Thursday, September 20, 2018

Encouraging Artistic Entrepreneurship

Earlier this month VSA Texas was invited to present at the Houston Arts Partners Conference. The Houston Arts Partners collaboration was created in response to a specific request from Houston area education administrators for a more efficient and effective method to access arts educational resources in Houston. The 2018 Conference was called "Synergy" and all about highlighting arts partnerships for students with diverse learning needs. Well this sounded right up our alley! So we put together a panel presentation called "Encouraging Artistic Entrepreneurship: How Artists with Disabilities Navigate Today's Gig Economy."

Our panel consisted of four young Houston artists. First, Wes Holloway. We have known him for quite some time at VSA Texas. We met when he was attending UT Austin. Wes paints amazing realistic pieces and is currently focusing on smaller collage work. He is a teaching artist and volunteers for United Spinal Association.

The next artist on our panel was Grant Manier. We met Grant when he was just a teenager starting out on his journey of art. He does eco-art using recycled paper. His most recent endeavor is a book he wrote with his mom called "Grant the Jigsaw Giraffe."

We then had Alisha Momin. Alisha was a participant in our Opening Minds, Opening Doors program when we took that to Houston. She creates jewelry, scarves, and potpourri as well. Alisha is an outgoing and adventurous young woman who enjoys making art and especially enjoys the part where she can meet people as she tries to sell it.

And finally Megan Fry, a young woman with whom we recently became acquainted. She uses an interesting technique called eye gaze to create digital art. She is also a college student at University of Houston. This was the first event we have done with Megan and she was delightful.

Grant, Alisha, April, Wes, and Megan at the HAP Conference after their presentation

At the conference, we had an hour long discussion about working as an artist with a disability. I don't have room in this blog to tell you everything, but here are some highlights!

  • Most of our panelists were interested in art from a young age. Their advice to teachers: let your students with disabilities give it a try. Don't assume they can't do what everyone else is doing. Find ways to adapt and ask them how they want to adapt the lesson. Be ready to explore with them!
  • Making the art is what comes naturally! But what about showing and selling your work? You might need a manager. And in many cases that is a "Mom-ager" or a "Dad-ager." They can be very helpful on the business skills, the transportation, and always the cheerleading!
  • Working as an artist at home can have its challenges. Sometimes you need to get out of the isolation of working at home. Get out and see the world for inspiration as well as networking opportunities.
  • Pricing your work is not easy. One tip is to start with a base price based on size. But whatever you do, never underestimate your worth!


I always enjoy an event where I can show off the talents of VSA Texas artists. Each artist did a great job talking about their work and were very professional panelists. We had a great time at the 2018 HAP Conference!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

September Fun with VSA Texas

Hey folks! This is Eric here to tell you about all we have going on over the next few weeks, and we hope you can join us and participate in one or more of these exciting events!

Let's start with this weekend. This Saturday evening, September 15th from 7:00-9:00 PM we have our monthly Lion and Pirate Open Mic for writers, musicians, and other performers that we co-host with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities at Malvern Books (613 West 29th Street, Austin, TX 78705). It's a really fun community event with a very supportive, open, and encouraging vibe, and it's free! So if you haven't been, I strongly encourage you to attend and perform, read, sing, or share whatever talents you possess, or simply relax and enjoy the entertainment! Not only is it a fun time with performances you are sure to remember, it's also a lovely community of friends who bond over performances and common interests.

Then Sunday, September 16th from 2:00-4:00 PM in the afternoon we will present our first-ever Artist of the Year Awards at the swanky Sterling Event Center (6134 US 290 East Frontage Road, Austin, TX 78752)! This award ceremony was launched to recognize the many fantastic artists with disabilities who create art and live in the state of Texas. We will have delicious hors d'oeuvres, beverages, live music from acoustic musician and troubadour Wayne Napier, and other fun activities, and Ron Lucey, the current Executive Director of the Governor's Committee on People with Disabilities, will serve as our emcee! And did I mention it's also free?! I would tell you more about this year's award recipients, but I'm sure the artists themselves and the art they will have on display will do a much better job Sunday. Okay, okay… Here's a preview of the art, but you still need to attend the ceremony to meet the talented artists behind the artwork!

