our choice of tiny garden tools, (i.e. a rake, trowel, and three-pronged fork). I chose the little rake and proceeded to arrange my little garden as Mary read to us peaceful stories about Zen Gardens and showed us wonderful pictures from famous Zen Gardens. While we were busy tending to our 8” bowls of dirt, we listened to stories about Haiku poetry and how many syllables they contain, and we talked about what each of our rocks meant to us. I chose my clear rock as the pinnacle of my garden, meaning "awake and clear." We then each wrote a Haiku poem. Next we chose our Shinto shrine; mine was a little box with a little roof where I put my poem and a special rock.
My Haiku written in green ink on a white slip of paper:
“Loud bird sweetness sings
Soft wind joyfully flowing
Freedom soul awake”
  My mini-Zen Garden and Shinto shrine: pastel background, miniature blue roof with painted butterfly, tiny rake leaning on the roof and placed on red, gravelly dirt with a clear rock, gold rock, pink stone, and white stone.

A Shinto shrine is a structure whose main purpose is to house one or more Shinto kami. Its most important building is used for the safekeeping of sacred objects and not for worship. Structurally, a shrine is usually characterized by the presence of a honden or sanctuary where the kami, or sacred object(s), are housed. My little Shinto shrine is now on my shelf in my office where it rests beside my mini-Zen Garden, in which I love to create new patterns in the dirt and scatter my rocks wherever they may wander.

There are many more classes to discover here at VSA Texas. These Horticultural Arts classes are available through July 16th. Visit the VSA Texas website or call me to sign up at 512-454-9912. Hey – it’s only $10, and you will never regret you came!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Here's to All the Moms!

With Mother's Day coming up this weekend, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate moms and share what motherhood means to us!

April:
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there! My mother is one of my favorite people in the whole world. She is an artist and a scientist and an explorer of adventures. I grew up with the understanding that I could be anything that I wanted to be. She would tell me she would love me even if I sold pencils on the side of the road. That kind of reassurance made it possible for me to follow my dreams of being an artist and working in the arts. My sisters and I try to spend Mother’s Day with her but it gets harder every year with all of our busy schedules. Plus my sisters are both mothers now too. When we do get together, we try to go to the beach and have a relaxing getaway. This year, because I am so busy this weekend, I took my mom to the beach last weekend. She really wanted to go fishing. So we went to the pier and enjoyed the breeze and she gave it a go. Here is a picture of her fishing. She didn’t catch anything, but she had a great time and I enjoyed my time hanging out with her.


Janelle:
Every day feels like Mother's Day to me. Seeing my son grow and greet the day each morning, tell me about his field trips at school, use new words, discover new things, that's what being a mother is all about. I used to think I cared about presents and such, but what really makes me feel fulfilled is seeing him turn into the person he is supposed to be.
Me and T

Lynn:
It has been 25 years since I last celebrated Mother’s Day with a gift, a smile, maybe a pie, but always a card. My memories are so many: her arched eyebrow when I did something wrong, her hug after scolding me, many long years of her sewing clothes for me, including my wedding dress. Countless meals she made for us all, her attempts at fudge which never quite made it, our hot chocolates after midnight Christmas Eve mass. Clean sheets especially when I had a cold or flu, a cool washcloth for my forehead after crying over some silly boyfriend. Encouraging me to read everything and always providing a copious amount of books to read. Sticking up for me when she felt some teacher had done me wrong. Showing me the world and all the cultures it has to offer. She made a great pound cake and always had a jar of freshly baked cookies when she had the time. She taught me how to shovel sand, sod grass, paint baseboards, make a good cup of coffee. She let me cook at a young age. When she said "no," you knew she meant "no." She didn’t back down much to my chagrin. I could wheedle and whine and exasperate her so, but no always meant no. She was the worst joke teller, so she didn’t tell many jokes. People loved talking with her about all sorts of things – her oncologist who was getting married visited her many times in the hospital seeking advice about his upcoming nuptials. We were so different – she was tall and thin, I am short and not so thin, she had dark hair, I had light hair – but I realize now in so many ways we have become alike. I learned the same love of fairness, equality, and sharing with others. And I'm probably the next worst joke teller after her.
My mom and dad

Eric:
There is a whole lot I could say about my mom, but more than any memory, what comes to mind is how tirelessly she worked to make sure I would have the best life possible. And in addition to being a fierce advocate for me, she also advocated for countless other students with disabilities through her 20+ years of service as a special education teacher. Most of the good things I have in my life I owe to her. I value our close relationship, our ability to laugh at the most absurd and often painful situations, and I still reach for the stars knowing she'll support me each step of the way. Love you, Mom!
At a student awards ceremony with my mom and some seriously long hair

Celia:
My mother has been gone for a very long time. But I often think of her and how she and my father raised my brothers and I to be hard working, caring and honest adults. I recognize Mom in my mannerisms and many of my little sayings about the ironies of life. I wish that she and I could have had more time together because I think she would find satisfaction in her handiwork. Even though, I can still hear her voice telling me to "sit up straight and for goodness sake, cut your hair." Oh Phyllis. I like my long hair as much as I love you. Happy Mothers Day!


