Thursday, May 10, 2018

Lessons I Have Learned Over the Years

It was a little over 19 years ago that I took over the helm of the organization that is now known as VSA Texas. Little did I suspect back then what a wild and rewarding ride it would be. I have made many friends and a few not so good friends along the way, and have witnessed the joy and success of countless individuals in Austin, across the state, and around the world. I have made some wise decisions and I have made a few real bloopers, but I have never regretted a thing. Oh sure, a lot of things have kept me awake at night, and still do, but all in all I can say that this has been the best job of my life. Does this sound like a farewell letter? No, it isn’t. I always get reminiscent at this time of the year and like to take stock of my life within the context of the current times.

Celia posing beside a rusty sculpture of a bear

I reflect on what I have learned and how these lessons have guided my decisions. It seems like I always come back to the same core beliefs.

Trust your instincts. Do your research, gather the facts, listen to other options, and trust that you will make the right decision. If it doesn’t always work out the way you planned, study how it did work out so you can use that knowledge next time around.

Measure twice and cut once. This is true in almost everything that you do. Because what is cut can never be uncut.

Be kind. Sometimes it can feel like life is awash with unkindness, mean-spirits and downright cruelty, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We are all born with love in our hearts. It is what we do with this love that matters. Practice kindness. It is like a muscle that needs to be developed and used everyday.

Street art of a Golden Retriever with pink wings

Don’t dwell on the negative. I am the first person to complain about something that I don’t like, and in this current time, there are many things that I do not like! But living in that space of darkness does not help me day to day to do the things that need to be done. See it, determine if you can do anything immediately to address it, prioritize, and then refocus your attention.

Cry once a day. A good cry can be cathartic. My eyes well with tears often, and sometimes, I am overcome with the need to weep. I always feel better afterwards. Crying and belly laughs: the best medicine.

Keep your mind and body engaged and learning. The world is advancing and changing at a rapid pace. We need to stay nimble to keep up. We need to stay sharp to lead.

Abstract metal sculpture in a park

Enjoy silence. Turn the TV off. Turn off all your devices. Sit in the stillness and listen to the world rotating on its axis. You may hear a bird song you never noticed before. You may hear the wind rustle through the leaves of a tree. You may just hear the sound of your own breath. In. Out.

Love someone more than you can imagine. This one is the hardest for me, and yet I know it is the most important one. ‘Cause you know the old saying, “Love makes the world go round.”

Lamppost sticker of a red figure with a heart-shaped head and the words "Share Your Heart" scrawled across the face with a black magic marker

I am thankful for the great team I have had the good fortune to gather around me at VSA Texas and I look forward to another year of creativity, inspiration, empowerment, laughter, and yes, tears.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Magical Gardens and Brain Puzzles

Our summer classes are coming up and we are trying something a little different. We have two classes. Each is for ages 16 and above and inclusive for those with and without disabilities. Usually these summer classes serve a limited age range, so we are excited to open them up and invite one and all to join us for some fun!

First, we have Fairy Gardens and Nature Art with instructor Mary Kraemer held Monday, June 11th through Wednesday, June 13th from 10 am to 2 pm each day in our VSA Texas Classroom 101 at 3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705. In this class Mary will use her horticulture and garden experience to help inspire you to create a Fairy Garden at VSA Texas. Fairy Gardens are magical places created by humans to invite fairies to live among us. They are created with plants, found objects, repurposed materials, and lots of imagination!

A fairy garden house created out of natural materials

The class will also include making nature prints, working with dried flowers, and more. Mary is full of knowledge about plants and loves to share it. So we hope you will join us in June for this class.

A student printing leaves on blue paper with green ink

Want to learn more about Mary’s classes? Read this blog Celia and Lynn wrote after taking one of her classes.

Then, we have Stop Motion Animation with Tangrams with instructor Johnny Villarreal held Tuesday, June 26th through Thursday, June 28th from 10 am to 2 pm each day also in our VSA Texas Classroom 101 at 3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705.  Johnny has been a great friend of VSA Texas and has taught many classes for us for children and young adults.

Johnny working with a student at Manor High School on Stop Motion Animation

This is our first time opening up a class for adults taught by Johnny. So if you have heard of his work at The Edge of Imagination Station, take this opportunity to learn from the best in Stop Motion Animation. This class will have a twist though, Tangrams! A tangram is a dissection puzzle consisting of seven flat shapes, called tans, which are put together to form shapes. Challenge your brain to create characters and a story using only these seven shapes.

A wooden Tangram set

As always, our classes are fully accessible for any ability and skill level. You won’t be disappointed. You will make new friends, learn a new skill, and most of all have fun. For the $115 fee, you get lots of great instruction plus all the supplies provided. These classes fill quickly, so register now by calling Lynn at 512-454-9912 or emailing her at See you this summer!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Do Animals Have Disability Rights?

Hi folks! With National Pet Month around the corner, I decided to learn more about pets with disabilities. As a pet lover, I was particularly interested in how you help pets with disabilities live good and healthy lives, but I must admit it was difficult to find materials on this topic! I also found in researching I had to search for specific pets, and more places popped up about dogs than cats. I knew that animals are also prone to accidents, losing limbs, going deaf or blind, and a host of other ailments, and I was interested in what kind of assistance or treatment is available in such instances. Another burning question arose of would you help your pet if you couldn’t afford it? There are some veterinarian groups that will help in funding as well as some private individual organizations, but far and few between.

A small pig uses a hind-end wheelchair to get around.

I don’t have a definitive answer for every question that came up, but I did find a wonderful New York Times article by Neil Genzlinger called “The Lives of Animals, Disabled and Otherwise” that mentioned some great organizations and provided a glimpse into the world of animals with disabilities. The article explores the television programs “My Bionic Pet,” “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet,” and “Inside Animal Minds,” which each offer a different perspective on pets and other animals, with and without disabilities. What these programs failed to address, however, were the costs involved in treating and caring for animals coping with a variety of hardships, especially in light of the many humans with disabilities who can't secure adequate healthcare and safety.

A rabbit using a similar hind-end wheelchair

I think it is clear to me that people with any kind of pet, see their pet as part of their family, and the thought of losing them is unacceptable. No matter the cost, we look for answers and solutions. We reach out to any methods of care available.

Researchers are also seeking to understand animal intelligence, and I for one see intelligence in so many of Earth’s animals. Some are loyal to their families, some mate for life, others make for very loving pets. In any case scientists keep striving to understand those inner secrets.

Bella, a llama with a prosthetic leg

So, how far are you willing to go? I say choose your battles and campaigns, give where you can, and have compassion. There are organizations willing to help if that’s what you choose to do. All in all, the phenomenon of disabled animals is a complicated subject.

Regardless of your perspective on the matter, we hope you will join us for our Pet Portrait Pop-Up Art Show at Fast Folks Cyclery coming up on Saturday, May 5th, from 12-4 PM! We will have 30 original pet portraits on display for this free one-day art exhibition, so you don't want to miss out!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Body Shift: April Elements Teacher Profile-Veronica DeWitt

Veronica DeWitt and Linda Farwell practicing Follow and Lead during the DanceAbility Teacher Certification Course in Austin (2015)

Elements class in which we practice movement improvisation for people of all abilities is this Saturday, April 14th from 2:30-4:30pm at the Town Lake YMCA. Do you tend to be a leader or a follower? Are you aware of your habitual tendencies and preferences? Veronica DeWitt will take you on an exploration of leading/following using the DanceAbility method. Move towards the edge of your comfort zone and allow yourself to try on a different role than you may be used to. Through movement improvisation exercises, we will allow our bodies to speak and be heard while also listening to others with all our senses to make relationships. We will play with time to thoughtfully identify habits and thus awaken the nervous system. Beginning in small groups, eventually we will arrive in a large group dance (with no wrong choices!). This class is open to people of all abilities at any level of movement study.

Teacher Profile:

Veronica DeWitt moved to Austin from Ashland, OR after completing the DanceAbility teacher certification in December 2015. She also completed the DanceAbility Master Trainer course in October 2017 which was held in Trier, Germany. Most recently, she has taken on more leadership with Body Shift. She directed and performed in ‘Walk & Roll’, which was presented at the Austin Dance Festival last weekend (2018). The video below was taken during rehearsal of ‘Walk & Roll’:

Other Body Shift projects she is involved in are teaching DanceAbility classes at Rosedale Elementary, the VA Outpatient Clinic, the Mary Lee Foundation, as well as the ongoing Elements classes.

In February 2018, Veronica joined Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company (KDH Dance) to perform a re-staging of ‘Glacier’ (2017) at Texas A&M University, and she has been enjoying working with KDH Dance very much. Veronica will be joining KDH Dance again in their June concert titled ‘Company’.