Intricate, layered abstract painting mounted on wood with a myriad of vibrant colors

Painting of a safari scene with lion, tourist, and parrot

Beautiful blue fused glass pendants

The fun will continue next Saturday, September 22nd from 2:00-4:00 PM with the latest installment of our quarterly concert series at Carver Branch Library (1161 Angelina Street, Austin, TX 78702)! This time we are excited to welcome two new comers to the Carver Branch stage: Devin Gutierrez, a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter whose greatest influences are Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Chicago; and Sean & Tristan who cover hits of 50s rock 'n' roll legends Chuck Berry, The Penguins, Elvis, Ben E King, Bill Haley, Frank Sinatra, and others. As with all of this month's events, it is free. The doors will open at 1:45 PM, and the show will start at 2:00 PM.

Then, last but not least, Saturday, September 29th from 1:00-3:00 PM our local chapter of Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD) speakers dubbed the ‘Speaking Advocates’ will tackle the timely topic of disability in the media with speeches, lively discussion, and a whole lot to think about! As usual, we will meet in Room 101 of the AGE of Central Texas Building (3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705). All are welcome! Please just send me an email at eric@vsatx.org if you plan to attend.

So come out, get creative, and celebrate art with us!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Another Year of Judging Films By and About People with Disabilities!

Five years ago, I was asked by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD) to be a judge for the documentary short category of their annual Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival. This international film festival is unique for a number of reasons, first and foremost because all films submitted and screened either feature characters or real people with disabilities, or explore disability issues, and in keeping with that mission, many of the films include people with disabilities in their cast and crew. From the judging perspective, what sets the festival apart is its insistence to judge each film almost entirely on how well it presents a fresh or creative look at the experience of living with a disability; at times this means that a film with a high production value may not clinch first place if it relies heavily on tired disability stereotypes. As someone with a background in the film industry, this placed me in a unique position, one that has taught me a great deal over the past five years.

What I have learned is there are many ways to approach the criteria given me and just as many viewpoints. It is up to us as judges to adhere to that criteria but also our responsibility to judge the art of the storytelling and remember that "art takes risks." For Cinema Touching Disability, a memorable work is one that simultaneously embodies artistry, technical competence, and content that advances disability culture. Whereas some competitions want to encourage and empower emerging filmmakers to generate innovative films, Cinema Touching Disability seeks films at the cutting edge of social, cultural, and personal perceptions about experiences with disability. These films encapsulate just about everything: romance, relationships with peers or animals, nature, adventure, or just everyday experiences; some may contain a sense of humor, drama, or even action and suspense.

When viewing films outside of this competition, I find myself asking if we should judge films solely on their technical qualities (sound, editing, cinematography, etc.), or should we also allow for the effort put into accurately portraying or including underrepresented communities, like people with disabilities? The story may not be well-developed, and some of these filmmakers may not have much experience, but don't all filmmakers start out that way – with no experience, but just an idea? That is not to say the quality of the execution of their ideas is not important, as that is often what engages the audience in the first place, but film technique is certainly not all that matters.

The video below offers a more in-depth view of what the Cinema Touching Disability event means for the Austin community:


The Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival is now in its 15th year here in Austin, Texas. Each year, the films get better, and we see more international submissions, which gives us a glimpse into how other countries view the filmmaking process and how different cultures perceive what folks with disabilities want to and can achieve. You can learn more about the Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival and find updates for future events here. The 2018 festival will be held at the Alamo Drafthouse Village in Austin October 19-20. See you there!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

OMOD's Speaking Advocates

Hey all! This is Eric, your friendly OMOD coordinator, here to tell you about the newest addition to our Opening Minds, Opening Doors program: our Speaking Advocates group that meets every last Saturday of the month from 1-3 PM in Austin. We have now been meeting for six months and have grown a dedicated group of 10-12 members, but we have plenty of space for more folks to join!

Here's an overview of what we do. Each month we vote on a new theme to speak about during the next meeting; recent themes include "technology and accessibility," "hobbies," and this month's theme is "art." Once we choose a theme, 2-3 of our members will volunteer to each prepare a 3-5 minute speech on that theme to deliver at the next meeting. Folks who have prepared speeches present in the first half of each meeting. Then, in the second half, all other members present are welcome to give 1-3 minute impromptu speeches on the same theme. After every speech, the entire group offers the speaker constructive feedback, meaning what they did well and what they could improve if they decide to continue working on their speech for future presentations.

