Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Importance of Creativity at Work

I’m attending an online conference this week about being a professional fundraiser and one of the things that surprised me most yesterday was the nearly 2 hours they devoted to creativity at work. We know how vital “play time” is for kids, but as adults, do we REALLY need to take a break every now and then for ourselves?

The answer is YES. Much in the same way that doctors recommend you get up every hour to stretch your legs, taking a break to do something as small as doodle for 5 minutes can break up monotony in the day and reset your brain. Now, I am lucky enough to work for an arts organization so opportunities arise where I at times get to spend an entire afternoon making posters or paper flowers for an event. Sometimes I get to make videos and interview artists, then write about them. Sometimes I get to write for this awesome blog. I will tell you now that all of those opportunities make me better at my job on a daily basis.

You don’t have to work for an arts organization to get a creative break, though. Take a picture of something you saw outside with your phone. In between phone calls, make up a silly rhyme and write it down. Doodle your name in block letters or draw a flower. Do something that feels a little fun and you will be amazed at how much more productive you can be.

Today, I’ve decided that my creative outlet was making this little headpiece for my dog Maisie’s FIRST birthday! She was found on the streets of San Antonio last summer and made the move to VSA Texas with me soon after I brought her home. What a year it has been for this little pup!
Maisie, a dog with brown two tone fur, celebrates her birthday with a red paper flower her mom made for her behind her ear. She is not happy about it.

This is how art plays into a successful society. The very things that we reward ourselves with are actually helping us. Sort of like when our parents sent us to the swimming pool when we were little. We thought it was because we had been good while they knew it would allow us to get exercise without realizing it (and it got us out of their hair, too). Just because something is fun doesn’t mean it isn’t good for your well-being.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Telling Our Stories

We have been hosting a series of Digital Storytelling classes this spring called “It’s My Story” for young adults with disabilities ages 16-22. So far we have had an introductory class taught by our UT work-study student Adrianna Matthews, a stop motion animation class taught by Johnny Villarreal of The Edge of Imagination Station, and a theater/improv class taught by Dana Sayre. All three classes were small, with six students in each. I think small was okay in this case because the students were expressing their own stories, so having an intimate and safe space was a good thing.

In the Introduction to Digital Storytelling class, we learned three different computer programs: Voki, Slidestory, and GoAnimate. All three programs were fun and different. Adrianna wrote about her experience teaching this class in her blog It's My Story: February 2017. After the class, she reflected that “each one of the students in the It's My Story class had powerful unique stories and journeys to share. Their creativity and knowledge both inspired and amazed me as both a teacher and an artist.”

The next class was Video Storytelling over Spring Break. In four days, our team of students, led by Dana, identified a theme, chose characters and settings, created backdrops, brought in props and costumes, improvised scenes, wrote a script, and then acted out the scenes, which were edited into a movie.
It’s My Story students Sydney and Christian review their lines with instructor Dana.
I was amazed by the teamwork of this group. No one tried to take over with their own ideas of how to create this final movie. They seamlessly blended their ideas to create "Music is Good," an 18-minute movie that touches on the subjects of alcoholism, mental health challenges, and morality with a cast that included a drifter, a ghost, a priest, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, a guy named Ben, and his fairy. All of the students stepped into their roles with enthusiasm and their final product shows that. I encourage you to take the time to watch "Music is Good" on our YouTube channel or below:

Finally, we have also been working with our longtime friend Johnny Villarreal to bring his stop motion animation skills to a select group of students from the AISD GO Project. The students visited Johnny in his studio once a week and created short animated films with topics ranging from the environment to fairy tales to new endings to classic video games. See the GO Project students' animated videos on our YouTube channel here.
Tobin takes in the applause after playing his animation at the showcase, while Johnny pushes play to show it again.
Our next It’s My Story class is Digital Storytelling through Stop Motion Animation with Johnny Villarreal. So if you liked what you saw from our GO Project students, think about signing up for this class coming up on Saturdays in May. Details about all of our upcoming classes can be found on our website here.

