Thursday, June 22, 2017

Keeping Your Brain Healthy in the 21st Century

Hello Friends,

A few weeks ago I told you about a new initiative of VSA Texas involving older adults and art. We are really excited about everything that has been happening with Mobile Art and the new people we are serving. We know the arts have restorative powers, and provide opportunities for expressing your creativity, contemplative thinking, relationship building, and just plain fun!

In early June, I had the pleasure of attending a Dementia & Museums Symposium at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. I’ll admit it. I am kind of a conference geek. Especially when I have the opportunity to meet people who are passionate and committed to their cause. And yes, I was surrounded by museum staff from across the country who are running great programs for folks with early memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.  I learned that, “it’s about living in the moment and going on a journey, together” (thank you Jane Tygesson). I learned that people are care partners, not care givers. What a respectful way to refer to people who may have been together for decades, and are still together, just in a different way.

A large face fills the canvas. White hair encircles the top of the head, and a non-smiling face peers out at the viewer. Flecks of gold paint cover portions of the face which is dominated by a large nose and bright red lips.
Ebony G. Patterson, Untitled (Blingas II from the series Gangstas for Life) 2008

Damon McLeese, a colleague and friend who runs Access Gallery in Denver, was the keynote speaker. He provided a great foundation for the next three days as he explained how he works with young people with disabilities through his gallery programming. However, in the past year, he has expanded his programs to offer “Granny Does Graffiti,” a mural project that matches older adults with dementia with a Denver-based graffiti artist – so cool! And what we can learn about each other when given a way in through art. Staff of the care center where these adults stay are learning new things about the former lives of their clients, thereby opening a window into new ways of helping and being together.

Duke University has a Medical School conducting some groundbreaking research into Alzheimer’s. On the last morning, Dr. Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, PhD and Director of the Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer’s Center at Duke shared some latest statistics on the disease. She laid out seven steps for people to follow to help reduce the risk of developing early memory loss or dementia. These steps are not earth-shattering, but worth repeating.

At the Sarah P Duke Gardens, a circle of large human like forms constructed from branches cut from trees on the campus, sits in the middle of a large field.
Patrick Dougherty, The Big Easy 2017

Step 1. Change your mindset. Ageism is rampant in our society. Many older adults are responsible for maintaining their health and continuing to contribute to society. Expect more from yourself than others may expect. Here is another way to think about changing your mindset about growing older and living longer: disability is something that you are living with; disease is something that you are dying from; Alzheimer’s is just an accelerated process of what we will all eventually go through.

Step 2. Treat what can be treated. Curb your smoking and alcohol habits. Manage your medical conditions. Heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, thyroid disease, sleep disorders, arthritis, anxiety, and depression can all be contributing factors to changes in the brain.

Step 3. Get physically active. Aerobic, resistance training, daily 15-20 minute walks. These are all good. And mix it up a bit with gardening, raking leaves, or taking the stairs.

I took Kathleen’s advice and walked around the Duke campus after her talk. A long stone building with arches and dormer windows houses the Duke Divinity School.

Step 4. Watch what you eat. And that doesn’t mean looking at yourself in the mirror. A Mediterranean diet is really good for you. Limit your sugar and salt intake. Eat carrots, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, and salmon.

Step 5. Work your brain. Engage in new ways of thinking. Do ART! Studies have shown that art activities – visual, music, dancing, theater – stimulate the brain and help to reduce risk. A small study from Newcastle on Tyne in England broke individuals into three groups: one group did puzzles, one went on walks, the third took art classes. You won’t be surprised to learn the art class participants reported the highest level of satisfaction and continued to participate after the study was concluded. What did the study reveal? Social engagement and a challenging, new activity resulted in a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

Step 6. Stress reduction and caring for your emotional health. SLEEP. Know how many hours of sleep you need per day and try to maintain it. Anywhere between 6.5 and 9.5 is considered within the range. Also social engagement, outdoor activities, pet therapy – I have cats. It works – meditation, yoga. You don’t have to do all of these things. Just try one. And, of course, sleep.

Lotus flowers in the gardens open to the warm spring sun.

Step 7. Be part of the solution. This one comes directly from Dr. Welse-Bohmer. Participate in research to help add to the body of knowledge being tested and shared.

