Friday, December 19, 2014

Part 2: April's Book Review Series!

As promised, here is another book review!

We have 4 more days left for you to shop at our Holiday Art and Gift Sale. I wanted to tell you about the three other books we have at our gift show (I also always love a good excuse to read!)

An illustration from A Visit with Aunt Mary
First is A Visit with Aunt Mary written and illustrated by Beverly Kemp of Manor, TX. A quick read; this book contains one-page vignettes, each being a short glimpse into the life of the artist as a child spending time in the country with her Aunt Mary. Each story is based on an illustration. These full color prints of paintings tell a story of their own with their expansive perspective and minute details. This is a fun book for an adult who wants to relive tales from the old days, or could be shared with a child. A game could be made of picking out the details from the stories in each painting.

An illustration from Dear Sleep
Next is Dear Sleep, written and illustrated by Nicole Cortichiato of Austin, TX.  In 10 short illustrated pages Nicole opens your eyes to the life of a person with narcolepsy, showing both how her diagnosis has challenged her but also inspired her.  This set is for the dreamer in your life and is a BOGO deal! You get a small book as well as larger blank journal, with space to keep your own dream journal and let your own dreams inspire you!

A poem from Under the Silence is Me, laid over Kimberley's artwork
Last, but not least, is Under the Silence is Me- How it Feels to be Nonverbal written and illustrated by Kimberly Ruth Dixon of Round Rock, TX. Kimberly is a young woman who cannot express herself verbally. She uses facilitated communication to let her voice be heard through her poetry accompanied by her artwork. Kimberly’s poems range on topics from friendship, to anger, to spirituality, and to nature. She is an observant woman with much to say, and the book is a thought-provoking read.

With all of these books being priced in the $10-20 range, this is a great opportunity for the readers on your shopping list to enjoy colorful illustrations and words of beauty and wisdom by these three Texas artists!

Happy holidays, y'all!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

VSA Texas Unsung Hero of the Week: Elizabeth "Libby" Geisinger!

Hello Friends,

I am going to celebrate our first unsung VSA Texas hero, Elizabeth “Libby” Geisinger, 2014 Girl Scout Gold Award recipient. Two years ago Libby asked for my advice on her plan to create a series of murals for the portable classrooms at Rosedale School, a campus in Austin that exclusively serves students with multiple disabilities. She presented me with a wonderfully ambitious plan. However, a bond election eliminated the portables at Rosedale, so Libby brainstormed ideas of how to combine her commitment to creating a multi-sensory experience for students at Rosedale with a limited amount of available wall space. Her solution? Build a large, portable, interactive, sensory wooden cube (station) that represents the four seasons.

Libby in the midst of building!
 With help from friends, Libby built and painted the cube and attached items such as pom-poms, pop tops, stars, and multiple plastic animals to complete the sensory experience. The scenes include a water environment, a meadow, a farm, and outer space. Libby reports, “With the use of this portable, sensory mural box, the students can become more independent and enhance their senses. The teachers can create lesson plans that incorporate the sensory station such as telling a story or focusing on helping a student in specific areas that that student needs, such as identifying key items on the station. This station will serve the current community at Rosedale and the future generations to come.” Along with this station, Libby created a Pinterest board on “Adaptive Learning” that instructs how to create other sensory enriched situations and environments for students with disabilities.
The finished product!
Interacting with the sensory station!
Brava Libby for your vision, your tenacity, your dedication, your hard work and your 2014 Girl Scout Gold Award!  The world is a better place because of young women like you.  

Stay tuned for our next VSA Texas unsung hero.  It just may be you!  Until then, enjoy your holiday, whichever you celebrate, and make your resolutions for the new year. 

Find Libby's Pinterest here: 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Part 1 of the Book Review Series by April Sullivan!

I love art and working with artists. But my second love is books. I spend a lot of my spare time reading. When I was a kid, my dad called me Little Miss Librarian. I even volunteered in the school library in the 5th grade. When I was in college I worked at a college library and later a bookstore. For several years I did volunteer book reviews for a website called Reader Views.

Me in a favorite reading spot!