Happy Storytelling!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

VSA Texas Unsung Heroine of the Week: Theresa Bond Zelazny

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

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

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

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

For more information about the Mobile Art Program, contact

Thursday, March 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

Celebrating 100 Blogs in 100 Words and Pictures

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

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

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

Adventures in OMOD

Remembering the tremendous work of Actual Lives Austin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Body Shift: What is a Dance Jam?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Teaching Artist Nilea Parvin Talks About Her First Assignment with VSA Texas

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of our longest running teaching artists at VSA Texas. Nilea Parvin, an Arkansas native, has been teaching with VSA Texas for over 10 years now. She came to us after a car accident left her with a traumatic brain injury and the uncertainty of whether or not she would ever teach again. After learning about us, she found her way back in to the classroom and the rest is history.

One of the first things you notice about Nilea is her ability to tell a story. Not only do you feel like you were there, but you feel like you were part of its magic. She brings out the very core of whoever she talks to and had me crying less than 5 minutes into our interview. To hear her tell the story of VSA Texas is to truly capture what it is we do here. We make people feel included, worthy and able. We give them guidance to become who they are.

After two days of wading through more than 30 minutes of video that I tried to cut down to less than 1 minute, I kept coming back to this particular chunk of our time together. When I got here this morning, I knew I had to scrap all my work and share this story. It is real and raw and beautiful. Please forgive the length, but there are some stories that cannot be told in less than a minute.

When people ask me why I do what I do, I'd like to show them this video and remind them that THIS is why I come in every day. If I can somehow touch one single life the way Nilea touched this young woman's, then that's a life well-lived.

Friday, February 24, 2017

It’s My Story: February 2017

Hello, my name is Adrianna Matthews. I am a VSA Texas Work Study Student/Project Assistant. I was first introduced to VSA Texas last April through discussing my interest in learning more about disability and art with the Executive Director of the organization, Ms. Celia Hughes. That very same day, I signed up for an Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD) six-week workshop with Chris Strickling. To make a long story short, I fell in love with this organization and its dedication and commitment to promote both art and disability in the most positive ways ever. I immediately knew that this was a place where I wanted to work. The stories created in the 2016 OMOD workshop were so inspiring that I could not leave without at least trying to get my foot one step closer to being part of VSA Texas.
Photo from the second week of our It's My Story workshop shows students working on digital stories.
Now here we are in February 2017 and I just finished teaching the It’s My Story: Introduction to Digital Storytelling three-week workshop. It’s a privilege for me to go from student to teacher and have my first real experience doing something that promotes disability rights and at the same time connects to art and storytelling, the two things I love most in this world. The students I worked with, along with the volunteers and Artworks Director April Sullivan, made this journey magical for me. They brought so much life and energy to our digital storytelling community. I am so grateful for the opportunity to engage with each and every one of them.
Another photo from the second week shows the class gathered in a circle and sharing responses to the writing prompts in preparation for making digital stories using the Slidestory application.
The first week I taught the students the basics of creating a digital story as well as the steps necessary to make the story compelling and complete. After going over the digital storytelling process, the students were each assigned a partner to work with in completing a selection of nine interview questions. This gave the students an opportunity to learn about each other as well as practice how they can tell someone else’s story through an interview process.
Pearl working on her GoAnimate video in the third week of the It's My Story workshop
Once the students finished their interviews, they took a few moments to go around a circle and share what they had learned about each other. The next goal was to have each of the students choose one of the questions they had answered about themselves and turn it into a full story. Once the students finished writing their stories, they learned their first digital story application called Voki, which is an educational technology with a free collection of customized speaking avatars. The goal in using this application was for the students to take their stories and create their own personal avatars to tell these stories. During the next two weeks, the students used similar creative writing prompts and produced more digital stories using other applications, including Slidestory and GoAnimate. Take a look at two sample digital stories made using Voki and GoAnimate below.

