Thursday, March 15, 2018

Spring Forward and Create Art!

I don’t know about you, but this time change has been hard to deal with this year. I just don’t want to get out of bed in the mornings! But the chirping birds, the promise of warmer weather and longer evenings in the sunshine makes me remember that it is time to get up and that the day is going to be great.

"Happy Mountains" yarn painting by April Sullivan

With the name April, I bet you can guess Spring is my favorite time of year. It is time to start new projects and finish old ones. For me, that means making more art. If it means the same for you, then I have some opportunities coming up that you might want to get involved in.

At VSA Texas, we have some great new calls for art out and we are looking for artists to participate. There’s something for everyone in this list!

Ground Floor Theatre Gallery – Austin, TX
April 3-30, 2018
We are having a one month exhibition of local Austin artists with disabilities at this theatre lobby in East Austin. I have four artists confirmed, but there is probably room for 1-2 more. Just let me know if you are interested. This one is coming up quick!

SPRING Mobile Art Exhibition – Bass Concert Hall Gallery – 2nd Floor – Austin, TX
May-August 2018
DEADLINE: April 9, 2018
This call for art is specifically for Texas seniors, age 65 and up. We have space for wall-hanging work in this exhibit. So if you are an older artist, show us what you got!

Photo from last year’s Mobile Art Exhibition at Austin Bergstrom International Airport

9th Annual Distinguished Artist Veterans Exhibit – Cultural Activities Center – Howard Gallery – Temple, TX
June-July 2018
DEADLINE: April 17, 2018
We have space for 2D and 3D work in this large gallery in Temple. We invite all Veterans with disabilities and Wounded Warriors in Texas to enter this call for art.

Howard Gallery at the Cultural Activities Center in Temple

WEST – West Austin Studio Tour – AGE of Central Texas Building Lawn – Austin, TX
May 12-13 and May 19-20
We are an official stop on the WEST tour hosted by Big Medium and we are looking for artists with disabilities to come out with their tents and artwork to sell on the lawn. We have an indoor location secured in case of rain. If you have always wanted to be on this annual city-wide art tour but couldn’t afford the fee, we offer a low-cost way to get involved.

2018 West Austin Studio Tour logo

So as you see, there are plenty of ways you can get your art out in the world this Spring with VSA Texas. You can always check our calls for art on our website or just contact me at I’m always planning something new and I want to see what you are creating.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thoughts on Romantic Disability

What makes a disabled person into a romantic figure in literature, films, plays, musicals, and other means of entertainment? What draws us to the underdog and makes us love them romantically? I haven’t a clue as to what the human heart likes, desires, or is conditioned to, but this is the subject of my blog. I have no scientific research behind this but would like to start a conversation. I watch a lot of movies and still can’t manage to cram everything in but got to thinking about the romance in figures that we see, that we (me) are attracted to:

Sketch of Quasimodo in "Hunchback of Notre Dame"

  • In "Hunchback of Notre Dame" I wanted so much for Quasimodo to get the girl Esmeralda, but I didn’t see how that was going to work out in my mind because the great looking guy usually wins.
  • In the film "Dracula" the one with Gary Oldman, Vlad the Impaler turns very unusual with pale skin and weird eyes and crawls up buildings but has unrelenting lure for the heroine. Humm.
  • In the TV series "Beauty and the Beast" Vincent has a mane of hair all over him but still has human qualities, and he is the love interest.
  • In the Disney film "Beauty and the Beast" Vincent again has a temper, looks like a lion, isn’t exactly handsome, but we all still believe that Belle will fall in love with him, and we all hope that she will.
  • In Bronte’s "Jane Eyre" Rochester’s disabilities softens his somewhat arrogant nature and Jane stays with the man she loves.
  • In "The Shape of Water" an amphibious creature and a janitor fall in love. I haven’t seen the movie, but the romantic lead figure looks appealing, and again a scaly character pines for a woman.
  • In "Avatar" the alien creatures have big fangs, large ears, large eyes. These folks are covered in scales, feathers, yellow eyes and so much more, yet we believe in the romance. Why is that?
  • In "Forrest Gump" Lieutenant Dan is a feisty alcoholic, and yet we still love him and find him attractive, even without two legs. Maybe this is due to good casting?
  • In "The Station Agent" the protagonist was born with dwarfism, has a sarcastic temper, but a warm heart when he wants to use it. He shows sentimental sides and has affection for his female counterpart and she reciprocates.

So I didn’t do massive research into this topic, but it brought up the notion that movies, books, dance, etc. can bring us into the evolution of who we love and are attracted to. Maybe Hollywood and filmmakers do know how to create love stories using people with disabilities, they just don’t tap into the reality nearly as much as they could without using costumes to disguise it. I know there is a mile-long list of films involving people with disabilities, but these folks are usually very attractive according to modern standards.

