Friday, September 22, 2017

Describing Art in Mandarin Chinese

Recently, I had the opportunity to go to Taiwan to train museum docents and other personnel in the art of audio description. I was working with the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts under the auspices of the Taiwan Ministry of Culture. They have launched an island-wide museum accessibility initiative, and audio description is the first item on their extensive list. There were 35+ people at the training in Taichung and an additional 50 at the workshop in Taipei. There is a great deal of excitement within the museum community about this initiative and there were several very promising describers in both groups. We worked hard for 5 days, but we also had a lot of fun. And a special shout out to Jennifer Shih Carson for her exemplary translating skills; Li Chuan Emily Wu for organizing the entire training; and, everyone who made sure my visit was comfortable and culturally satisfying. Tea, noodles, re-connecting with friends… everything a girl could wish for.

Celia with describers in training at Nat'l Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts

On the culture front, I lived in Taiwan in 1989-90, so this was a homecoming of sorts as I have not been back in 27 years. I have to say that much has changed during that time, but also much has remained the same. The small street that bordered the university I taught at has become the largest night market in Taiwan! Gone was the smiling Buddha noodle shop and in its place was a neon, amplified seller of socks, electronic gadgets, handbags, you name it. Taichung has built many tall buildings and shopping centers, and the scooters have exponentially increased, still with entire families riding on one. But the bicycles are now in racks for the tourists (if you dare!) and cars vie with the scooters for road space.

Jennifer, the workshop translator, heads off into the night on a scooter with two of her children aboard.

Taoist Temples are still in every neighborhood, and they still bustle with people day and night. But there are rules now about burning incense because of the problems with air pollution, so there are only a few sticks in the burner at one time. The temples used to be dense with smoke so I am sure this must have been a hard rule for the Taiwanese to accept. Also, the food has changed. We ate simply in 1989 (I was a graduate student at the time), but we ate well. Most food was Taiwanese. KFC opened its first shop in Taipei in 1990, and it was a big deal. Now, it is easy to get just about any food you want, but I still went for a simple Taiwanese meal. And I think because I was eating breakfast at what would have been evening time if I were home in Austin, I ate several kinds of noodles, pickled bamboo, green salad, red peppers, steamed buns, radish sprouts, and peanuts every morning.

Entrepreneurial wheelchair user selling gift items in an outdoor market

But what has remained the same is the people. They are kind and generous and eager to learn. As a Lǎoshī (teacher), I was treated with respect by everyone, and people couldn’t thank me enough for sharing my expertise and knowledge with them. The year I lived there was one of the best years of my life, and that has not changed. Feeling appreciated and supported when you are 8,000 miles from home is significant. And for that I thank Emily, Jeannette, Catherine, Joy, Jennifer, Evelyn, Emily II, Allan, Marvin, and all the trainees. You made my heart full.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Where All Of Me Is Free

This week we are excited to hear from dancer Susie Angel with a poem about her experience in our Body Shift mixed-ability dance program:

"Where All Of Me Is Free"

In the norms of everyday life,
My arm movements are fast and uncontrollable.
Whenever I want to do something,
Plenty of thinking and planning must happen first.
Then, I pray I can accomplish the desired task without hitting anyone or anything.

My left arm is pretty cooperative
Until I need to do something that takes any fine gross motor control.
For example, I shake someone’s hand with the left,
But we play “Catch Me If You Can” before we can actually shake.

As for my right arm, I can’t trust it at all around other people, so I tuck it behind me.
I tell people not to blame me for what happens with it because it has a mind of its own,
Which is why it has affectionately become known as Maurice.
Loved ones are very much acquainted with his mischievous nature.
Some days he gets tired of being restrained
And squirms around or stiffens so much that I can't concentrate on anything.
Knowing my limits, he won't stop until I set him free.

However, when I enter a Body Shift dance class, workshop, or performance;
It's magical and I'm safe and totally transformed!
All dancers must remain aware of each other and their surroundings;
Leaving room for my arms to do whatever they want.
They offer counter-balancing and general support to fellow dancers
And move in ways that even surprise me.
Fellow dancers only react to them
Instead of judging them and making them conform to what is expected.

Too bad the whole world can’t be more like a big mixed-ability dance class.
If it was, it would be more inclusive of everyone and we could all live in peace.

Taken by PBS' KLRU: Tanya Winters (who uses crutches) and Susie Angel (who uses a wheelchair) preparing to stand with only each other for support.

Want to join Body Shift and experience the magic yourself? The all-level Elements dance improv class, held every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month from 2:30-4:30pm at Town Lake YMCA in Austin, is a great way to get involved. See you there!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

VSA Texas at Library Live!