What are your favorite mom memories? Please tell us in the comments!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Future of Me

First and foremost, I'd like to wish you all a happy May the Fourth day! May the force be with you as you navigate your Thursday afternoons! In this blog, I want to share with you all what I will be up to now that our grant from the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD), our primary funding source for OMOD, has officially ended:

Social Media. Something I probably enjoy a little too much will now dominate a sizable chunk of my work life. This includes continuing my self-appointed role of "Blog Manager" and also scheduling and publishing our daily Facebook and Twitter posts. I feel honored to fill the role once occupied by Austin Hughes, our previous social media expert. And one final note about all things blog: we are always open to guest contributions to our blog, so if you have a piece about arts and disability or your participation in one of our programs, or would like to write a piece, please contact me and we'll find a space in our blog schedule to publish it!

Open Mic. As my co-worker April Sullivan devotes more time to our expanding Veterans Services and Artworks programs, I will head up the VSA side of the monthly Lion and Pirate Open Mic at Malvern Books, playing the part of co-host alongside Laura Perna of CTD's Pen 2 Paper writing competition, signing up performers as they arrive, and occasionally demo-ing the features of my new power wheelchair (see below). Our next open mic is Saturday, May 20th, 7:00-9:00pm. I hope to see you all there!


VSA Texas @ Library Live! I am excited to announce this quarterly concert series at the Carver Branch will resume this September. My role in this series will be booking the bands, working with the library to schedule show dates and promote the series, and emceeing each show. I cannot be happier to bring this much-needed opportunity to local musicians with disabilities, especially to our open mic regulars looking to step up their live performances. If you yourself are a musician with a disability or if you play in a group with one or more musicians with disabilities, please email me at eric@vsatx.org for an application form!

Michael Tidmore and the Rollers performing at our first Library Live event this past January

OMOD. I could never forget OMOD! OMOD will continue to thrive, albeit in a limited fashion. In addition to promoting our speakers to conference and other event hosts, which we will do through our new website set to go live later this month, we will also hold monthly meetings – much like Toastmasters but OMOD style – in Austin for our speakers to present new stories, get constructive feedback, and seek local speaking opportunities. And, at least once a year, we hope to facilitate our usual six-week writing workshop for new and continuing OMOD speakers followed by a showcase for friends, family, and community members. So be sure to stay tuned for more great events and opportunities from OMOD!

A group photo from our 2nd Annual OMOD Showcase reveals a solid lineup of 16 speakers with a wide range of disabilities; we have more than doubled our pool of trained speakers since then.

And that's about it! I look forward to continuing my journey with VSA Texas and seeing what new creative opportunities I can bring to the disability community in Austin and beyond!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Efficacy of ReWire – Dancing States Movement Technique in Mixed-Ability Populations

I had always looked for a mentor in the dance improvisation world in the USA after graduation from the North Karelia Institute in Finland and then I met Nina Martin. She blew me away with her precise, well-thought practice of improvisational dance. Something that I had missed ever since leaving Finland. I found that all in Nina Martin’s work. Her technique and language for studying dance improvisation is something I strive for.

So, when we at Body Shift were thinking who to bring to teach our intensive in 2014, we all thought that Nina would be perfect, especially since dance improvisation plays a big role in the way we create performances. She would be just the right person to push us to the next level of creating in the moment. Nina was excited but a little hesitant when we asked her. She had never taught mixed-ability groups before and yet we were able to convince her to come. After all, Body Shift would make sure she had everything she needed to feel comfortable and have a successful experience. Nina taught her ReWire – Dancing States and Ensemble Thinking for the first time at that year’s intensive.
Nina Martin explaining ensemble thinking in Body Shift's 2014 intensive
Little did we know, her work had surprising impacts on participants with cerebral palsy. In fact, her “fussy baby” work was changing bodies right before our eyes. It was amazing! Some dancers said their ability to get into a relaxed state and stay there improved. Others said their body alignment and fine motor skills were better. Body Shift honored this life-changing moment and invited Nina to come back to Austin twice more that fall.

I saw Nina again at the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival, which is an amazing dance festival you can find more information about on their Facebook page, in Huntsville in the fall of 2016. She said that she wanted to meet with Body Shift again to conduct a pilot research study on the efficacy of ReWire – Dancing States on people living with cerebral palsy. Of course we jumped at the chance and finished our second weekend of the pilot study at the beginning of April. The results were even more astounding, we were onto something big!