What would have happened if Princess Leia fell for Jabba the Hutt in "Star Wars?" That would be something.

Is this because we don’t want a hero who is physically imperfect?

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Getting in Touch with Body Shift

Hello, friends! Body Shift project coordinator Olivia here to share a little about our recent class happenings. The February Body Shift: Elements class was taught by guest instructor, Brandon Gonzalez. Brandon and I have danced together and in similar circles for nearly 20 years now. We both have a deep appreciation and natural inclination toward dancing from the inside out. Brandon has traveled the world studying, practicing, teaching, and performing as an improviser. And, in an effort to offer varied perspectives on somatics and movement training, I invited him to share some of his extensive body knowledge with our Body Shifters.

Brandon called his two-part class “Touching Form.” His description of the focus of the class was as follows: What is the feeling of our contact? How is our dialogue resonating and taking shape? Inspired by elements from contact improvisation we’ll find pathways that bridge our sensory perceptions to the dances we create. Flexing our muscles of attention, we’ll investigate how we move and imagine together. Let’s discover new ways of being “in touch.”

Brandon called on Nita Little’s work with ‘attention’ for his first class. There was no literal physical contact. Instead we started with noticing the sensations generated from our own attention and internal awareness. We then layered on giving attention to a partner and noticing how we attend to ourselves as well as how our partner was attending to us and so on. By the end of the class there was a palpable connection – a sort of ‘touch’ – through the negative space between people. For his second class, Brandon focused our awareness on the fascia, or connective tissue, that wraps throughout, supports, and gives the literal shape to our bodies. We began with a solo of reaching and finding the fullest range of our joints, bouncing, and dragging our hands across our own bodies to experience the elastic quality of the fascia. We then worked with various partners in the same way but this time exploring the sliding and gliding of our partners' tissues. This developed into a more free form contact duet that drew attention to the reciprocal relationship of our individual nervous systems through the webbing of the connective tissue. The initial awkwardness of coming in contact with someone you may not know very well was mitigated by setting the focus on the anatomical structure of the body. Regardless of spasticity, rigidity, or other perceived limitations, everyone in the group was able to participate equally and in their own way.

With all that said…touch can be controversial. How we are led into physical contact can stir up different emotional and physical responses based on each person’s past relationship with touch. Some people may be touched a lot when getting assistance with their morning routine, eating, transferring, being exercised…all moments that are potentially quite intimate and yet are often executed in a more clinical or impersonal way. Some people may have a negative association with touch because of past abuse. Perhaps someone might have a particularly sensitive nervous system that gets overstimulated by certain kinds of touch or maybe they have medical concerns around germs that could have a very real impact on their immune system.

And, yet, touch can also be calming and playful. It can be intimate and personal without being sexual. It can be a powerful tool for getting to know yourself and other people on a deeper or maybe just different level than we experience in talking. In the DanceAbility method we work a lot with the idea of dance as a non-verbal conversation. Instead of learning steps or pre-determined choreography, the dancers generate movements in response to sensations they have inside their own body as well as information that they get from communicating non-verbally with their partner(s). Because of all the reasons people may be intimidated by touch I sometimes shy away from teaching contact work in a mixed-ability/mixed-level class and choose to work in relationship through space. That said, it can be limiting and isolating to avoid touch. Many of us rely heavily on our eyes to navigate through our interactions with people and the environment. For people who are visually impaired or blind, to ‘see’ is to sense with their whole body and allowing for touch allows for more information to be shared between partners. When someone is non-mobile or has limited mobility, touch can give access to traveling through space without being forced or manipulated or simply pushed around. Essentially touch is the most fundamental way we can connect with everyone regardless of their unique physical or mental characteristics and ensure that no one is isolated.

The video below shares a moment from the free dance portion of a recent Elements class:

During the closing circle of Brandon’s second class the participants expressed a sense of calm, joyfulness, and gratitude at being given the space to explore the systems of the body experientially and the deep listening that accompanies such exploration. I immediately thought of a quotation from bodyworker Deane Juhan, “We can never touch just one thing; we always touch two things at the same instant, an object and ourselves, and it is in the simultaneous interplay between these two contiguities that the internal sense of self—different from both the collection of body parts and the collection of external objects—is tactile surface is not only the interface between my body and the world, it is the interface between my thought processes and my physical existence as well. By rubbing up against the world, I define myself to myself.”

I hope that you all will come and dance with us in the Elements class next month. I will be teaching on March 10th and will host our spring dance jam on March 24th. Please feel free to email me with questions. And if you are new to dance or new to dance improvisation/somatics, you are welcome to join us as an observer before diving in.