This past weekend we held our second VSA Texas at Library Live concert featuring musicians with disabilities at Carver Branch Library. Although we had a smaller turnout than our first concert in January (I'm thinking the gas non-shortage may have played a part in that?), we still had quite a memorable show with different acts – some bordering on the experimental side. These included James Sandlin, who sang a number of folk songs with beautiful melodies and acoustic guitar, Nicole and Eric's Guide to a Meaningful Life, a synth- and theremin-based spoken word thought project featuring former OMOD project facilitator and poet Nicole Cortichiato along with yours truly, and the Heller Wade Experience, a spontaneous psychedelic noise duo featuring virtuosic keyboard player and creative force behind Foot Patrol, TJ Wade, and his lovely foil and self-proclaimed hippie, Anne Heller, who brought theremin, electric guitar, and tambourine to the party.

James Sandlin plays a song during our sound check Saturday.

Anne with tambourine and TJ on keys (note the analog theremin in the background!)

When I first spoke with Andrew Murphy about the possibility of organizing a one-off concert featuring musicians with disabilities at Austin Public Library (for more on the origins of this program that initially was not a program, check out my blog from January), I had no idea we would be invited to make this a quarterly concert series, and I was also not aware of the variety of future acts we might feature. That said, I'm thrilled to have organized another successful concert, and I look forward to meeting other musicians who can benefit from this opportunity to play their music in an accessible and supportive community venue. If you are a musician with a disability and want to perform at the library, please send me an email at for an application.

If you were not able to attend our concert this past Saturday or back in January, worry not! The next show has already been scheduled for Saturday, December 9th, 2017, from 2:00-4:00 PM at Carver Branch Library, so mark your calendars! L&P open mic favorites Michael Tidmore & the Rollers, The Old Hats, and Wayne Napier will bring you tasty tunes of the country/Americana/folk variety. Stay tuned – you won't want to miss out!

And I almost forgot to mention: the videos from our first concert are ready for your viewing pleasure! Check out the highlights from our January 28th show on our YouTube channel. Thanks for reading and see y'all in December!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Mobile Art Program Celebrates 10 Years of Service to the Austin Community

The Mobile Art Program (MAP) is celebrating its 10th anniversary of providing free art activities to older adults in Austin. Envisioned by Theresa Zelazny, this program has helped hundreds of people living in residential facilities or at home with care partners to explore their creative minds through art-making and socialization. Most recently, we completed a six-week class that was conducted over the phone by VSA Texas teaching artist Mark Morrow. Fifteen women signed up to participate and we mailed them individual packets with lesson plans and materials to make six diverse works of art. Once a week, they got on the phone (courtesy of Family Eldercare, our program partner) and talked about their art and used the time to get to know each other a little better. This is the third year of this project and it is a big hit! And it is a great way to engage adults who may not be able to leave their homes very easily. Some of their work will be displayed on MAP Austin's Facebook page very soon!

Found object collage inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell by Charlotte Berman, a student in the Mobile Art Lifetime Connections Without Walls art class

This Fall, we have two exhibits planned that we are very excited about. The first one will feature artwork by Austin residents who have been making art through Austin’s HACA “Living Well! Collaboration” with Family Eldercare. Mobile Art teaching artists have been conducting classes at eight Austin Housing Authority locations. We are proud to display some of the resulting artwork at the Cepeda Branch of Austin Public Library, 651 N. Pleasant Valley Rd. from September 1-28, 2017. There will be an artist reception from 10am – 12pm Saturday, September 9th.

Our other exhibit, “Exploration: New Art by Older Adults” is in partnership with Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA), and it will run from September 15 – December 31, 2017. VSA Texas promoted a call for art from artists aged 55 and older and requested that if they were an experienced artist, they work in a new medium. And we encouraged emerging artists to apply. This was a brand new endeavor for Mobile Art as they have always exhibited work by participants in their classes. Hosting a call for art to feature professional and/or emerging older adult artists brings a new perspective to the classes we promote and gives the general public an opportunity to experience and enjoy the perspectives of our older citizens.

"Summer," acrylic on canvas by Carmen Cartiness Johnson on display at ABIA

We are happy to say we will feature the work of nine artists at the airport and here is what one of them, Marty Allen, has to say:
“In 2011, I was diagnosed with lupus, sjogrens and celiac in addition to macular degeneration so focus on my art work continues to be limited. However despite these inconveniences, I am thrilled to say that so far I have been commissioned in both the United States and Ireland for my colored pencil portraits and my watercolors.
“And now, with determination I am turning my attention back to my real passion…oil painting.
“Armed with my artistic determination I suppose you could say, I love to explore, create, and try new things so you will rarely ever see me paint the same thing twice. To me, there are far too many interesting shapes, objects and people and it would be boring to paint the same thing over and over again; that is why you will find my art work subjects to be wide and varied, from landscapes to animals, to flowers and people. You might also say that anything that connects with me will be painted in some way, but what brings me the most pleasure is being able to express God’s beauty, which is all around us, even in the ordinary.
“While it is my intention to continue painting as long as I can, who knows what my next artistic adventure will be, that for me, is still yet to be discovered.”

"Castle Boat Landing, Kilkenny, Ireland," a watercolor by Marty Allen on display at ABIA

Getting to know the MAP teaching artists has been a real pleasure this year for the VSA Texas staff, and we look forward to ten more years of making art together!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Lynn's Top 10

I just celebrated my 10-year work anniversary at VSA Texas, and it's brought to mind some of my fondest and funniest memories with this wonderful organization. Here are my top 10 moments at VSA Texas:

1. Getting hired at VSA Texas, thought it was the coolest place and still do.

2. Attending the VSA International celebration in Washington, DC with the rest of the staff, all courtesy of Celia Hughes, our Executive Director. The last morning, before we left, we toured several of the monuments, courtesy of a cab we commandeered in the hotel driveway. The driver was a true gentleman.

3. Plunking April on her head with my pencil. I think that was the first month I was here. Now I use water guns, blasters and soakers.

4. April yelling at me to chase down the AT&T telephone guy, “He’s making a run for it!” We had been without a phone system for a week, and he was trying to escape from the labyrinth of the AGE building and its hundreds of feet of extraneous phone wires in the ceiling. And then there was the flood from the frozen sprinkler system. But that didn’t involved the AT&T guy.

5. My first Art in the Park in Austin was cold and rainy. It also sleeted. But we managed to get all the art booths moved inside McBeth Recreation Center and made it work.

6. VSA Texas's first Disability From Real to Reel Film Festival where I got to meet Roger Ross Williams who produced and directed “Music by Prudence.” He won an Academy Award for the best documentary short that year.

Roger Ross Williams, Keith Maitland, and Patrick Floyd who co-made the movie “Eyes of Me” with Keith

7. Representing VSA Texas and our newly launched Distinguished Artist Veterans program at a SXSW event hosted by Kevin Bacon. Each invited guest was given 5 minutes to speak privately with Kevin about our program. I bought a new outfit for the occasion. You know I did.

Posing with Kevin Bacon

8. Helping out at the "Sight. Sound. Soul." event with piano man Henry Butler at the Palm Door. I was Madame Caphelon, fortune teller extraordinaire, who foretold many people donating hard earned dollars to VSA Texas.

9. The Bat’s Ahoy fundraiser – that was a hoot! Our boat lost power, and we drifted with all of our folks, with and without disabilities, down Townlake and eventually ran into a column beneath Townlake bridge. Our Board President called the police, but they couldn't get to us for at least an hour or so. The boat company had another small flatboat craft they used to guide us back to the pier where everybody piled off. Meanwhile, we enjoyed food, booze, and entertainment with Purly Gates singing the Gilligan’s Island theme to the kids!

Boarding the Lone Star cruise boat prior to our fateful voyage on Townlake!

10. Receiving a plaque for 10 years of service to VSA Texas. What a surprise!

Posing with Celia Hughes and Pádraig Naughton, Chair of the VSA Affiliate Council, at this year's VSA Intersections Conference in Austin

I look forward to continuing this wild ride with VSA Texas!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Giving Voice Austin

Have you heard about our Giving Voice Austin program? It's pretty new. We launched the program in 2016, and this fall will be our second time around. We learned a lot from the first program and are excited to bring it back.

Do you ever wonder, “How does VSA Texas come up with these great ideas?” Well, we do have a brilliant staff over here, but this time we borrowed from the brilliance of VSA Colorado. They hosted Giving Voice for 10 years, and when they decided to retire it, we thought it was too good to see it go. Plus, Amber Atkins, one of the masterminds behind the program moved to Austin, and she wanted to start it here. Lucky us!

So what is Giving Voice, you ask? It is a partnership between AIGA and VSA Texas. We are perfect partners because we both have mysterious acronyms for names, provide professional development opportunities for artists, and want to create a vibrant, creative, and inclusive community. Learn more about AIGA on their website.

In this partnership, AIGA recruits professional designers who want to be mentors, and we recruit youth with disabilities who want to give voice to a social cause. We then bring them together as one-on-one pairs to each create a poster with a message.

Bruce and Braelon planning their poster design

Final poster design of “You Are Not Alone” by Braelon & Bruce, Giving Voice Austin 2016

Kim Hopson, curator of our 2016 program, says:
“The mentorship program and poster exhibition show so many themes. It reflects community arts education, design for good, and social justice. Most of all it's an enriching experience; for both the mentor and the mentee.
“Giving Voice is a platform for young people with disabilities. It lets them use art to explore issues that are important to them. Their design mentor collaborates with them and facilitates their work.
“It was a great honor to curate Giving Voice 2016! I can't wait to see what this year's mentors and mentees create!”