The summer program of Mobile Art is with older adults and their care partners at home. In partnership with Family Eldercare, we will deliver art supplies and instructions to folks who no longer leave their homes and then work with them over the phone to complete six diverse art projects. Theresa Zelazny, founder of Mobile Art, developed the lessons and we look forward to getting to know our newest friends. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

And Yet We Rise

We are happy to feature our friend and Lion & Pirate regular David Borden in this week's blog. David recently published And Yet We Rise, a truly fantastic graphic novel that tackles the complex, difficult subject matter of life with significant disabilities and caregiving with frankness, humor, and sincerity – something frequently lacking in much of the existing literature on these topics. (Click here for a more detailed review of the book by our own April Sullivan). We were thrilled to host David's book release party at our Lion & Pirate open mic and glad to hear a little more about the origins of his book:


I sat on the sofa, window blinds drawn with Savannah in my arms. She was so small, so beautiful. I was so tired. Dead tired. I could barely function. I was depressed, confused, and hungry for help or advice of any kind. Why wouldn’t she eat? Why wouldn’t she sleep? Why wouldn’t she stop screaming for hours… days at a time? I knew she had a significant brain injury because I’d seen the MRI images. I knew she had out-of-control seizures without seeing them etched by an EEG because she jittered and clenched more often than I could count.

David reading to Savannah

I knew the clinical side of the equation. The doctors had described it, labelled, it, and examined it with excruciating detail. What I didn’t know was the human side. I hadn’t met other parents yet. We tried support groups, but neither my wife nor myself had the kind of personality that does well in a support group, so we remained isolated.

I looked for books, but the books people recommended, the best-sellers, so to speak, about disability, dealt with autism, Down syndrome, degenerative diseases, or mental illness. We found a few good books, but they often played it too safe, staying overly positive and inspirational. So, in the back of my mind, a seed was planted. I would write the book I wanted—surely someone else wants it too. I would write a book that dared to tackle the hard questions:

How do you care for someone year after year who won’t get better?

How do you care for yourself when you spend all your time and energy caring for someone else?

How do you deal with the conflicting emotions of grief and relief?

The whole family

I struggled with the manuscript for years. I couldn’t capture Savannah in prose. This vibrant, tenacious little girl who blossomed in her teen years stayed locked away from the reader because I found it impossible to create dialogue with her. Because she was non-verbal, I could only describe her reactions with smiles and eye movements so many times before these scenes became tedious. I abandoned the manuscript. The memoir had become just one more painful failure.

After Savannah passed away, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, her sister (eleven at the time), wrote me a touching letter. I didn’t know how to write her back. In my attempt to share her sister’s story, and my story, in an accessible way, I stumbled upon the idea of adding a visual element… make the book into a graphic novel (a long-form comic book that deals with serious subject matter). Suddenly, the book flowed and Savannah appeared in the pages.

Savannah

And as far as I can tell, there is nothing like it out there. As one reader noted: “this book takes a difficult subject and translates it into an easy to understand format: a beautiful story with simple, compelling drawings. This is NOT a Hallmark Special. If you’re looking for fuzzy inspiration, this is not your book. This is the book that challenges you to think differently, but also envelopes you in love and compassion.”

I have been so pleased by the overwhelming response that I’ve received from the book. Fox 7 ran a feature story, I was interviewed on the One in a Million Baby pod-cast, and had a standing-room-only book release party at Malvern Books with my good friends of the Lion and Pirate.

Click here for more information on the book or to download the first chapter free.

David with graphic novels

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Creativity and Connection

This past Tuesday, Austin Playback Theatre was gracious enough to invite our organization to be the featured nonprofit for the June edition of their Tuesday Night Stories, a monthly improv performance series where all proceeds of each performance benefits a different local nonprofit organization. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Austin Playback Theatre, but I must say I had a really good experience listening to other people’s stories and then seeing those stories expressed through improv.

For any of you unfamiliar with Austin Playback Theatre, it's an improvisational theatre in which the troupe elicits impressions and stories from the audience and then plays them back via improv. The troupe collaborates with the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Grover Street in Austin, who provides a space to perform at no charge so that all donations can go directly to the featured organization.

It was quite an intimate setting. A musician off to the side provided an ambience for each piece performed. Each actor stepped forward, gave their name and a short little story. Then the ensemble acted out the story, giving the audience a flavor of what the night’s improvisations would look like.

Improv actors portraying a story

A representative from VSA Texas gave a brief history of who we are, and then the emcee asked everyone in the audience to think of something we had recently experienced, basically a feel good moment, nothing elaborate, just something that we had connected to during the day. One story related an experience of rain, no power, eating pretzels and cheese, and playing scrabble by a lantern. The ensemble gave their interpretation of the story. It was amazing because I realized that through simply listening to the vignette, they were able to capture the feeling, the nuances of the experience, and relay it to the audience without much to do or say. It was a physical expression of the verbal story.

Improv of story

Several little moments from the audience were shared and played out in the same way, which primed us to share larger stories of how we connect with others through creativity, the theme for this month's performance. Soon, the members of the audience became storytellers: each would share a memory, and through answering brief questions from a moderator, a mini-play evolved.

Improv of story

The ensemble again caught the nuances with minimal activity. Stories were about sorrow and death, kittens, epiphanies of personal discovery, unity in a comical physical condition. The evening ended in a unified creative moment, and what happened was we got to know more about the other audience members. There were intense moments and funny moments, but no pressure to say anything, just observe or share. It was a very safe setting.

Relating a story to the improv facilitator

A little history about improv that I found interesting: unlike the foundations of professional acting, few historical records clearly pinpoint the official beginning of improvisation. To understand the importance of improvisation in a theatrical education, one must look at the first major occurrences of improvisation throughout history. There have been texts created at the moment of performance, referred to as improvisatory presentation, which was likely how the Atellan farce – improvised farces dealing with family problems or poking fun at historical and mythological figures – came to be so popular among Roman citizens. The Atellan farce became a literary genre in the first century B.C.E., as Roman authors began to write down the humorous and unplanned antics that occurred on stage, making the Atellan farce arguably the first well known improv troupe in recorded theatre history.

The improvisational theatre movement in America started in the late 1930s by Viola Spolin. In her twenties, she worked for the WPA as a social worker and “drama supervisor” at Hull House, Jane Addam’s famous settlement house in Chicago. Spolin used traditional children’s games and invented dozens of new games in workshops with immigrants to help empower them to become more spontaneous and less self-conscious and to build a supportive community (her games are collected in her seminal book “Improvisations for the Theater”). This little commentary is only a brief bit of trivia that offers us a window into the long history of improvisation.

Back to Austin Playback Theatre: their goal is to help nonprofits in Austin build community and awareness while raising money and building ties among Austinites who enjoy helping others & creating strong community connections! You can visit Austin Playback Theatre on the web for information on how to get your nonprofit featured in one of their shows.

Thanks again to Austin Playback Theatre for choosing VSA Texas as one of your featured nonprofits!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Celebrating the New Media Arts Semester Long Residency Program

A couple weeks ago I woke up and, as morning routines sometimes tend to go, my son had a meltdown. This one was a little different, though. He was really down on himself and started talking about how many shortcomings he had so I decided to keep him home with me that day. The hang up was that I had a showcase for Crockett High School to attend for work. The mama side of me knew these two did not coincide on accident.

The showcase at Crockett that day was the celebration of the 4 months of work by Ian Fry and his colleague Christina as part of our New Media Arts Semester Long Residency Program. They spent this semester teaching kids freshman aged and up about percussion and ended it with an ensemble performance where parents and teachers as well as other students could attend.

The child of a teacher, Ian told me that he started teaching 25 years ago when he was just 10 years old. He has a performance degree in Jazz and Classical Percussion and a Master of Arts and uses his skills to teach transitioning kids how to connect with music, specifically percussion. Ian is a staple in the VSA Texas family and seeing him interact with his students is something that is truly inspirational. I observed his ability to tune into what they needed individually and that is what a true teacher does. I got to chat with Ian today about his experience at Crockett and I want to share some of that interview with you today for our blog.

Percussion teacher Ian, dressed in black pants and a black shirt, uses a cowbell for rhythm as he warms up for the showcase with his students playing various types of drums.

Why is learning about music so important?
“It’s a shared human experience that we all literally resonate with and enjoy to some degree. It’s part of our life no matter what. I think that you don’t have to be objectively good at an instrument to benefit from it. Making those sounds and vibrations is so important to having a shared language.”

The first day vs. the last day:
“We didn’t know anyone, we had only met the teacher, but I remember them being receptive. It was really cool to walk in and have them be so welcoming. The students seemed so excited to be exposed to a drumming class, I don’t know if they ever had it before or not, but they were super excited, eager and focused. When we left that last day we were part of their family. It was great to, in those 4 short months, really connect with them and see them build their skills.”

What kind of things did you teach them?
“The program has an aspect of music literacy as well as learning rhythms and music by copying things. People tend to learn really well by repetition and in that repetition we ingrain those skills that we want to master. Each class, we ended up going over the same routine and that helped with the retention of knowledge. We learned a lot about Brazilian, Cuban and hip hop styles of percussion. It was all carnival rhythm.”

What was one of the most impactful things you saw through the semester?
“There were two guys that stood out to me. One who was extremely non-verbal and the other one just seemed like he was on the spectrum, verbal but sometimes not very active. What was amazing for us to witness was from the beginning one would take his medication during the day and when he got to the class he was very tired; he’d be napping a little bit but when everyone started playing he would snap out of it and start playing energetically. The other one was super non-verbal, barely ever played at all, but by the end he was playing and not only making noise but playing a really cool triplet pattern that sounded really nice.”

At VSA Texas, our mission is to make art accessible to everyone, no matter their abilities and our program at Crockett did not fall short of fulfilling that mission. I am so glad I got to expose my son to everyone that day because a bad morning was made better by just being there and that is a priceless experience. I can’t wait to see how many more minds we reach by continuing to do what we do!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Connections

Hi VSA Texas friends! This is April, and I have been working hard on our veterans program lately. We have an exciting event planned for June 15th from 6-8 pm at Art979 Gallery, 210 W 26th Street in Bryan, TX.

Invitation for the 2017 Distinguished Artist Veterans Showcase that includes a painting of a gecko by Mary Ishler and a poem called The Desert by Judy Smith.

This will be our 8th annual Distinguished Artist Veterans art exhibit and we have something different planned. This year it is all about connections! We expanded our program in 2015 to include The Re-Integration Project writing classes. Our second publication of writings by veterans is out at the printer now and it is filled with 100 pages of poems, short stories and screenplays.

Cover of The Re-Integration Project publication including an abstract marker drawing by Valerie Short called Everyone’s Dream.

How is this about connections, you ask? Well, we have connected our veteran writers with veteran artists and songwriters by asking the artists and musicians to choose a piece of writing from the book and create a response. The art has been coming in all week to my office and every artist who drops off artwork is excited to tell the story of how their work was inspired by the veteran writers. Denise Knebel was here this morning from San Antonio. She created a painting in response to a short story “Terminal” by Thomas Orlando. In this story a junior officer butts heads with a colonel, but by the end of the story, their relationship becomes one of mutual respect. The connection that the officer makes with the colonel in the beginning of the story comes back around to him in the end. We find a similar storyline in Perry Jefferies “Club-Footed Frankenstein.” As Denise explained it, so much of what happens in the military is about connections between people. She portrayed that in her acrylic on canvas, “Connections…for us all.”

An acrylic painting with many layers including images of figures and planes overlaid by square patterns of purple bars, dripping veins of green and yellow, and circles of gold.

Beyond the art, we are also working with veteran songwriters. As they turn in their songs, I am finding a theme to the music. Most of the songs are soul- or country-influenced and all of them are about love. With titles such as “Tornado of Love” by Glenn Towery or “People Just Need Love” by Rick Milisci, the songs bring about a feeling of love and the connection each of us has with everyone else.

I am telling you, this is going to be a great event! If you can’t make it to Bryan on June 15th, I urge you to take a trip to view the show while it is on display until July 15th. Or visit our website, because I will be posting the writings, songs, and art there soon.

Finally, I want to say, this project would not be possible without funding support from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. In the spirit of connections, I want to share with you a fantastic blog by one of the Peer & Family Support Program mentors that was published on the Reeve Foundation's blog recently. The blog, written by Julie Rodes, describes her journey from being a patient with a new spinal cord injury to her recent acceptance into medical school.