Elements class takes place every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month from 2:30-4:30pm at the Town Lake YMCA in the large group exercise room on the first floor. No gym membership is required to attend. Open to adults age 16 and up; all abilities and experience levels. No registration necessary and fee for class is on a sliding scale from $5-$20, cash or check accepted. See you at the Y!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Amplify VSA's Veterans Projects!

Next week, the region’s largest day of giving, “Amplify Austin,” will lift off on March 1st. For a 24-hour period, people from throughout the nation will make donations to VSA Texas. Click here to schedule your donation. All donations, no matter the size, are meaningful to us.

Do your friends and family know about VSA’s life-enhancing Veterans Services Programming? These programs, which include classes, workshops, and performances in the arts, writing, and music, address post-conflict healing and reintegration for people who have served and are currently serving in our armed forces.

Scientific studies inform us that art heals by changing a person’s physiology and attitude. Ultimately, veterans with combat stress must achieve some meaningful role in their lives that is separate from their injury. Joining a larger community and interacting with people who are unrelated to their injury or illness helps to end isolation.

VSA Texas has 9 years experience producing arts programs designed for members of the military community, with strong support from veterans service organizations. Our Veterans Services Programming strengthens the relationship between creative veterans and the public by offering another way to consider war and its toll on the human spirit.

Through our programs, veterans are gently supported as they become part of the larger civilian and artistic community. We see ourselves as a launch pad for growth and encourage participants to use us as a stepping-stone for full integration.

We currently have over 300 artists on our veteran artist roster and have experienced an increased demand for projects to support writers, musicians, and craftsmen. We need your help to grow the program so that we can continue challenging perceptions of how people contribute by creating an arts-inspired, inclusive community of individuals with diverse abilities. Please click here to schedule your donation for Amplify Austin Day!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Introducing ATXgo!

Austin is a town of festivals. Or so we like to think! But, if you check out our new ATXgo! website, you will witness for yourself the plethora of festivals that happen here every year. No matter your interest, there is a festival for you.

Screenshot of the ATXgo! website homepage

Thanks to a generous cultural expansion contract from the City of Austin’s Cultural Arts Division, we were able to research all of the festivals in town and the venues and parks where they all take place. We were hoping to highlight the accessible features of all of the venues – or not – but stepped back from that for several reasons. If you care to know why, give me a call and I will fill you in on all the salacious details. However, we have listed the direct access contact for all festivals and venues who have made that information available on their website.

Note to everyone: If you have an access policy and procedures to book tickets, get information about location, parking, bus routes, and accommodations such as captioning, American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting, audio description, etc., and it is not available on your website, ADD IT and then send us the link. We will update your listing, which saves your potential visitor the added time of trying to contact you to get the information from a live person in your box office, house manager’s office, or executive director’s office. Remember that most people surf the Internet at night. This is not conducive to calling to get the necessary information, and they may just decide to spend their hard earned cash somewhere else!

In addition to the festival and venue information, we also have included many resources for the individual or organization trying to ensure their venues, programs, and services are accessible to everyone. Check out the ADA Toolkit for links to the DOJ if you are looking for the ADA regulations – or handy tips, guidelines, and training tools. If you have a resource that should be featured, please send it along and we will happily add it to the toolkit.

We are thrilled to be able to make this simple planning resource available to our residents and visitors – be it your first or 100th trip to Austin. If you know of a festival we have overlooked, or a venue that we need to mention, please send us an email and we will add it to our site.

Just a small snapshot of the comprehensive list of festivals you can find on the ATXgo! site

I have to thank Camille Wheeler for providing most of the photos on the site, as well as VSA staff and some other folks who are credited on the site. We plan to update photos and information on a regular basis, so if you have a high-resolution photo that shows Austin at its quirkiest, please don’t hesitate to send it along.

So, happy festival-going, friends. And welcome to Austin!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

From Combat to Community

I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week in the Killeen area and at Fort Hood for the Texas Creative Forces Summit. This convening of veterans, current military personnel, artists, arts providers and veteran service providers was the start of something big. Although, a focus on the arts as a healing tool for veterans is not a new idea. In fact, we have been focusing on this issue at VSA Texas since 2009. But it is nice to see more growth in this area and to have backing by federal organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense.

The first day started with speeches by Texas State Representative Hugh Shine and Mayor of Killeen Jose Segarra. Our keynote speaker was local veteran artist Chris Van Loan who has participated in some of our programs.

"Ascension" by Chris Van Loan from the 8th Annual Distinguished Artist Veterans Exhibition

We learned about the programs happening at the Intrepid Center of Excellence including their robust Art Therapy and Music Therapy programs. Fort Hood soldiers with PTSD and TBI work through 8 weeks of intensive therapies that include these modalities. But as we learned, only 50% of people who need services seek services clinically. So community arts programs like the writing classes we offer at VSA Texas can fill those gaps.