Meet the Speaking Advocates! A diverse crew of vibrantly-dressed adults with disabilities gathered around a long table during one of our monthly meetings

If it sounds a lot like a Toastmasters club, it's probably because we took a field trip to a Toastmasters meeting and adapted the things we liked about it to fit our group. While Toastmasters is a world-renowned organization for aspiring public speakers, there are aspects of it that do not translate well for people with disabilities. Namely, they do not have the same emphasis on accommodations. Sure, their locations are often wheelchair accessible, and most everyone is welcome to attend their meetings; however, our Speaking Advocates group devotes time to helping each person find the best way to present their speech, knowing that not everyone can effectively stand up and read a speech off a piece of paper they can hold with their hands. Sometimes the only way someone can present a speech is by remembering a general storyline, looking at a series of sketches on notecards, or using a slideshow to help prompt the speaker. Moreover, whereas Toastmasters follows a standardized rubric for judging each person's speech, we don't expend energy pushing someone to perfect skills that simply lie beyond their abilities, which is not to say we don't push our speakers, just that we meet each speaker where they are and work on bringing out the best presentation possible, whatever that means for each new speaker.

And did I mention our Speaking Advocates group is FREE?? All you need to do is send me an email at eric@vsatx.org to RSVP. And show up, of course! So come join us! Our next meeting is this Saturday, August 25th, from 1:00-3:00 PM in Room 101 of the AGE of Central Texas Building (3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705). We'll be talking about art. And if you don't want to get up and speak at your first meeting, no worries! Anyone is welcome to attend and get a sense for what we're all about. See you there!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Notes from the Access Field

In early August, I had the pleasure to attend two back-to-back VSA and Kennedy Center conferences in steamy, downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The first conference, Intersections, concerned itself with topics focused on arts and special education, and was attended by educators and teaching artists from across the country. And we could not have asked for a better place to reflect on what Jenna Gabriel, conference organizer, asked us to consider; “the ways in which equitable access to high-quality arts learning for students with disabilities is indeed an issue of civil rights.” As I moved from session to session, and engaged in conversations with my colleagues, I was reminded time and again of how the smallest accommodation can still have a significant impact.

Spoken-word poet and advocate LeDerick Horne, set the tone for the two-day convening by sharing the story of his educational journey, and the teachers who recognized his gift and supported him along the way. Then, Sloan McLain and I were able to introduce over 45 interested administrators and teaching artists to the creative tenets that underscore and comprise the teaching strategies employed by Austin Independent School District and developed by MINDPOP.

It was a lively two days, and there is much more that can be said about the enriching conversations that were sparked, but I just advise you to mark your calendars to attend one of the several Intersection gatherings that are scheduled for 2018 and 2019. Find out the latest information about VSA's Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference on the Kennedy Center's website.

Silva Laukkanen, Sloan McLain and I, smiling, celebrate the completion of the CLI workshops.

Then, it was onward to the LEAD Conference (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability). Did I say that the conferences were held at the Atlanta Marquis Hotel, an architectural wonder all of its own? We were scattered across 46 floors, with a dizzying bank of elevators to get us to our respective rooms. I was tucked back in a corner on the 21st floor (which turned out to be a blessing when the Insight Global annual sales conference attendees arrived on Friday night)!

Elevators and floors viewed from the open mezzanine of the Atlanta Marquis Hotel

This conference brings together accessibility managers from the performing arts and museums from across the US and around the world to talk about, advocate for, and just make access happen! Our Call to Action was delivered by Mickey Rowe, the first autistic actor to play Christopher Boone in the Tony Award-winning play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” From there, we were off and rolling and there were sessions for everyone, whether a novice or a seasoned pro. I was especially interested in the conversations addressing disability artistry as a catalyst for community engagement, and the influence of scents and memory to enhance the experience of museumgoers. I am still savoring the Access Equals Aesthetic conversation with dance pioneer Alice Sheppard about making dance more accessible to audience members who are blind through enhanced audio description experiences. Again, there is too much to report, so plan to come to Denver in 2019 and add your name to the thousands of accessibility assets working tirelessly to ensure all people can participate in, learn through, and enjoy the arts.