In Ashland, Veronica worked for nine years as a full0time member with Dancing People Company, six years with the Curtain Climbers Aerial Dance Company, and wrote and performed music with three different projects. She holds a B.A. in Dance from the University of Oregon (2007) with no prior dance training.

In addition to Rosedale Elementary, she teaches at other AISD campuses for after school programming through Leap of Joy. Other work Veronica is a part of includes: stage crew for several local professional performance groups, co-directing a dance project called Vitamin D with Jana Meszaros (Eugene, OR), and performing/teaching aerial dance.

Veronica during the DanceAbility Teacher Certification Course in Austin (2015)

She has always enjoyed improvisation as a dance form, but the DanceAbility method has changed her perspectives on and off the dance floor. One of her favorite descriptions of this type of dance is, "the art of being together." Finding a common language of movement within a diverse group of people has become one of her most exciting dance endeavors. Huge thanks to DanceAbility and the community here in Austin (and Eugene, OR)! Looking toward the future, Veronica would like to experiment more with combining aerial dance with non traditional aerial dancers; she is interested in finding ways to allow accessibility of aerial equipment to more types of bodies, create more opportunities to experience sensation, and move from the ground to the air with this intention... she is open for suggestions on where she can open a wheelchair accessible aerial studio!

In her spare time, she is getting back into writing and performing music, taking care of her geriatric pug named Gus, and enjoying the plethora of outdoor activities Austin offers.

The Body Shift: Elements class takes place every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month (this month it will be April 14th and 28th) 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!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Celebrate Your Pet with VSA Texas!

Most people aren’t shy about expressing their love for a beloved pet. Upon gentle prompting, they will immediately share stories about adventures together—in fields and forests or on the living room floor. Often exceeding the loyalty of human relationships, the bonds we’ve had with our sentient furry, fuzzy, and feathered companions might be the most memorable emotional experiences of our lives.

Watching people playing and caring for their pets gives me hope for humanity. These visible expressions of compassion and kindness inspired me to create “Austin’s Best Friends: Paws & Claws Pet Portraits” as a fundraiser and community building activity for VSA Texas. From the Bronze Age through today, humans have frequently found ways to incorporate imagery of their much adored animal friends into art. Through our unique fundraiser, each donor will receive an original painted, drawn, or sewn portrait of a treasured pet or other meaningful animal for every $75 they donate by April 15th.

I donated $150 and submitted two photos. The first photo is of Zuzu, my girlfriend’s dog. For you classic movie buffs, Zuzu’s namesake is Zuzu Bailey, the daughter of George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1946 Christmas comedy-drama film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Zuzu is a wild teenage Australian Shepherd. The second photo is of Bwana Mabvuto, a large and rambunctious single-tusked elephant I frequently observed in Malawi’s Upper Shire River Valley. In Chichewa, the local vernacular, Bwana Mabvuto means Boss Trouble.

Photograph of Bwana Mabvuto by Frank Weitzer

Our Pet Portrait fundraiser has attracted donations from across the country! My colleague, April Sullivan, VSA Texas’ Artworks Director, has lined up dozens of artists to create the original art. I’ve had a sneak peek at some of the results and the portraits are exceptional. However, we aren’t sharing the art with our donors quite yet. On Saturday, May 5, Cinco de Mayo, we are presenting a special art show at East Austin’s Fast Folks Cyclery. From 12:00-4:00 PM, we will display all of the animal and pet portraits created for this very special fundraiser. The paintings will be sent to their owners, our generous donors, after the show. Please come to the show, even if you didn’t participate in the fundraiser!

It isn’t too late for you to participate in this heartwarming project. Follow this link to register for our Pet Portrait fundraiser and donate today. We need your help!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Celebrating Arts & Disability in Asia Pacific

I recently had the pleasure to attend the 2018 Arts & Disability International Conference and True Colours Festival in Singapore. The event, presented by UNESCO and the Nippon Foundation, was organized by VSA Singapore in partnership with the National Arts Council Singapore. It was quite a celebration of Asian Pacific artists with disabilities and featured artists from Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, India, China, and Micronesia, as well as Canada, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia.