Click here to see Marielle's Voki.

Watch Sydney's "Deciding" story made with GoAnimate below:

If you want to create your own digital stories, then I strongly encourage you to register for one of our next It's My Story digital storytelling workshops! You can find out more information about the It's My Story program here. Don’t miss your chance to create some dynamic digital stories!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Love is in the Air!

I find myself watching young lovers, but I really like to witness the reciprocated love that has weathered the test of time. I love how couples take care of each other. I wonder at the secrets they hold close.

This is the one day of the year when we celebrate all the love that surrounds us; that keeps us going when we are sad and makes us feel like we can reach for the stars… and put one into our pocket.

But I really can’t speak to love – unless it is the unconditional love of a pet – and I even question the “unconditional” part once in awhile. So, instead, here are two love stories from good friends of VSA Texas:
A tractor-trailer jack-knives on a snowy freeway, as seen from a rearview mirror.
The first one is from David Dauber, former cast member and director of Actual Lives Austin:

As I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the jack-knifing eighteen wheeler crashing across all three lanes of the highway like a flipper in a pinball machine, I wondered if love was truly worth this trip. Terri and I had been together for ten months, and I was headed from Fort Worth to Austin for another weekend of euphoric love. Love that could not be denied or even put on hold. This weekend was our first Valentine’s Day together, and not even an ice-covered, snow blanketed road was going to keep me from making the trip to Austin for the romantic dinner I reserved months ago at Cool River with my love.

We had both discussed our lonely Valentine’s Days of previous years. It had only been a year ago that I sat safely at home with a combo burrito from Taco Bell, Lord of the Rings 3 on my TV, and a longing for more in my life. This year I was on an adventure of my own, and nothing was going to stop me from seeing “my precious,” Terri.
David and Terri, pose before a snowy forest backdrop with their son, Denver.
As we celebrate our fourteenth Valentine’s Day, our love for one another continues to grow. While a steak dinner at a cozy table for two has transformed to ordering a heart-shaped pizza at home and listening to our son scream demands for more Kindle time just to watch another Minecraft YouTube video, I wouldn’t change any of it. I’m no longer alone. We are loved by my Kansas friends that stop by to visit us as they drive through Texas on their family vacations. We are loved by our family church friends that we made together years ago. Terri’s friends she first made in Actual Lives love us by showing, that even in death, we are never alone and that circles are multipliable.

Once we have true love, our circles connect. Once those circles are connected, they form the symbol of infinity. The infinite love that Terri and I share make every bit of it worth the trip. Happy Valentine’s Day, Terri. I love you.

And here is David Chapple, OMOD speaker, on the strength of true love:

In 1997 I met my future wife Kate at the Pittsburgh Employment Conference (PEC) for augmentative communicators. I was from Ohio and she was from Texas. Our eyes met and we just knew, it was love at first sight. But unfortunately Kate was in a relationship, so I had to hold back my feelings. We spent our time together throughout the conference and even took a romantic stroll to see the fireworks over the city. We almost kissed that night, but our feelings had to remain unrevealed for the time being.
Throughout the years, Kate and I kept in contact and we saw each other again at the same conference now and then. However, one day in 2011, Kate wrote to me on Facebook and said she had left her husband, and gave me her phone number. I could not believe it and said to myself, “What the hell?” I texted her right away and we finally revealed our feelings for each other that were denied all those years ago.

So we decided to have a date at the conference in Pittsburgh. We had a wonderful dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack. After dinner we went off alone and we finally got that long awaited kiss. Fireworks went off, the symphony started to play, and lightning struck, when we kissed. I knew right then I wanted to be with Kate, and she felt the same way!!! Over the next few months our relationship grew, we could not bear being apart. After some deep conversations with my family, friends and Kate; I decided to move to Austin. Every August 4th we go to Joe’s Crab Shack to celebrate our anniversary. But the 4th of August 2015 was very special because Kate and I got married at Joe’s Crab Shack.
Dave and Kate pose for a photo.
These two Davids have fought the odds that society has placed against them finding true love and have proven that their pockets are full of stars.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Is Art Really a Waste of Money?

Way back in 1965, the United States Congress decided that there should be a federal, independent agency whose “funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” This is how the National Endowment for the Arts came to be. There is a reason VSA Texas and the National Endowment for the Arts work so well together; through our missions, we strive to make art an important part of life that reaches across all lines. I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about defunding one of the only federal agencies I like, and it’s just not something I can understand. Is art really a waste of money?

For the last ten years, the NEA has funded some of our most groundbreaking work. Our first grant from them allowed us to put together a strategic plan that paved the way for us to bring Accessible Arts, an art therapy program, into schools. This was the first validation of the quality of work we were doing.
Photo of cast and crew from “Daze of Our Lives,” onstage after a 2008 performance at the LBJ Performing Arts Center
This led to another year that allowed us to hire a choreographer and director for our Actual Lives Company. Up to that point, we were mostly doing stretching and movement on stage. Now, we were able to bring in a dance element, and from this, we created our program Body Shift.

“I continue to be amazed at the transformative impact Celia Hughes and VSA Texas have had on the central Texas dance community. What started as a few annual classes has grown into a dance community comprised of people of all abilities, and this supportive Body Shift community could not have existed without the efforts of Celia and her team. I’m humbled by their endless work towards increasing access to the arts for all people, and I’m proud to partner with them for another season of Body Shift.” - Allison Orr, Artistic Director, Forklift Danceworks

The next year, with the success of the previous two grants, we were able to bring in Alito Alessi, founder of Danceability International, to do a 10-day teacher orientation and workshop to introduce his method to our Body Shift Mixed Ability Dance Community. From that, we were then able to raise our own funds to bring him back for a month to train twenty-eight teachers from all over the United States and Mexico. We are very proud to be the first city in the US to host this full-on Danceability Teacher Certification training program in ten years!
Three women in blue t-shirts engage in dance with a woman in a pink shirt in a wheelchair and a man in a red shirt, who is also in a wheelchair.
This year, we are bringing in StopGap Dance Company, a premier mixed ability dance company out of the United Kingdom. They will be devising a new site-specific performance with dancers from the Body Shift community to be seen in Austin in early August 2017.
I’m telling you all of this because through four small grants, the NEA has provided the VSA Texas family with some of the most valuable programs we run and they have directly been responsible for the improvement of well over 5,000 lives. VSA Texas is proof that you don’t have to have a lot of money to make a HUGE impact, not to mention a pretty solid return on investment, considering how much we were able to do with around $10,000 per grant.

We need to change the rhetoric that the arts are a dispensable commodity, rather than a crucial part of the very fabric our humanity is built upon. If you don’t want to see the arts go away in your lifetime, then say something about it. Make your voice heard. Support a local arts organization, buy from a local artist, employ artists and pay them what they’re worth. We can’t control national funding, but we can support people in our own backyards. It’s time to get creative.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Body Shift: Year in Review and February Elements Teacher Profiles

Hello, friends! Olivia O'Hare, Body Shift Project Coordinator, speaking to you from the VSA Texas offices. 2016 was an amazing year for the development and expansion of Body Shift's programming. We began offering the Elements class twice a month, got the choreography lab under way, and had a variety of performances around town as well as guest artist Heidi Latsky's movement installation, On Display, in honor of the International Day of People with Disabilities. There is no sign of things slowing down in 2017! In additon to our on-going classes we are happy to share that Nina Martin will return to work with us in March and April. We will also be hosting StopGap Dance Company from England for a two week residency in the end of July! For more information and updates about the calendar of events, please check out our new and improved Body Shift website here.

One of the things we hope for in the new year is that you will consider coming to dance with us in our all level, all abilities dance improvisation class Elements in which we practice the DanceAbility method (click here for more information about our Elements class). Classes have grown since this time last year but we still have plenty of room for more of you all to join us. No dance experience, no problem. Professional dancer? I encourage you to join us as well. The cool thing about the DanceAbility method is that the more diverse the group, the more effective and enriching the experience is for everyone involved. We hope for a broad spectrum of abilities and backgrounds to come together to dance and have fun. Instead of imitating prescribed movements, improvisation offers the opportunity to discover the full potential of your body, as you are.

Since Body Shift hosted the month long, 150 hour DanceAbility teacher certification course back in 2015, we now have an awesome team of instructors in rotation to teach the Elements class. Included below is a little more info about the folks who will be co-teaching on February 11th and 25th – save those dates 'cause Errin and Dany always teach an awesome class!

Errin, Andy (Townlake YMCA employee) and Dany together after the Body Shift informance at the YMCA Abilities Expo

Teacher Profile – Errin Delperdang

Errin always knew she wanted to dance and, at the age of 5, she finally convinced her parents to sign her up for classes. She studied and performed ballet, tap and jazz throughout her childhood and teenage years and decided to pursue dance at the collegiate level after high school. In 2003 Errin graduated from UT with a BFA in dance. After school she moved to New York and worked with many inspiring dancers, choreographers, musicians and artists. Errin returned to Austin in 2009 and began making work. Her choreography has been produced by Fusebox Festival, Ready Set Go!, Co-lab, Dance Umbrella and others. In addition to her artistic endeavors, Errin began taking classes taught by DanceAbility trained teachers Olivia O’Hare and Silva Laukkanen. She became interested in the improvisational techniques and the unique movement generated in these classes so when the opportunity to become certified in the DanceAbility method arose, she signed up and became a teacher herself.

Learning the DanceAbility method and dancing with Body Shift consistently opens up new possibilities for movement that Errin didn’t know existed. The experience of dancing with a diverse group of movers is empowering and educational. Errin is constantly amazed by the ability of dance to connect people with one another in a unique and meaningful way. Errin also teaches Pilates and is fascinated by human movement potential in many applications. Body Shift is different in that there is no prescribed or codified movement, as there is with Pilates and most other forms of dance. There are no steps to learn or a “correct” form. All movement is appreciated and included, allowing for creativity to be the guiding principle.

The next endeavor for Errin is to become a physical therapist. In June she starts the physical therapy doctoral program at Texas State University. Her goal is to bring the benefits of improvisational movement to a physical therapy practice in the hopes of helping people achieve their full movement potential. When she isn’t dancing, teaching or studying, Errin loves to see live performance, take her dog on greenbelt hikes and go camping when she can get away.

Tanya Winters, Errin and Dany in rehearsal for last summer's Body Shift performance directed by Olivia O'Hare, "Your Way of Thinking"

Teacher Profile – Dany Casey

Dany Casey loves to dance. She earned her B.A. in Dance from the New School University (NYC) and bounced around the country before landing here in Austin. After starting a job at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), she became wildly interested in accessibility and the unique perspectives and experiences gained by a diverse and inclusive population. By chance, a few months after starting that job, a DanceAbility teacher training came to Austin. It was the perfect marriage of movement, inclusion, collaboration, creativity, and teaching. Dany loves to persistently explore new possibilities with others, which is a cornerstone in the DanceAbility method. She has found that through working in groups where there is sensory diversity, one can open doors of perception that would otherwise be invisible.

In addition to working at TSBVI and working with Body Shift, Dany is also pursuing her Sign Language Interpreter Certification through Austin Community College (ACC). It is another lens through which to approach accessibility, and she has immensely enjoyed interacting in the Deaf Community (which is totally CHAMP here in Austin!). She has a particular interest in working with the Deaf-Blind community.