Stay connected!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Horticultural Arts

Hi there. This is Celia and I want to tell you a little bit about a wonderful new program we have added to our weekend classes. In partnership with Mobile Art, this Sunday is the fourth class in a limited series we are calling Horticultural Arts. The classes are part playing with flowers and part healing. Led by organic gardner Mary Kraemer, the experiential workshops explore how flowering plants and their essence influence our lives in ways both seen and unseen. This Sunday, we will learn about taking photographs of plants and flowers and will begin to assemble a photo book. Here are some of my photos taken recently in the Northeast:
Tulips in Spring

Garden of earthly delights

Bleeding Hearts and Lilacs

I am looking forward to improving my technique on Sunday! Classes are only $10 and walk-ins are welcome. I hope to see you there!

And here is Lynn Johnson on her Zen meditation reflection experience:

Hmm. I must say I have been intrigued from the outset, and there are seven more classes coming up with a kaleidoscope of offerings. The one I attended recently was “Flower Gazing Meditation, Mini-Japanese Zen Garden Making, and Learning Basic Meditation,” the latter essentially meaning to breathe and focus for about 3-5 minutes. It was very relaxing just breathing, which for me after all sorts of allergies and bronchitis, is a gift in itself. Mary read different meditation pieces, and we sat quietly and listened. As for the rest of the two hours... I cannot replicate nor remember beyond being in the present Zen moment, and we were all there.

I did notice large plastic jars filled with what appeared to be rice and sand colored dirt, some small plates, a collection of little gardening utensils, and a bowl of rocks. Everyone was asked to pick four rocks, representing different things such as "fresh" and "clear," a wall, and two other items I frankly don’t remember because I was still so focused on breathing, but I really liked my selection of rocks. We held each one in our hand and did a slight meditation holding the thought of the rock we had chosen.

Afterward, we put those aside, and then we got our small plastic bowl, and we chose our dirt to start making our mini-Zen Garden. Loved this process! I chose a dark, reddish dirt that had an interesting smell and tossed my rocks into the dirt very much like the “Chance Dance” that Phillip Glass, the great composer, used to do with modern dancers, playing music as the dancers improvised as they went along. So I chanced the Zen Garden rock throwing, letting the rocks land where they may.

We got our choice of tiny garden tools, (i.e. a rake, trowel, and three-pronged fork). I chose the little rake and proceeded to arrange my little garden as Mary read to us peaceful stories about Zen Gardens and showed us wonderful pictures from famous Zen Gardens. While we were busy tending to our 8” bowls of dirt, we listened to stories about Haiku poetry and how many syllables they contain, and we talked about what each of our rocks meant to us. I chose my clear rock as the pinnacle of my garden, meaning "awake and clear." We then each wrote a Haiku poem. Next we chose our Shinto shrine; mine was a little box with a little roof where I put my poem and a special rock.
My Haiku written in green ink on a white slip of paper:
“Loud bird sweetness sings
Soft wind joyfully flowing
Freedom soul awake”
  My mini-Zen Garden and Shinto shrine: pastel background, miniature blue roof with painted butterfly, tiny rake leaning on the roof and placed on red, gravelly dirt with a clear rock, gold rock, pink stone, and white stone.

A Shinto shrine is a structure whose main purpose is to house one or more Shinto kami. Its most important building is used for the safekeeping of sacred objects and not for worship. Structurally, a shrine is usually characterized by the presence of a honden or sanctuary where the kami, or sacred object(s), are housed. My little Shinto shrine is now on my shelf in my office where it rests beside my mini-Zen Garden, in which I love to create new patterns in the dirt and scatter my rocks wherever they may wander.

There are many more classes to discover here at VSA Texas. These Horticultural Arts classes are available through July 16th. Visit the VSA Texas website or call me to sign up at 512-454-9912. Hey – it’s only $10, and you will never regret you came!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Here's to All the Moms!

With Mother's Day coming up this weekend, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate moms and share what motherhood means to us!