One of the takeaways for me was this definition of creativity: Creativity is taking something that exists and turning it into something that doesn’t. If you think about an artist like Picasso, he took the techniques used for painting realism and created a new form, cubism. One of the groups that fits that description is the Digital Orchestra of Drake Music Scotland. They play music using such apps and equipment as ThunbJam, SoundBeam, Brainfingers, and Wowee. I was amazed by the vast capabilities of these digital resources and know that the argument “Is this orchestral music?” will soon be as active as the “Is a photograph art?” conversation of several years ago. You can hear one of their compositions, a tribute to a band member who has passed away, in the video below:

Here I am trying out one of the Sound Beam instruments during the Drake Music Scotland presentation.

Another takeaway was given to me by Alirio Zavarce of No Strings Attached, Australia: Be open to all possibilities, inside in and outside out. Be true to the art form, but flexible in your approach and methodology. You have one job. Make it look good. And look good indeed did their world premiere of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” a multimedia journey through memory and memory loss. There was also a very touching work in progress presented by Very Special Theatrics Singapore and No Strings Attached, “My Home is Not a Shell.” This piece was developed in response to the invasion of their tropical island city by numerous glass and metal high-rise buildings of commerce and finance. Conceived and developed over a 23-hour rehearsal process, the story was well-developed and very touching. I could relate to their sorrow as I also mourn the loss of my native Austin to the facades of progress and finance.

My traveling companion Jeannine and I with Alirio on the first day of the conference

A final takeaway was shared by Adrian Anantawan, a violinist I have had the opportunity to perform with through Inclusive by Design with VSA Massachusetts: The greatest accommodation is acceptance. This was evidenced every day in every way at the True Colours Festival Village, Concert and Conference. There was so much more food for my senses than I can mention here including Epic Arts Cambodia, Kate Hood of Raspberry Ripple, and Slow Label Japan. I am lingering in my memories, refreshing at the well of creativity. Thank you Singapore for showing me and the world your True Colours.

One of my real pleasures was getting to know Sokny Onn and the Epic Arts Cambodia dance troupe.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

VSA Texas at Library Live: Veterans Edition!

Hey all, Eric here to tell you about our next concert at the Carver Branch of Austin Public Library coming up this Saturday, March 24th, from 2:00-4:00 PM! We are particularly excited about this upcoming concert because it will feature Veteran musicians, most of whom have participated in our Distinguished Artist Veterans program. Here's a bit more about the musicians playing this Saturday:

Our opening act Rick Milisci is a U.S. Army Veteran who grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas. His song “People Just Need Love” was featured in our 2017 Veteran music compilation The Re-Integration Project {Sounds} which you can download here. His music has a bluesy vibe while his vocal delivery has a raw yet soulful appeal.

Hope in the Day is a duo featuring Kris Tidwell and Steven Clarkson who have combined their separate passions for music and poetry into a unique sound. Kris recently completed one of our Veteran writing classes in Austin and read several poems with accompaniment from Steven on mandolin at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic. In their performances Kris reads original poetry over a soundscape created by Steven's electric mandolin run through a variety of ambient effects. The result is nothing short of psychedelic and thought-provoking.

David Romero is a regular at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic known for his burgeoning collection of rare folk instruments and heartfelt covers of traditional folk tunes with originals in the mix. He is frequently accompanied by his wife Ann Marie on flute, and they usually get the crowd to sing along! David is heavily influenced by English, Irish, Scottish, and American folk music, and he sings in Spanish as well. His song “Absence Inside” was also featured in our 2017 Veteran music compilation The Re-Integration Project {Sounds}.

David and Ann Marie Romero perform a song at the Lion and Pirate.

Our final performer Matthew Owen Williams joins us all the way from Florida for this concert! Matt is a Retired Army Chaplain and one of the founding members of Vet Church, an outreach to those who struggle with hurt, anger, depression and pain. As a singer/songwriter Matt has written and recorded a single, an EP, and a full-length record. His lyrics are witty and honest, and he sings with a raw passion. He travels around the country playing music, offering encouragement, and instilling hope to other Veterans and their communities. His performance is one you won't want to miss!

So come out to the Carver Branch (1161 Angelina Street, Austin, TX 78702) and support Veteran musicians this Saturday afternoon! The concert is free, doors open at 1:30 PM, show starts at 2:00 PM. You can RSVP, get updates, and invite your friends to our Facebook event page here. See you there!

Flyer for March 24th Veterans concert at the Carver Branch of Austin Public Library