When she is not being delighted by her students or signing in an interpreting class, you might find her tending to her army of plants or throwing a stick for her pup. She looks forward to dancing with you!

Dany, Errin and Susie Angel performing in last summer's Body Shift performance directed by Olivia O'Hare, "Your Way of Thinking"

If you are new to dance or perhaps have always loved to dance but are interested in a new way of moving, the Elements class is for you. Come shift your perspective! Every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month at the Townlake YMCA in Austin from 2:30-4:30 PM. Cost is on a sliding scale of $5-$20 and no membership to the Y is required.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Library Live!

Hey friends! Eric here, and I'm excited to tell you all about a concert we have organized with Austin Public Library (APL). It is a special edition of Library Live, an APL program that brings free musical performances to the Austin community, and this one will specifically highlight acts that feature musicians with disabilities. The concert will be held tomorrow, Saturday, January 28th, from 2:00-4:00 PM at the Carver Branch (1161 Angelina St., Austin, TX 78702).

This concert idea organically grew from a number of inspirations, mainly from my own experiences as an aspiring musician living with a physical disability and frequently struggling in an industry that is largely inaccessible. Just take a ride through the city of Austin, the live music capital of the world, and count the number of wheelchair-accessible stages. You would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful, and those you would find would be stages designed primarily for other mediums (think school theaters), or they may not be stages at all (bookstores) – certainly not where average Austinites typically gather for live music.

Even if the venue is accessible, shows are often so late that those of us who require attendant care or a full night of sleep to physically function simply cannot attend or perform with the regularity needed to truly progress. And beyond the mere inaccessibility, the music industry is so frequently centered around a singular ideal body image and flashy displays of vocal range and instrument prowess (can you tell I listen to punk rock much?) that someone who plays with extreme physical limitations must work twice or three times as hard to compete.

For these reasons and others, I have long wanted to bring opportunities to musicians with disabilities, not just to benefit myself but others like me, because I have recognized through my work with VSA Texas in addition to my own experience that I'm not the only one who has this dream to share music with my community. So when Andrew Murphy from the APL attended our Lion and Pirate open mic at Malvern Books and mentioned that maybe I could play a song or two at the library, I jumped at the chance to share my own music and also include peers and friends I have gotten to know through our open mic and other VSA Texas programs.

All right, enough about me! Let me tell you about the musicians you can look forward to seeing tomorrow:

Michael Noriega will open the show, and he is a versatile artist who dabbles not only in music but also in film. He participated in our 2015 Side by Side Film Internship, and his recent '60s- and '70s- inspired concept album was featured in our 2016 Holiday Art and Gift Show. You can stream his album and check out some of his film work on Michael Noriega's YouTube channel here.
Michael Noriega playing at our Holiday Art and Gift Show (courtesy of VSA Texas)
Our second act will be Michael Tidmore and the Rollers, a country group with assorted covers from the likes of Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash as well as originals written by Michael Tidmore you'd be surprised you haven't heard on the radio, songs with classic titles like "I Want to be a Famous Country Singer" and "Torn Between Tennessee and Texas." His Rollers include Josh Tidmore, Matt Bushak, Rudy Sanchez, and Meredith Gaines. I first met Michael during one of our Side by Side Music Internships and have seen him deliver a number of heartfelt, energetic performances at the Lion and the Pirate.
 Meredith Gaines, Michael Tidmore, and I on the air at KOOP radio (courtesy of Austin Artists) 
Lion and Pirate regulars The Old Hats will play third and bring frontman John Meinkowsky's witty songwriting to life with acoustic guitar and ever-present harmonica provided by Southernmost Smoke. They all wear hats, and as their name suggests, they are all over the hill. Expect audience participation!

Then, last but hopefully not least, Dude Choir, my own group of rotating musical characters, will play, and I am extremely happy to once again be playing with the original choir members Ryan Simmons and Felipe Archer! They not only make my music possible; they are the reason I make music. We haven't had the opportunity to play together since April of 2014, so I look forward to this reunion and I hope you will too.

For more information about the show and/or to RSVP (if you're into that sort of thing), you can visit our Library Live Facebook event page here. Otherwise, we'll see you there!
Flyer for Library Live show, January 28th, 2017, 2 PM, at the Carver Branch (courtesy of Austin Public Library)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Calling All Creative Veterans!

Hi blog readers! April Sullivan here to tell you about all the exciting work we have been doing with our creative veterans and what we have coming up.

Our awesome writing instructors Cecily Sailer and Stephanie Whallon taught more writing classes at the end of 2016. Cecily was at our VSA Texas classroom and Stephanie went out into the community and taught her class at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic. In the final class, the writers visited the Blanton Museum of Art to get inspiration from the visual art. I heard from the VA staff that “on the way back to the VA the Veterans couldn’t stop talking about how much they have loved the writing class and the trip to the Blanton.” It was a great partnership and we look forward to more opportunities at our local VA.
A photo of Stephanie and the VA Writing Class students at the Blanton Museum of Art
We have another writing class starting January 22nd and a few spots left if you are a veteran interested in giving it a try! This six-week class will take you on a tour of genres and give writers of all levels (beginners too) practice in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Contact me if you are interested. Here is a poem by one of the writers:

Guardians of Liberty

Until the last cadence is finally called
I am a soldier undaunted that is all
Until every lost Brother and Sister come home
With every beat of my heart their souls live on
Standing ready for the call at dangers gate
rest assured for that moment we all wait
Sleep sound my country and without fear
For our sacrifice please never shed one tear
For this path we march, our gift to you
The danger and cost we already knew
With vigilance we ensure the path ahead is clear
For freedom we stand United Far and Near
Countless Brothers and Sisters stand just like me
Protecting Freedom with Blood, Guardians of Liberty

Kris Shoults 
United States Air Force 1988-1992

Are you wondering what our plans are for all of these creative writing pieces? Well, we have big plans! These works of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction will be part of a large event this summer that will include visual artists and musicians as well as writers. We are currently looking for Texas veterans who are visual artists and also those who are songwriters or musicians to submit to our call for art and our call for songwriters. We are looking for artistic and musical veterans to create a work of art or write a song based on the writings. These writings, songs, and visual art pieces will come together in a publication, CD, and live event at the Art979 Gallery in Bryan, TX in June/July 2017.

If you are a veteran visual artist or musician interested in being a part of this event, please contact me about the call for art or the call for songs, or see the Veterans Page on our website.

And if you want some inspiration, come hear the Veteran Writers read their works at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic on Saturday, January 21st from 7-8:30 PM at Malvern Books.
Perry Jefferies, US Army Veteran, reading at our Open Mic

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Theater Accessibility

Originally posted December 7, 2016 at Reposted with permission.

Nicole Cortichiato, VSA Texas
Renee Lopez, VSA Texas
Laura Perna, CTD

Last month, a group of us went to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical at ZACH Theater. We had a great time and appreciated that the theater was fully accessible. It got us thinking- what makes for a good experience at a movie, show, or concert as a person with a disability? Here are some of the things that came up:

Laura (LP): How was accessibility at ZACH Theater? Was there anything that needed improvement?

Nicole (NC): I am not a person that uses a wheelchair. However, my boyfriend does, and that makes me super aware of space when going to theaters or restaurants. I felt ZACH did a good job of keeping the lobby clear for wheelchair users. There were tables and chairs set up for patrons to sit and have drinks and there was room on each side of the tables for a wheelchair user to roll past.

Renee (RL): As a person in a wheelchair, I find the Zach Scott theater to be very accessible. However, there are only 4 wheelchair spaces available, 2 on the east and 2 in the west areas. Ordinarily, this works fine, however, if a group of people with disabilities were to attend with more than 4 people in wheelchairs, this could be a problem for the theater to accommodate.