April:
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there! My mother is one of my favorite people in the whole world. She is an artist and a scientist and an explorer of adventures. I grew up with the understanding that I could be anything that I wanted to be. She would tell me she would love me even if I sold pencils on the side of the road. That kind of reassurance made it possible for me to follow my dreams of being an artist and working in the arts. My sisters and I try to spend Mother’s Day with her but it gets harder every year with all of our busy schedules. Plus my sisters are both mothers now too. When we do get together, we try to go to the beach and have a relaxing getaway. This year, because I am so busy this weekend, I took my mom to the beach last weekend. She really wanted to go fishing. So we went to the pier and enjoyed the breeze and she gave it a go. Here is a picture of her fishing. She didn’t catch anything, but she had a great time and I enjoyed my time hanging out with her.


Janelle:
Every day feels like Mother's Day to me. Seeing my son grow and greet the day each morning, tell me about his field trips at school, use new words, discover new things, that's what being a mother is all about. I used to think I cared about presents and such, but what really makes me feel fulfilled is seeing him turn into the person he is supposed to be.
Me and T

Lynn:
It has been 25 years since I last celebrated Mother’s Day with a gift, a smile, maybe a pie, but always a card. My memories are so many: her arched eyebrow when I did something wrong, her hug after scolding me, many long years of her sewing clothes for me, including my wedding dress. Countless meals she made for us all, her attempts at fudge which never quite made it, our hot chocolates after midnight Christmas Eve mass. Clean sheets especially when I had a cold or flu, a cool washcloth for my forehead after crying over some silly boyfriend. Encouraging me to read everything and always providing a copious amount of books to read. Sticking up for me when she felt some teacher had done me wrong. Showing me the world and all the cultures it has to offer. She made a great pound cake and always had a jar of freshly baked cookies when she had the time. She taught me how to shovel sand, sod grass, paint baseboards, make a good cup of coffee. She let me cook at a young age. When she said "no," you knew she meant "no." She didn’t back down much to my chagrin. I could wheedle and whine and exasperate her so, but no always meant no. She was the worst joke teller, so she didn’t tell many jokes. People loved talking with her about all sorts of things – her oncologist who was getting married visited her many times in the hospital seeking advice about his upcoming nuptials. We were so different – she was tall and thin, I am short and not so thin, she had dark hair, I had light hair – but I realize now in so many ways we have become alike. I learned the same love of fairness, equality, and sharing with others. And I'm probably the next worst joke teller after her.
My mom and dad

Eric:
There is a whole lot I could say about my mom, but more than any memory, what comes to mind is how tirelessly she worked to make sure I would have the best life possible. And in addition to being a fierce advocate for me, she also advocated for countless other students with disabilities through her 20+ years of service as a special education teacher. Most of the good things I have in my life I owe to her. I value our close relationship, our ability to laugh at the most absurd and often painful situations, and I still reach for the stars knowing she'll support me each step of the way. Love you, Mom!
At a student awards ceremony with my mom and some seriously long hair

Celia:
My mother has been gone for a very long time. But I often think of her and how she and my father raised my brothers and I to be hard working, caring and honest adults. I recognize Mom in my mannerisms and many of my little sayings about the ironies of life. I wish that she and I could have had more time together because I think she would find satisfaction in her handiwork. Even though, I can still hear her voice telling me to "sit up straight and for goodness sake, cut your hair." Oh Phyllis. I like my long hair as much as I love you. Happy Mothers Day!


What are your favorite mom memories? Please tell us in the comments!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Future of Me

First and foremost, I'd like to wish you all a happy May the Fourth day! May the force be with you as you navigate your Thursday afternoons! In this blog, I want to share with you all what I will be up to now that our grant from the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD), our primary funding source for OMOD, has officially ended:

Social Media. Something I probably enjoy a little too much will now dominate a sizable chunk of my work life. This includes continuing my self-appointed role of "Blog Manager" and also scheduling and publishing our daily Facebook and Twitter posts. I feel honored to fill the role once occupied by Austin Hughes, our previous social media expert. And one final note about all things blog: we are always open to guest contributions to our blog, so if you have a piece about arts and disability or your participation in one of our programs, or would like to write a piece, please contact me and we'll find a space in our blog schedule to publish it!

Open Mic. As my co-worker April Sullivan devotes more time to our expanding Veterans Services and Artworks programs, I will head up the VSA side of the monthly Lion and Pirate Open Mic at Malvern Books, playing the part of co-host alongside Laura Perna of CTD's Pen 2 Paper writing competition, signing up performers as they arrive, and occasionally demo-ing the features of my new power wheelchair (see below). Our next open mic is Saturday, May 20th, 7:00-9:00pm. I hope to see you all there!


VSA Texas @ Library Live! I am excited to announce this quarterly concert series at the Carver Branch will resume this September. My role in this series will be booking the bands, working with the library to schedule show dates and promote the series, and emceeing each show. I cannot be happier to bring this much-needed opportunity to local musicians with disabilities, especially to our open mic regulars looking to step up their live performances. If you yourself are a musician with a disability or if you play in a group with one or more musicians with disabilities, please email me at eric@vsatx.org for an application form!

Michael Tidmore and the Rollers performing at our first Library Live event this past January

OMOD. I could never forget OMOD! OMOD will continue to thrive, albeit in a limited fashion. In addition to promoting our speakers to conference and other event hosts, which we will do through our new website set to go live later this month, we will also hold monthly meetings – much like Toastmasters but OMOD style – in Austin for our speakers to present new stories, get constructive feedback, and seek local speaking opportunities. And, at least once a year, we hope to facilitate our usual six-week writing workshop for new and continuing OMOD speakers followed by a showcase for friends, family, and community members. So be sure to stay tuned for more great events and opportunities from OMOD!

A group photo from our 2nd Annual OMOD Showcase reveals a solid lineup of 16 speakers with a wide range of disabilities; we have more than doubled our pool of trained speakers since then.

And that's about it! I look forward to continuing my journey with VSA Texas and seeing what new creative opportunities I can bring to the disability community in Austin and beyond!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Efficacy of ReWire – Dancing States Movement Technique in Mixed-Ability Populations

I had always looked for a mentor in the dance improvisation world in the USA after graduation from the North Karelia Institute in Finland and then I met Nina Martin. She blew me away with her precise, well-thought practice of improvisational dance. Something that I had missed ever since leaving Finland. I found that all in Nina Martin’s work. Her technique and language for studying dance improvisation is something I strive for.

So, when we at Body Shift were thinking who to bring to teach our intensive in 2014, we all thought that Nina would be perfect, especially since dance improvisation plays a big role in the way we create performances. She would be just the right person to push us to the next level of creating in the moment. Nina was excited but a little hesitant when we asked her. She had never taught mixed-ability groups before and yet we were able to convince her to come. After all, Body Shift would make sure she had everything she needed to feel comfortable and have a successful experience. Nina taught her ReWire – Dancing States and Ensemble Thinking for the first time at that year’s intensive.
Nina Martin explaining ensemble thinking in Body Shift's 2014 intensive
Little did we know, her work had surprising impacts on participants with cerebral palsy. In fact, her “fussy baby” work was changing bodies right before our eyes. It was amazing! Some dancers said their ability to get into a relaxed state and stay there improved. Others said their body alignment and fine motor skills were better. Body Shift honored this life-changing moment and invited Nina to come back to Austin twice more that fall.

I saw Nina again at the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival, which is an amazing dance festival you can find more information about on their Facebook page, in Huntsville in the fall of 2016. She said that she wanted to meet with Body Shift again to conduct a pilot research study on the efficacy of ReWire – Dancing States on people living with cerebral palsy. Of course we jumped at the chance and finished our second weekend of the pilot study at the beginning of April. The results were even more astounding, we were onto something big!

“Living with cerebral palsy is like trying to embrace chaos without a road map. It’s next to impossible sometimes. I’m always fighting against my spasticity pleading with my body to cooperate. My mind and body are forever searching for moments of synchronicity,” said Body Shift dancer Tanya Winters. “Fussy baby and the ReWire work gives me the road map I need to delve into the chaos, explore it, and make sense of it. I am learning that my body can tell me what it needs. I feel empowered and can’t wait to know more. Thank you Nina!”

Nina will present this work at the Body Mind Centering Conference this July in San Marcos. I hope you can join us there!
Dancers participating in Body Shift intensive with Nina Martin

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 info@vsatx.org.

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 lperna@txdisabilities.org!"
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!