Max getting input from Hailey, another student’s mentor

Final poster design of “These Little Guys” by Max & David, Giving Voice Austin 2016

So if you are a young adult with a disability age 16-22, or know one, we want you to get involved in this program! We already have 12 mentors ready to go, a print shop that wants to print the posters, and a venue to show the posters during the East Austin Studio Tour in November. All we need are youths interested in voicing a message through art!

The time commitment is four Saturday meetings September 16-October 7 from 12:00-1:30 pm with lunch provided. Mentors and mentees will meet at the VSA Texas classroom in central Austin. Contact April at 512-454-9912 or to get an application today! Hurry, the deadline is August 28th, and you don’t want to miss this great opportunity!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Language Matters!

This past week the entire staff of VSA Texas has been busy co-hosting the Kennedy Center's Office of VSA & Accessibility's annual Intersections and Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conferences, which we were thrilled to have in Austin this year! I was also personally excited for the opportunity to participate as a panelist in one of the concurrent sessions entitled "If language matters, what should I say?" which centered around the complex and often controversial topic of disability terminology, a topic I have been passionate about for a while. You can take a look at my earlier blog on this topic Call Me Disabled, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Word to read my perspective going into this session.

Marie Clapot and Rebecca McGinnis of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art along with Madison Zalopany of the Whitney Museum of American Art brought this conversation to LEAD this year and invited several artists and advocates from Austin's disability community to participate as speakers including Theron Parker, Gail Dalrymple, Nicole Cortichiato, Renee Lopez, Dolores Gonzalez, and myself. All together, a representative from nearly every contingent of the disability community was present: we had an artist with an invisible disability, a deaf artist, a parent of an adult child with multiple disabilities, several disability advocates, and others.

Sign with arrow directs attendees to the 2017 VSA Intersections and LEAD Conferences
(Photo courtesy of VSA)

The goal of this session was not to be prescriptive but rather engage in meaningful discussions about the language we choose to use around disability, the language we choose to describe ourselves, why we make those decisions, and how those decisions may influence or reflect the way we view or interact with people with disabilities on a broader scale. In no way can I capture the depth nor the full scope of our hour-and-twenty-minute long conversation, but what I can do is share what I personally learned through discussion with other speakers and attendees of the session:

1. While I may fiercely celebrate my identity as a disabled person and proudly use Identity-First Language when I can, calling myself "disabled" may not always be the clearest nor most effective language to use, and it need not enter the majority of my interactions with others. Telling a venue, museum, or other business that I am a "wheelchair user" and need "wheelchair access" cuts straight to the point; meanwhile, my identity is simply that – mine – and it's up to me when, where, and how I choose to share it.

2. Language is fluid. In a given day, I might refer to myself as "disabled and proud," tell someone else I work with "people with disabilities," call a concert venue to ask if they are "wheelchair accessible," and spend an evening with friends and family where my disability isn't mentioned at all because frankly it isn't relevant or essential to everything I do. Eliminating all linguistic options for the sake of one isn't necessary, and it completely misses the point.

3. No one language fits all. The disability experience and the personal journey inherent in that experience exists on a vast spectrum and constantly fluctuates depending on our energy level, the kind of day we're having, or recent changes in our disability. While disability pride may be the ultimate goal, you can't force that on someone who isn't there yet or rush them through their own extremely personal journey. Respect them by using the language they prefer and move on.

4. Start with accommodations. Several people in the session discussed their difficulty assessing a client's disability without asking prying questions. One of the attendees suggested asking, "How may I assist you?" This seemed to be an optimal solution: start with offering assistance or asking if an accommodation is necessary; if one is needed, provide it. The reality is everyone needs an accommodation at some point, and it's not our place to ask why or demand a suitable reason.

5. Avoid euphemisms when possible. For many people with disabilities, euphemisms like "differently-able," "special needs," "physically-challenged," etc. sugarcoat something that doesn't need to be sugarcoated. We are comfortable with who we are, and we have adapted to our unique life experience. The word "disability" is not negative or painful for us to hear; in fact, it's the opposite: a source of pride, a badge of honor, a community we know and love.

6. At some point, the language you use will offend someone. It's inevitable, I'm afraid. Considering the multitude of people with disabilities, the countless different disabilities there are, and the myriad perspectives people have about the disability experience, it is simply impossible to always say the exact right thing. However, if you see a person as a person first, recognize that disability is a normal and natural part of life, not to be feared or pitied but embraced, and make strides to be as inclusive and accessible as possible, you are far less likely to offend someone. If, after all best intentions and care, you do offend somebody, acknowledge there are things you have yet to learn, apologize, and make a conscious effort to avoid repeating that mistake.

These six lessons are not exhaustive, but I hope they may prove a helpful guide to navigating the often uncertain waters of disability terminology. Please let me know if you have any other suggestions. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!