The restroom is a disabled person’s dream. It is very accessible, as are the faucets and hand towel dispensers. I found the lowered water fountain for wheelchair access has very little water coming out of it; I had to stand up to drink from the higher water fountain, which has a good flow.

I also found accessible parking to be a problem. Within the circular parking lot, there are 2, maybe 3 spots. When those spaces are taken, the theater accommodates by allowing patrons to park along the sidewalk or on the side. The problem with this is when you have a van with a deployable ramp, you risk getting hit by a car. I also noticed the valet parked a car in front of a ramp. I informed the valet who then said they were told it was ok because there’s another ramp than can be used.

LP: Have you had negative experiences at other theaters? What do you wish theater managers or other theater patrons knew about access?

NC: I personally have not, but I have witnessed my boyfriend’s discomfort, which of course makes me uncomfortable. There have been inaccessible theaters where they have placed him in front of all the seating and essentially on stage. Other times the space for wheelchair seating has been so tight that a second wheelchair user wouldn’t have fit.

RL: I do find that in smaller theaters, such as one of the smaller theaters at Zach Scott, a person in a wheelchair has no choice but sit up front, practically onstage. This makes for an uncomfortable experience, for me, because I’m often worried the actors will back into me or trip over me.

Recently, I was at the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center for a play, and the theater managers had trouble finding a ‘good spot’ to put me. If they put me here, I would block the actors' entrance; if they put me there, I would block something else. Eventually, I was placed near a prop, which had me worried, again, that an actor would trip over me. The manager then said he would just let the actors know to be careful in the area where I was. They did and there was no incident but when I go to see a play, I go for just that, to see a play – not be part of the play. I would recommend theaters have a ‘cut-out section’ that a wheelchair user could back into.

LP: Priscilla had a ton of extravagant costumes (above, with Jennifer, Nicole, Laura, and Renee) and dance numbers! Is there a way a blind person could enjoy this show?

NC: There is. It’s called audio description and you can get trained to do audio description or have audio description provided by VSA Texas. You can learn more about that by speaking with Lynn Johnson at VSA Texas.

RL: VSA has an incredible audio description service.

LP: And what about deaf patrons – even if there were captions, could they still get the full experience without hearing the music?

RL: I believe so. Although this particular show did not have it, I’ve been to other shows, such as operas, that provide captions. Although I am not deaf (sometimes hard of hearing when my allergies are bad) I myself often appreciate the captions.

LP: The show we went to wasn't specifically "sensory friendly," but I've seen ones that are. What does that mean?

NC: If by sensory you mean no flashing lights for people with epilepsy or allowing talking for people like autism then I’ll have to say I’ve never been to a show like that but I’m sure it can be done.

LP: So it's the end of an amazing show (like Priscilla), time for the standing ovation. Is it rude to stand if you're sitting next to a wheelchair user?

NC: I would say yes. I hadn’t thought about it before but if you are sitting in front of a wheelchair user and know it or if you are sitting beside someone in a wheelchair you are blocking their view. Maybe there is even a different way to show a standing ovation so that everyone could be involved. Like handing out those small blow horns or some other musical instrument. That is something to think about for sure.

RL: No, I don’t think it’s rude at all. I have been with people/companions, who feel obligated to remain seated with me, however, I encourage them to stand up and enjoy the ovation, plus they can see and tell me what’s going on. I can usually tell when the main players come on stage by the loudness of the cheers. There have been a few times that patrons in front of a ‘wheelchair section’ realize they are blocking our view and will remain seated but then they can’t see. There have been many times that I just move over to the top of the stairs just to see but this could be dangerous. Plus, many patrons start exiting during the ovation and you have to move anyway to let them by. The solution I think, is to have the wheelchair accessible section on a small platform that would raise them a little higher than the row in front of them.

What are your thoughts about theater accessibility? What makes the theater accessible to you as a person with or without a disability? Tell us in the comments below!