At lunch we were treated to speeches by special guests Cecilia Abbott, the First Lady of Texas, and Karen Pence, the Second Lady of the U.S. Both are strong supporters of the arts and especially art therapy. We already knew that about Mrs. Abbott because we had been approached by the Governor’s Office last November to find a veteran artist interested in drawing the Governor’s Christmas card. We chose artist Lucia Miron, a Veteran from North Texas who captured a room in the governor’s mansion decorated by Mrs. Abbott for Christmas in a Fiesta style. She also featured the family dog.

A draft of the Texas Governor’s 2017 Christmas Card designed by Veteran Artist Lucia Miron

Karen Pence speaking about the importance of Art Therapy

Our afternoon was filled with ideas and information from artists, arts organizations, storytellers, and musicians.

The next day we went to Fort Hood and watched a performance piece called Re-Entry by American Records. It was a powerful work that used direct language from interviews with returning service members and their family. After that we had small group discussions to synthesize what we learned and what our strategies would be going forward to make the IH-35 Corridor from San Antonio to Fort Worth a robust area for our current service members, veterans, and their families to participate in the arts. As Retired Brigadier General Nolen V. Bivens said throughout the conference, we need to bring our military “from Combat to Community” through the arts!

Left to right: Rick Perkins, Glenn Towery, April Sullivan, Bart Pitchford, Miriam Conner at the Creative Forces Conference

Friday, January 19, 2018

Don't Worry, We Won't Get Cast for the Part

Today a film titled “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” premieres at Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Joaquin Phoenix, the film tells the true story of irreverent quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, who passed away in 2010, and is based on Callahan's memoir of the same title. Although the film has not yet been screened for a major audience, the decision to cast Phoenix, who does not appear to have a significant physical disability (at least not a spinal cord injury), in the role of the disabled Callahan has already garnered the film some notoriety within the disability community.

The Callahan cartoon his memoir borrowed its title from: a law enforcement posse finds an abandoned wheelchair in the desert; the caption reads, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”

While this preemptive controversy may seem misguided, it is rooted in a sound decades-long struggle for improved disability representation in the film industry. That is to say, “Don’t Worry” did not arrive in a vacuum where disability marginalization has been eradicated and the everything-offends-me-now generation eagerly waited to exclaim, “I'm offended!” Rather it is the latest installment in an industry that routinely casts non-disabled actors and actresses to portray disabled characters (“Breathe,” “Stronger,” “The Shape of Water,” to name three big films from 2017 alone), bestows its highest honors upon those actors, relies on tired disability tropes, and even denies disability as an underrepresented minority group; this cultural milieu, of which “Don't Worry” is a small piece, is the real problem.

The movie poster for “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”

Whenever a film like “Don’t Worry” comes out, major figures and organizations in the disability community draw attention to the above issues and inevitably prompt a multitude of social media users to climb upon their soapboxes and make snarky comments like, “it's called ACTING for a reason” and “talk about first world problems” and “aren't there more pressing issues for disabled people?” Here’s the thing these commenters can’t seem to grasp: disabled actors can't get non-disabled roles, and they can't get disabled roles. Essentially what the film industry is communicating to people with disabilities is, you are not allowed to act. You are not welcome to participate. In other industries this would be called employment discrimination; in Hollywood it’s just the way things are.

Are we saying that directors must cast a disabled actor or actress in every movie they make, unless they want to be sued? Or that the best actor trying out for a role should be ignored in favor of the disabled actor who is just not very good? Of course not. And I suppose it is possible that the creative team behind “Don’t Worry” actually did audition actors with disabilities and/or hire people with disabilities to work on the film; only the filmmakers can tell you that. What I can say, however, is we have been waiting a long time for accurate representation, and we have a right to be angry as film after film is produced in which non-disabled people speak for us, act for us, or tell us who we are. If you want us to stop protesting, then include us in the conversation, take a risk by casting an unknown disabled actor the same way you would a non-disabled one, find a screenplay that dares to show disability like it is, provide a reasonable accommodation that may cause you to stretch but not break.

All this in mind, I can't help but still feel excited for Callahan, one of my greatest heroes, to receive the big screen biopic treatment he deserves. And if the film is truly in sync with Callahan’s spirit, it will steer clear of inspiration porn and melodrama, because Callahan spent his career trying to dismantle narrow perceptions of people with disabilities. In his own words, he was “fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.” With or without a disabled actor in the role, I think the fact his story is even being told is a sign of progress. And I hope it's a good movie.

Here's the trailer: