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!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

VSA Texas Unsung Heroine of the Week: Theresa Bond Zelazny

The Mobile Art Program was founded by Theresa Bond Zelazny in 2007 in response to her mother’s struggle fighting cancer.
Theresa Bond Zelanzy, on right, stands with two women in front of an exhibit of paintings, collage and mixed media.
Its mission is to deliver art activities, free of charge, to seniors and older adults with disabilities living in Austin, Texas. By 2012, Mobile Art (MAP) started to coordinate its efforts to work with individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer's and/or dementia. All of the activities are designed to improve the lives of individuals by giving them an outlet for self-expression, restoring self-esteem, building friendships, and increasing cognitive skills that can lead to an overall stabilization in health. An exhibit of the work is generally scheduled at the location of the classes, as well as public exhibitions at the Texas State Capital building, the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services building, and local galleries.

The uniqueness of MAP is that it brings art activities to the places where people live or gather for social interaction. The teaching artists visit nursing homes, adult day and community centers, and adult respite programs where they provide classes in specific mediums (ex: mosaic workshops, watercolor, collage, mixed media, etc.).
Instructor looks on as a woman in a beaded sweater paints a picture of a purple flower.
Most program activities are delivered in low-income areas of the city. While MAP is the only program in the Greater Austin area to deliver art activities and lessons to seniors, it often works with other organizations in an effort to reach individuals who can derive the greatest benefit.  MAP collaborates with AGE of Central Texas, St. David's Health Angels, and Alzheimer’s Respite Programs at St Thomas More Catholic Church, Congregation Beth Israel, and Meals on Wheels Mike's Place. It currently has an agreement with Family Eldercare to deliver art classes to 8 residential facilities operated by the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) through the Living Well! Collaboration. In 2017, VSA Texas assumed the management of Mobile Art to provide Theresa fiscal and operational support.
A man works on a sculpture made of twigs and small pieces of paper.
Theresa tells us why Mobile Art is so important:

When a Mobile Art artist enters a new facility, she is often met with skepticism and self-doubt from the clients about their ability to complete the art projects we present. Yet after a session or two and some encouragement from staff and volunteers, the participants welcome us happily and are eager to start the next project. Part of our mission is to restore self-esteem and build friendships: the benefit of this is that the seniors can see that they are able to develop a new skill and share their talents with families and the community. Plus, they learn that they are still able to be social with individuals outside of their social circle.
A woman in a wheelchair beams as she shows her self-portrait to the group.
They value our attention to everyone as an individual and as a whole group. They know that we listen to what they have to say about their current and past life situations because we often create projects from the anecdotes and stories they share with us while we are in sessions. But our participants are not the only ones who benefit from this program. Caregivers often comment to us that after an art session the care recipient’s general mood is better. He or she is more likely to participate in physical therapy and take medications with less cajolement.

We welcome Theresa and the Mobile Art Program to VSA Texas and look forward to the opportunity to expand our reach into the Greater Austin community of older adults and their families and caregivers.

For more information about the Mobile Art Program, contact

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Lion, A Pirate, An (Unplugged) Open Mic, Music, and Poetry in Austin, Texas

Originally written and posted February 21, 2017 by David Borden on his blog. Reposted with permission. Photos courtesy of Malvern Books.

It's another Lion and Pirate Open Mic night at Malvern Books at 613 West 29th Street in Austin, Texas. The night is filled with cake (3rd anniversary of the event), poetry, funny stories, advice, songs, and art.

The event is put on by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD) Pen 2 Paper Project and VSA Texas. CTD is a cross-disability advocacy organization, focusing mostly on state-level issues. Pen 2 Paper holds an annual writing contest to open up conversation about disability and give writers with disabilities a platform to share their work. VSA Texas exists to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to enjoy the arts as a spectator, as a participant, as a professional.

VSA Texas had hosted an open mic for a few years when they had Access Gallery. April Sullivan, one of the hosts and co-founders of the event from VSA Texas says, "It was popular and fun, but we were unable to keep it going when we lost the funding to keep the gallery open in 2012. So in December 2013, Laura and I were both attending the Mayor’s Committee on People with Disabilities Annual Holiday Party at Threadgill’s (always a fun time with a fierce White Elephant Gift Exchange!). We started talking. Laura met Becky of Malvern Books at the Texas Book Festival around that time, and she mentioned that Malvern wanted to be a community space, not just a book store. This seemed like a perfect fit- and it has been!"

Laura Perna is the other host and co-founder of the event. She works for CTD.

The Lion and the Pirate are the unofficial mascots of Malvern Books (Malvern the lion greets everyone who comes into the store). April says, "At first, we were going to call it The Lion, The Pirate, and The Microphone, but we got a little too raucous at our first event and had to drop the microphone bit. Funny story! VSA Texas brought our PA to the first Open Mic. We were told we could use it, but needed to keep the volume low in respect for the neighbors. My late husband Milton was a big part of the planning because he wanted to host the Open Mic. But he wasn’t so good at low volume. He kept cranking it up and getting louder and louder as the night went on."
The lion...
After that first open mic, the Malvern staff took away the mic since Milton couldn’t keep it low. After that over-loud debut event, The Lion and the Pirate became "Unplugged."

The Lion and Pirate has had 304 "unplugged" open mic performances since February 2014, with about 20 regulars. Malvern posts the performances on their Youtube channel if you want to catch any of the past events.

April says, "We have had great feedback. We're told the atmosphere is very inclusive and friendly and nothing like the other open mics out there. For many people, this is the first time they have presented in public. And our audience is always open to new things. We've had singers, writers, storytellers, magicians, comedians, musicians, artists showing their latest work, even interpretive dance."

The safe environment encourages spontaneous collaboration. On this night, several poets had unrehearsed improvisational musical accompaniment. But this kind of thing happens all the time, which makes this creative space unpredictable and fun.
...and the Pirate
Andrew Murphy from the Austin Public Library attend the open mic last year. He was so taken with it that he recruited the group to be a part of Aural Lit - a live reading event at the library. The result: the Distinguished Artist Veterans event at the Terrazas Branch library with an art exhibit and live reading of veteran writings. In addition, this launched Library Live where some of the Lion and Pirate musicians played a concert at the Carver Branch library, which is planned to continue quarterly. Laura and April have also met with Michael Noll from the Writers League of Texas about promoting books by writers with disabilities to independent bookstores.

The Lion and Pirate is not just about music and spoken word, once they hosted Body Shift, a mixed-ability dance ensemble. Malvern is a lot of wonderful things, but a big open space, it is not. The first time Body Shift wanted to do something, Laura wondered how it was going to work. "But Malvern is used to improvising. They just did their thing among the book shelves and tables, and the audience reformed around them. It was pretty glorious."
Dancing at Malvern
Sometimes the surprises come from random people. "One time there was a guy here early," April says, "He came up to me and confessed that he had hijacked our Open Mic for his birthday party. He took our flyer for the event and added details about this being his birthday party and then everyone going over to Conan’s for pizza afterward. It was great! We had a big turnout, lots of new people, fun poems being read that were written specifically for him. Then some of us joined him and his friends for pizza. He did it again the next year!"

Laura says, "I will never forget when J-Bo of the Old Hats (a staple at the L&P) described the Lion & Pirate as 'a community.' To me, that really hit home that this was about more than just the performances. We've also lost some folks along the way, and I think having this community allows them to live on a sense. Not just through our memories of them, but the impressions their work made (and continues to make) on us."

April says, "We find ways to share our pain through sharing our stories and songs and sharing their stories and songs. When Bear left to move away, when we lost Milton, and most recently SylviAnn, we all shared that loss together. Even you, David, sharing about your daughter is such a hard thing, but we were all there for you and feeling that with you. So it helps to have that community."

Moving forward, Laura says she'd like to get ASL interpretation at every open mic. "Not just to sign what the speaking performers are saying, but also to voice what signing performers are doing. CTD had some ASL poets at an event last year and it was really something else; ASL poetry is its own art form, and it would be really cool to have it in our mix. Not to mention ASL story-telling, music?, other stuff I don't even know about! Plus, as an inclusive space, we need to make sure that Deaf, Deaf-blind, and hard-of-hearing folks can participate. At this point, we don't have a budget for this, and I've looked into ASL interpreter volunteers with no luck (so far). If you are reading this interview and know of a good resource, my email is!"
April the Lion and Laura the Pirate
April says, "What I love about this partnership is the teamwork makes the job easy on all of us. Malvern, P2P, and VSA Texas all pitch in to make it successful. Malvern has the lovely space, provides snacks, sets up and cleans up, video tapes and takes great pictures. For marketing, Malvern creates a facebook event every month, P2P creates a flyer every month, and VSA Texas emails out invitations to past and new presenters each month. Laura and I share the hosting duties so we always have someone there in case one of us can’t make it. Although, we always try to make it."

Most importantly, the Lion and Pirate is a fun, relaxed atmosphere, an inclusive event, and an opportunity for people to have their voices heard. Events are monthly, check them out.

This Sunday, April 2, 2017 at 2pm I'll be throwing a book release party for And Yet We Rise at Malvern. I'm grateful to VSA Texas, CTD, and Malvern for their support.

For more about David Borden and his works, visit his website here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

5 Things You Didn't Know About Art in the Park

Lynn here and I was asked to share five things you might not have known about Art in the Park, the annual hands-on multi-art festival for Austin’s school children with and without disabilities, which is coming up this Friday, March 24th, 2017. For anyone needing a refresher, you can read the complete history of Art in the Park here.

1. This is the first year Art in the Park will be held at the beautiful grounds of Fiesta Gardens, located right off the waters of Lady Bird Lake (formerly known as Town Lake). The two prior locations were McBeth Recreation Center and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), where we moved in 2010, but we just kept growing and Rainey Street kept developing, so we eventually ran out of room for all those school buses!
Outdoors at Fiesta Gardens. A beautiful hacienda-style building and outdoor plaza with lush trees and a circular fountain filled with plants.
2. We recruit more than 100 volunteers to help with Art in the Park. Just imagine: you have around 1,000 attendees, 30 art activity booths, 5 group performances, ... you must be asking, "who’s going to run this thing?" Well, it takes over 100 volunteers to direct buses, check everyone in, provide art-making activities, and bring music, dance, or other group performances. People from all around town volunteer their time. They come from businesses and other organizations including FreightPros, Access Dental, Mexic-Arte Museum, Umlauf Sculpture Garden, University of Texas Lion’s Club, Key Club, and Austin Community College – all to provide art activities, perform, provide assistance and information, and generally promote a good time.
Two volunteers creating paper handbags at the 2008 Art in the Park outdoors at McBeth Recreation Center.
3. Money made through Art in the Park concession stand sales goes to support Friends of McBeth Recreation Center. This wonderful group of folks sells inexpensive snacks and drinks to raise money for McBeth Recreation Center. The Danny G. McBeth Recreation Center and Annex, located in Zilker Park, provides social opportunities through quality programs that challenge, support, and teach leisure skills to citizens of Austin with differing abilities.
Two volunteers with Friends of McBeth Recreation Center laughing and serving food at the 2009 Art in the Park.
4. Art in the Park has been around for 24 years, according to my secret historian, and VSA Texas became a co-sponsor of the festival with McBeth Recreation Center in 1999. We will celebrate our 18th year as a co-sponsor this Friday!

5. Art in the Park has never been cancelled. Come rain or shine, the festival has always gone on. My first Art in the Park as a new VSA Texas staff member was cold. It rained and sleeted, but the performers kept performing, and we moved the art booths inside the building. Sure it was crowded, but that didn't stop the art from being made. Despite the nasty weather that day, a good time was still had by all.

So I am bringing a rain poncho, jacket, sunscreen, plenty of water, comfy shoes, and I am ready for ART IN THE PARK 2017! COME RAIN OR SHINE!
A group of participants waving their hands and smiling on a sunny day at the 2016 Art in the Park at the Mexican American Cultural Center.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Celebrating 100 Blogs in 100 Words and Pictures

As OMOD project coordinator and self-appointed blog manager, I cannot be happier to compose our 100th blog entry! When I first took the reins of our VSA Texas blog in July 2015, we hadn’t published a blog entry in five months and our monthly page views had plummeted; now, just shy of two years later, we publish entries on a weekly basis – barring the weeks when my own perfectionism gets the best of me – and our page views regularly extend into the thousands. Of course, this has little to do with me and everything to do with our dedicated team of bloggers made up of our amazing staff and guest contributors!

In managing our blog, I am constantly reminded that our blog has never been about the statistics or the number of readers we gain. It has always been about telling the story of our organization and hearing from the everyday people behind the incredible work we do. And the 100 photos I culled from these first 100 entries (and spent an embarrassing number of hours editing into ten tiny collages) will illustrate that far more effectively than my words:

The wonderful world of Body Shift, featuring stunning photos by Camille Wheeler and others!

Adventures in OMOD

Remembering the tremendous work of Actual Lives Austin!

Launching youth into the world of media through our Side-by-Side internships and New Media Arts classes

Bringing art and entertainment to children with disabilities through our annual Art in the Park and Art in the Gardens festivals

Expanding our services to Texas Veterans with creative writing classes, public readings, and art exhibits around the state

Providing opportunities for Texas artists with disabilities to share and sell their art. Not only visual art, but CDs, books, greeting cards, even handmade apparel, too!

Our blog has also offered a forum to engage in critical discussions about disability representation in media.

Our Unsung Hero of the Week series has allowed us to acknowledge our dear friends and collaborators who make our work possible and honor those who are no longer with us.

Last but most important, our blog gave the dedicated staff who work in our offices the opportunity to tell their own stories and articulate how their own lives have been impacted by this work. They are the heart of VSA Texas.

Okay, so I know that was more than 100 words, but I just couldn't cut it down any further! I hope you will forgive me, and more importantly, I hope you will continue to read our blog as we add new voices and new stories to the mix!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Body Shift: What is a Dance Jam?

Hello, friends! Olivia O’Hare here to let you in on what to expect when attending a dance jam.

The Body Shift spring dance jam will take place this Saturday, March 11th from 2:30-4:30pm at the Townlake YMCA in place of our regular Elements class.

A jam session is a relatively informal event where dancers improvise solos, duets, and group dances similar to the way a group of jazz musicians might vamp on tunes, songs, and chord progressions. To "jam" is to improvise dance without extensive preparation or predetermined choreography. The Body Shift jam will be a two-hour event in which folks that have experience with improvisation come together to practice without formal instruction. There will be an opening and closing circle to share our experiences. I will offer a guided warm-up to lead us into open dancing. Some experience with theatre and/or dance improvisation is best but not required. You are welcome to observe if you are new to dancing or take part and learn from the collective knowledge of the more experienced participants.

In the on-going Elements class we generally start with a guided warm-up. We then move through a series of DanceAbility exercises that include various groupings (i.e., solo, duets, trios, small group, or whole group) and follow a theme for the day. The theme for the day may be an exploration of sensation – how can you become more aware of feeling your body as it moves?; relationship – how can you communicate with a partner without words?; time – how can you vary the speed with which you move (fast or slow) to break habitual patterns?; or design – how can you be aware of what you’re doing and what else is happening around you in order to make informed choices about the shapes you are making or where you are placing yourself in relationship to others to create a landscape or stage picture?

For those of us who have formally practiced these principles for some time, it is fun to have a day where we get to move freely with the knowledge we have gained from our previous experience dancing together. In a dance jam, people of varied abilities and skill levels are given the opportunity to play. It is meant to be a social dance. Except instead of dancing to pop music like you might at a club, we often dance in silence. This opens up the space for even more possibilities and unique ways of moving that might not otherwise happen when dictated by the lyrics or beat of a song. Instead, the rhythm comes from the sensation of our bodies breathing or from the speed at which we choose to move. We dance based on our own desire to creatively express ourselves and move in ways that feel good rather than follow prescribed movements. That is not to say, however, that there is no structure. The DanceAbility principles are essentially a succinct way of discovering choreography in the moment that makes it possible to dance in an organized way without music or direct instruction. You might think it would look like chaos. Instead, what you see is a series of lovely movement conversations taking place. People’s personalities shine through and narratives develop. People are surprised as they discover new ways of moving and being moved based on the alchemy of the group and the partners they choose to dance with. In a jam, you are welcome to come and go as you please. You can take breaks to watch or rest and move in and out of the space fluidly.

For a little more insight please read the following excerpt from the article “New Worlds Opening: A Participant's View of DanceAbility and Contact Improvisation” by Bjo Ashwill:

“DanceAbility is feeling the word ‘yes.’ It is options. It is opening new thoughts and new behaviors. It is intimate. I’ve just named some of the most difficult and frightening adventures humans can face. Opening up, being vulnerable, taking risks, making changes. These same things are also the pathway to great joy, freedom and personal growth…

We forget. We learn how to do something and it is successful so we repeat it. It becomes habit, the preferred option. We forget we have other options. Our thoughts work the same way. There is only one way to ‘break the habit.’ Do something different…

Walk in another person’s shoes. Roll in another person’s wheelchair. Dance to the rhythm of other people’s breathing. New worlds open up to you. Freedom breathes deeply. Excitement pours into your body and you dance life more freely…

We forget. In our rush to do all we must in our lives, we forget the dance. The joy and beauty of being in attunement with self and others, without judgment, without our critical thinking machine limiting and narrowing our experiences.

The DanceAbility workshop acts as a clarion call to that part of us, deep inside, that hasn’t forgotten and hungers for the balance, the contact, the creativity and the mutual responding. We come out of the woodwork, fearful, shy, rigid, creaky, walking, rolling, limping, skipping, temporarily able-bodied people, people with disabilities, and every mix in between. We come, to lean against the wall, arms folded across our shallow breathing chests, to be convinced that this is something we can do. Something we did without thinking as babies. Something other people and ourselves couldn’t believe we could do.

We come with our sneakers, our canes, our wheelchairs, our two left feet, our bodies we see as too short, too tall, too fat, too skinny, too ‘something’ and we danced. By God, every sub-atomic particle of us danced in ways we could not have believed if someone had told us about it.”
Juan Munoz and Dany Casey during the 2015 DanceAbility teacher certification course here in Austin (photo courtesy of Zach Khoo)
Body Shift: Spring Dance Jam. This Saturday, March 11th from 2:30-4:30pm at the Townlake YMCA in the large group exercise room on the first floor. Adults of all abilities are encouraged to attend. Some experience with improvisation is best. No membership required. Cost is on a sliding scale of $5-$20.