Access = Aesthetic is comprised of five elements: Limited Access to Verbal Description for Dance; Limits of Verbal Description; Access is Art; Art is Accessible; and, Access Creates Community.

At times, there was just too much and my brain wanted a timeout. But the opening reception at the Botanical Garden and Closing Award ceremony at the Aquarium helped soothe my troubled brow.

A whale shark and stingray swim in circles in small tanks that encircle the reception room at the Georgia Aquarium.

All in all, it was time well spent. And then, when I arrived back in Austin, I attended our Lion and Pirate Open Mic to hear Mel Finefrock read her poetry and I was reminded again why I do this work. Why we do this work. Why the world will never tire of us doing this work.

Mel Finefrock sits and reads her poetry in front of the wooden wall at Malvern Books.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Top 10 Reasons to Enter Your Artwork in Our Holiday Art and Gift Show

Hey Artists (and Shoppers!),

Our 10th Annual Holiday Art and Gift Show is coming up in November/December of this year and we want to celebrate big. Our first step is to get some great art, so here is why you should enter your art into this exhibition:

Photo of art-packed room from one of our first holiday art shows
  1. The Holiday Art and Gift Show is our highest selling art show of the year at VSA Texas.
  2. The show is up for 6 weeks during the busiest shopping season of the year.
  3. You don’t have to be here in person to sell your work. We have friendly staff on site ready to talk up your art for you.
  4. We only take a small 30% commission on sales. The artist gets the remaining 70%.
  5. We handle the sales tax so you don’t need your own permit.
  6. We are open to fine art, crafts, CDs, books, or any other creative homemade product you are interested in submitting.
  7. Artists with disabilities from across Texas can participate as long as you can get your art to us.
  8. We pay for the return shipping of anything that doesn’t sell.
  9. There is no fee to enter.
  10. This is our 10th year hosting this art show and we want to celebrate with the best work available from Texas artists!

Custom aprons, mugs, oven mitts, and potholders from our very first holiday show

Headpiece made with peacock and other feathers from an early holiday art show

Sounds great, right? The first step is to ask for an entry form. Contact April at april@vsatx.org or 512-454-9912 to get an application.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Land and Sea at Moody Gardens

One of my favorite activities at VSA Texas is our annual Art in the Gardens co-sponsored by Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX. This is an outdoor hands-on festival for kids of all ages with disabilities, K-12. This year’s theme is “Land and Sea.” This year’s event will be September 20th, 2018 and only once in the last seven years has it rained, so I just know it will be a bright and sunny day overlooking the water inlet behind the big white tent where we hold our festival. On that day my co-worker April and I will roll out of our slumber, get coffee and confection, and head down to the waterfront tent where all the workers and volunteers will already be setting up. The artists providing art activities usually start checking in around 9:00 AM, and then performers start arriving and setting up on stage.

The Moody Gardens complex from the water: a white tent pavilion and 3 large glass pyramids with hotel behind
(Courtesy of Moody Gardens)

In case you didn't know, Moody Gardens began in the mid-1980s with a horse barn, a riding arena with a hippotherapy program for people with head injuries, and an extraordinary vision to create an island tourist destination. Today Moody Gardens is one of the premier educational and leisure facilities in the Southwest. It also provides horticultural therapy, education, and employment for persons with a wide range of physical and emotional disabilities.

Arts and community organizations, museums, and civic groups like the Junior League of Galveston County, UTM School of Nursing, Galveston Arts Center, and many others participate in providing art activities for over 250 kids with disabilities from Galveston County and neighboring communities including Houston.

AND who knows what kind of sea creature mascot will show up this year? Last year we had a giant shark:

The shark man complete with a green button-up shirt in a crowd of kids

Why do I love this event so much? The people and volunteers are great. The setting is perfect – outdoors with live entertainment and art activities set with a gorgeous backdrop of the bay and big paddleboat. The families and kids that come just love running around and enjoying all the activities.

So if you or your organization wants to provide an art activity or perform at this fun event, send me an email at lynn@vsatx.org. We would love to have you participate!