So, I thought I would review two of the books currently on sale at our Holiday Art and Gift Show. Both books I read are by Edie Bakker of Kaufman, TX. Edie is a poet, journalist, and author. Her books are called Rendezvous with a Rainforest and Crocodile Set Free. Both are memoirs about a certain time in her life. Edie has lived a very interesting life and grew up in the rainforest in Papua New Guinea as a child of missionary parents.

Rendezvous with a Rainforest tells about the expedition trips she took to the Hunstein Mountain Rainforest with National Geographic. Her job was to chronicle the fate of the Wagu people as their rainforest is scheduled to be logged. Her book is well written and a great way to learn about a culture that most of us will not have the chance to see in person. She sets up the book with Chapter 1 – A Memory From Age Thirteen, with a vivid telling of her colorful life running barefoot through the jungle and playing in the lake. From there, the book is about her return to this beloved childhood village as an adult. Each chapter begins with a memory from her youth that cements her as a character who has a vested stake in this culture, but also as an outsider coming to learn and report. She must struggle with her dedication to her childhood village family and her responsibilities to National Geographic. I recommend this adventurous book!

Edie’s second book, Crocodile Set Free tells a different side of Edie’s life. Multiple sides in fact, as Edie is diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. She does a great job of sorting out her illness into chapters, even though as she explains, it is not in chronological order, but in order as she remembers it. This organization style could be hard to follow, but Edie is a skilled writer who brings us into her confusion and pain enough to make it understandable for someone who has not lived through such a thing, while also challenging the reader’s comfort zone.  I think with subject matter that includes religious distortions, fragmentation anxiety, and childhood trauma, it makes sense to not be an easy, palatable read. I find it very valuable to have writers in this world who are not afraid to share in this way, so that we all get a chance to try to understand another person’s world view.

I look forward to reading more books by Edie Bakker and hope that she continues to write them. We at VSA Texas are honored to have her work for sale in our Holiday Art and Gift show going on now. Come by and buy a book or two for the readers in your family. And keep reading our blog as I plan to review more books!

Friday, November 14, 2014

VSA Texas Annual Holiday Show!

Hello Folks!
With these recent cold temperatures, it's finally starting to feel like the holiday season, and here at VSA Texas, the start of the holiday season means only one thing- the beginning of our annual Holiday Art Show! We are so excited to have dozens of artists with disabilities across Texas feature and sell their work in the show, which opens this Monday, November 17th and lasts until December 24th here at VSA Texas (3710 Cedar Street).  You can stop by anytime Monday-Friday during regular business hours!

You'll be able to buy a variety of pieces, ranging from jewelry to paintings, cards to holiday ornaments. Proceeds from each sale go to both the artist and VSA Texas, with the artist receiving 70% and VSA Texas receiving 30% of each profit.  There's some really cool and original artwork in here! Some of my personal favorites include a crocheted "Angry Birds" hat, made by Shaniqua Esparza and modeled by our own April Sullivan (complete with an Angry Birds face). 

This candle is a repurposed tea box, beautifully handpainted by Marty Allen! 

Celeste Garvey-Petsch's, "Wilma The Water Dragon"

These handmade glass dishes by Jordana Gerlach are perfect for holiday candies or treats for Santa! 

This is a handmade ornament by Karen Thomas ... I'm sending this one home to my family in Boston!

So, come join us on November 20th from 6:00-8:00 PM for the Opening Reception here at 3710 Cedar Street in Austin. We're also hosting an Artist Reception on December 12th, from 6:00-8:00 again here at VSA Texas.  Stop by and support VSA Texas and artists with disabilities while you do all your holiday shopping! 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Does Volunteering Mean to YOU?

Hey folks, today I'll be talking a little bit about the art and culture of volunteering.  I believe the first time I ever volunteered was when I was 16 and was asked to volunteer a few hours a day during the summer to enlighten 13 year olds in whatever topic I choose. I soon discovered that 13 year old kids were definitely up for a bigger challenge than I was prepared for, but I was willing to volunteer my time to bring them enlightened topics.  So I thought... and thought.  I was struggling every day until I remembered a film about discrimination, Nazis, terror and acceptance.  Bingo!  Showed the film and had lively discussions about what we had seen, drew art depicting some of the scenes and what we thought about life in general.  What a great feeling.