“Living with cerebral palsy is like trying to embrace chaos without a road map. It’s next to impossible sometimes. I’m always fighting against my spasticity pleading with my body to cooperate. My mind and body are forever searching for moments of synchronicity,” said Body Shift dancer Tanya Winters. “Fussy baby and the ReWire work gives me the road map I need to delve into the chaos, explore it, and make sense of it. I am learning that my body can tell me what it needs. I feel empowered and can’t wait to know more. Thank you Nina!”

Nina will present this work at the Body Mind Centering Conference this July in San Marcos. I hope you can join us there!
Dancers participating in Body Shift intensive with Nina Martin

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Importance of Creativity at Work

I’m attending an online conference this week about being a professional fundraiser and one of the things that surprised me most yesterday was the nearly 2 hours they devoted to creativity at work. We know how vital “play time” is for kids, but as adults, do we REALLY need to take a break every now and then for ourselves?

The answer is YES. Much in the same way that doctors recommend you get up every hour to stretch your legs, taking a break to do something as small as doodle for 5 minutes can break up monotony in the day and reset your brain. Now, I am lucky enough to work for an arts organization so opportunities arise where I at times get to spend an entire afternoon making posters or paper flowers for an event. Sometimes I get to make videos and interview artists, then write about them. Sometimes I get to write for this awesome blog. I will tell you now that all of those opportunities make me better at my job on a daily basis.

You don’t have to work for an arts organization to get a creative break, though. Take a picture of something you saw outside with your phone. In between phone calls, make up a silly rhyme and write it down. Doodle your name in block letters or draw a flower. Do something that feels a little fun and you will be amazed at how much more productive you can be.

Today, I’ve decided that my creative outlet was making this little headpiece for my dog Maisie’s FIRST birthday! She was found on the streets of San Antonio last summer and made the move to VSA Texas with me soon after I brought her home. What a year it has been for this little pup!
Maisie, a dog with brown two tone fur, celebrates her birthday with a red paper flower her mom made for her behind her ear. She is not happy about it.

This is how art plays into a successful society. The very things that we reward ourselves with are actually helping us. Sort of like when our parents sent us to the swimming pool when we were little. We thought it was because we had been good while they knew it would allow us to get exercise without realizing it (and it got us out of their hair, too). Just because something is fun doesn’t mean it isn’t good for your well-being.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Telling Our Stories

We have been hosting a series of Digital Storytelling classes this spring called “It’s My Story” for young adults with disabilities ages 16-22. So far we have had an introductory class taught by our UT work-study student Adrianna Matthews, a stop motion animation class taught by Johnny Villarreal of The Edge of Imagination Station, and a theater/improv class taught by Dana Sayre. All three classes were small, with six students in each. I think small was okay in this case because the students were expressing their own stories, so having an intimate and safe space was a good thing.

In the Introduction to Digital Storytelling class, we learned three different computer programs: Voki, Slidestory, and GoAnimate. All three programs were fun and different. Adrianna wrote about her experience teaching this class in her blog It's My Story: February 2017. After the class, she reflected that “each one of the students in the It's My Story class had powerful unique stories and journeys to share. Their creativity and knowledge both inspired and amazed me as both a teacher and an artist.”

The next class was Video Storytelling over Spring Break. In four days, our team of students, led by Dana, identified a theme, chose characters and settings, created backdrops, brought in props and costumes, improvised scenes, wrote a script, and then acted out the scenes, which were edited into a movie.
It’s My Story students Sydney and Christian review their lines with instructor Dana.
I was amazed by the teamwork of this group. No one tried to take over with their own ideas of how to create this final movie. They seamlessly blended their ideas to create "Music is Good," an 18-minute movie that touches on the subjects of alcoholism, mental health challenges, and morality with a cast that included a drifter, a ghost, a priest, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, a guy named Ben, and his fairy. All of the students stepped into their roles with enthusiasm and their final product shows that. I encourage you to take the time to watch "Music is Good" on our YouTube channel or below:


Finally, we have also been working with our longtime friend Johnny Villarreal to bring his stop motion animation skills to a select group of students from the AISD GO Project. The students visited Johnny in his studio once a week and created short animated films with topics ranging from the environment to fairy tales to new endings to classic video games. See the GO Project students' animated videos on our YouTube channel here.
Tobin takes in the applause after playing his animation at the showcase, while Johnny pushes play to show it again.
Our next It’s My Story class is Digital Storytelling through Stop Motion Animation with Johnny Villarreal. So if you liked what you saw from our GO Project students, think about signing up for this class coming up on Saturdays in May. Details about all of our upcoming classes can be found on our website here.

Happy Storytelling!