Anyway, later in life, I walked into Live Oak Theatre to see an old friend of mine’s show “Seekers of the Fleece” performed by Bobby Bridger.  The moment I walked into the theatre, I knew I was home.  I talked with the House Manager about volunteer opportunities. Fate was to offer me the life long chance to do props for Live Oak Theatre, Capitol City Playhouse, Zilker Hillside Summer Musical, & Zach Scott Theatre. Now, I just usher or do whatever I can to promote theatre in Austin.

What I have I learned by being a volunteer?  Volunteering should come from the desire to support the organization and it’s mission.  There are many reasons to volunteer:  to meet people, see shows for free, enjoy parties, attend ballets and operas.  These are all great perks, but my approach is to always support the mission of the organization that I volunteer.  Volunteering should mean gladly participating in the more undesirable tasks as well as the rewarding pleasurable ones.

Having been on both sides of the volunteering experience, as a volunteer and a volunteer coordinator, I know these valuable tools can make a wonderful volunteer experience:

1. Be Flexible!
I can recall a crazy instance when the caterers didn’t show up for an opening night show reception. Our volunteer coordinator had us setting up tables with table cloths, champagne glasses, and running over to a large grocery store to get cheeses, crackers, desserts, meats etc. and scurrying back and setting up everything with flowers, and cups and plates, napkins.  We were set up by the end of the show.  Everyone knew what had to happen and we did what it took.  Adapting and showing a happy face to all the patrons never letting on that all this was going on in the background.  We were so proud.

2. Energy
Sometimes you can be tired from work or other circumstances before you arrive for your volunteering assignment.  Remember that anyone coming to where you are volunteering has had outside events happening to them as well, and you may be the first person they see.  The goal of volunteering is to bring something to the experience.

3. Imagination and Creativity
Volunteering doesn’t need to be a solemn or straining thing.  When individuals use their talents, passions, and humor they bring life into the tasks at hand.  Allow yourself to dream; bring your
creativity into whatever you do because it leaves your own personal and sincere mark.

4. Integrity
Keeping your commitments, showing up when you say you will.  You represent the organization
you are volunteering with.  You are entrusted with their image, and the work they do as well as what you do with them.  This is keeping your word and doing what you say you will do.

5. Sacrifice/Selflessness
Volunteering again is giving of your time freely, bringing your time and energy to a cause, an organization because you want to.  I know that sometimes I have felt tired and worn thin because of maybe too many demands at times.  Examine your motives, the rewards or feelings you get at the end of the experience.  Sometimes it does mean sacrificing a bit especially when you are overwhelmed or under challenged.

I have given some tips on good volunteering, BUT on the flip side as a volunteer coordinator, I know that treating the volunteers well is so very important because it is their time, they are here to learn about your organization and what you all do.  Always try to engage them, and plan out their experience so they will want to return and find fulfillment in the mission.  After all, they came to you wanting to donate time as well as their talents to your organization.  Treat them well!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Get to know our Executive Director, Celia Hughes!

Hello everyone.  I’m Celia Hughes, Executive Director of VSA Texas. I am happy to introduce myself and look forward to interacting with you in-person, on-line and in the cloud.   So, here’s a little information about me.  As an artist and an advocate, I wasn’t on the front lines of the disability movement in the 70’s and 80’s, but I was working in the trenches, and since a very young age, have dedicated my life to working alongside people with disabilities to improve quality of life and remove barriers to success.

My first summer at Clover Patch Camp! That's me in the middle of the back row.

I started out by creating the arts and crafts program at Clover Patch Camp, run by Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady, NY. Clover Patch was the first camp of its kind in upstate New York, and my early experiences there planted the seed of realization of what was happening then and what could be possible in the lives of people with disabilities.

Armed with a degree in Speech Pathology and a dream to find a life in the arts, I set out. Through my work in theater, television, film, art galleries, catering, school classrooms and youth leadership organizations at local, state and national levels, I have been able to blend my passion for the arts and my commitment to civil rights. In 1999, the door to opportunity opened and I walked through to assume the leadership position at VSA Texas.

VSA was founded 40 years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and was known for many years as Very Special Arts.  Ambassador Smith’s vision was to bring the reformative power of the arts to people who, for no fault of their own, were locked away in institutions or hidden behind closed doors. Thankfully, now, much of that has changed.

But the work of VSA Texas continues to recognize that throughout the ages, artists, scientists, mathematicians – people with disabilities – have led the way toward a better world.  As President Kennedy once reminded us, “Art calls forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race, religion, wealth or color” and I would now add, disability. This is the mission of VSA Texas: to bring everyone into the universal experience of the arts through employment, education, participation, and just plain fun!

On October 21, at the 2014 Lex Frieden Employment Awards ceremony in Dallas, I was awarded The Governor’s Trophy by the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. The Governor’s Trophy is awarded to the person who has achieved the highest success in enhancing the empowerment and employment of Texans with disabilities. The Governor's Trophy recognizes long-term commitment and outstanding efforts at both the community and state level. It is an amazing honor to be recognized by your peers for the work that you do. One could get a little complacent. But don’t worry. It won’t stop me from continuing to work every day to build inclusive, arts-inspired communities, where people with and without disabilities envision, create, dance, play and sing their stories, out loud and proud!

I hope you will join me, and the Board and staff of VSA Texas, on this unique and transformative journey.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Big Brother OMOD Returns to El Paso

Good evening ardent followers of VSA Texas' blog! It's Eric, your friendly OMOD project coordinator and connoisseur of El Paso's finest tacos. I have another tale to tell you of the Sun City:

After launching our OMOD program in El Paso the last weekend of August, I observed the next four class meetings from the comfort of my home in Austin through the modern magic of FaceTime, a video calling application, courtesy of Apple, that enables Mac users to video call other Mac users – or users of iPads, iPhones, or iPods – through built-in FaceTime cameras and Wi-Fi connections. For me, this meant every Saturday morning I would cozy up to my MacBook Pro laptop at my dining room table with a cup of coffee and regrettable slices of leftover pizza, await the video call from our writing and speaking coach, Gerri, and then observe the three-hour class like the next episode of an action-packed miniseries. My face would appear on the screen of Gerri's MacBook Pro resting on a table in the corner of the Region 19 Education Service Center conference room, where the OMOD class was held.

Though I like to think my facial expressions were a tad less scornful and intimidating, I still imagine I must have appeared somewhat like 1984’s Big Brother: lurking quietly in the corner, taking fastidious notes. But overall, I found my FaceTime observation to be a wonderful experience of watching the participants morph and grow over the course of the six-week session and seeing how the trainers interpreted our curriculum and modified it to suit the new environment and the new group of participants. More importantly, FaceTime gave me the opportunity to be present, to note the specific problems and successes, and to give the trainers instant feedback both during and after each class.

I returned to El Paso with Caleb, my trusty travel attendant and also a passionate connoisseur of tacos, for the final class and showcase on Saturday, October 4th. We met our project partner, Rick, our trainers, Christine, Madeline, and Gerri, and our newly trained self-advocate speakers at the Transitions to the Future Conference for Parents at the Region 19 Head Start Center, where the showcase was held as one of the conference’s breakout sessions. The showcase room filled up quickly, and soon our speakers were presenting their stories to an audience of more than 60 people.

Our speakers shared a variety of stories on themes ranging from education, adventure, and friendship, to self-discovery, romance, and the importance of listening. Every story was well received and garnered a wave of applause from the audience.

Alina shares her story about how she dealt with an unwanted crush.

Paul talks about his experiences in Junior ROTC.

Jesus shares his story about skydiving.

After the showcase, I spoke with the mother of a young son with autism who told me how much the stories moved her and made her feel more confident about her son’s future. Hearing that really reinforced in me the importance of our project: writing and sharing stories about the common hopes, dreams, successes, and struggles of people with disabilities allows people without disabilities to see how alike we all are and also gives hope and strength to other people with disabilities and to family members of people with disabilities who may still be trying to find their way.

The next stop for our El Paso self-advocate speakers will be the 2014 “Our Lives” Disabilities Conference and Service Providers Expo, sponsored by the Volar Center for Independent Living, which will be held Thursday, October 30th, from 8am-5pm at the Camino Real Hotel (101 South El Paso Street, El Paso, TX 79901). Stay tuned for updates at

And last but not least, take a look at these incredible tacos from the Rainbow Fountain!

Caleb helps me arrange my tacos for proper consumption.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Have you heard of Zach Bilbo yet? You Will!

Have you heard of Zach Bilbo yet? You will!

Zach Bilbo is a 15-year-old boy who attended our two-week-long animation internship this summer.   With dreams of someday making a career in animation, Zach submitted an extensive application for the internship complete with character, storyboards, and comics.  We knew that he would really benefit from our teachers, and invited him to join us.

During the two-week internship, although Zach was somewhat reserved, he was incredibly hardworking and approached every project with thoughtfulness and creativity.  He excelled in the many different domains of animation, including simple flipbook animation, stop-motion, and Claymation.  Many of the volunteers had little experience with the different types of techniques, so Zach proved to be a great asset in providing assistance and support for the less experienced interns.  Zach’s final animation reel was both innovative and humorous, combining the new skills he learned during the internship with his previously developed characters

So, when Project Coordinator of our Opening Minds, Opening Doors program, Eric Clow, and our Artworks Director April Sullivan wanted to create a character to become the “face” of OMOD and reflect the spirit of the program on different documents, we immediately thought of Zach.   Zach took the opportunity and ran with it, designing a vast array of new and creative characters from which we could choose.  We were so pleased with his submissions and decided that we couldn’t pick just one; hence the birth of “Maudie” and “Opie!” (Named by Zach, of course). 


We’ve now hired Zach to draw these characters in a variety of poses and situations to go along with different programs, and couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s come up with.   Both of these characters have distinct personalities and add a whole new dimension to the OMOD program.  We're so happy to have Zach's help with this project, and hopefully contribute to his first steps on the way to making a career in animation a reality.  Congratulations Zach! You're awesome!

What do you think of Zach’s work? What should Maudie and Opie be doing next? Let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Distinguished Artist Veterans

Hi VSA Texas Community! It’s April here, and I wanted to tell you more about one of my favorite programs I am working on called Distinguished Artist Veterans. This is our veteran services and we started it in 2009. It has been growing steadily over the years and I am really excited about the way it is headed.

We started Distinguished Artist Veterans as an art exhibit featuring works by Texas Veterans with disabilities. That exhibit became an annual event and our next one is coming up in November/December with a display by 22 veteran artists at The Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. We will have some great work on display, including this piece Holy F@!#ing Brain Damage by Jenna Paige Donnell.

Jenna is currently in the Texas Army National Guard. She says, “This acrylic/ mixed medium painting is an ode to Traumatic Brain Injury, and the many wounded vets with combat related, or induced Multiple Sclerosis, that others and myself have had to endure. The title is an ironic statement of the actual problem that so many veterans are now being faced with. I came up with the concept to raise awareness to this under stated problem.” If you are in San Antonio I highly recommend you attend this exhibit. The opening reception will be Thursday, November 6th from 6-8 pm.

I really enjoy putting together this exhibit and meeting new artists and helping all of our veteran artists gain access to the resources they need to further their careers in the arts. Did you know that there is a movement nationwide recognizing the importance of the arts to our military and veteran communities? Through extensive research we found that many arts and veteran service organizations are rallying around our troops to make sure that they have the power of the arts as a tool to express themselves creatively.  For those who have endured the harsh conditions of military conflicts, music, writing, performance or visual art can be a welcome outlet.

Our involvement in this effort has gained us many new partnerships with organizations such as the VA and their National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. We help host the local competition here at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic.

The Telling Project is another great organization that provides personal storytelling and theater for veterans. They are hosting a performance in San Antonio at The Tobin Center October 1-5 and then in Austin at the B Iden Payne Theater, University of Texas October 25, and at the Austin Playhouse November 7-9.

The Veteran Artist Program is hosting their annual Arts and Service Celebration in Austin from October 19-25. This is a great opportunity for veterans interested in the areas of visual art, performing art, writing, film, and new media to network with professionals in the field. Registration is open now at

I am really excited about the great opportunities being made available for our Texas veteran artist community and look forward to being involved in many more to come!