Thursday, August 9, 2018

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

Hey Artists (and Shoppers!),

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Land and Sea at Moody Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Happy Birthday, ADA!

Today the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 28! This day is always a big celebration for me because it serves as a reminder of the incredible accomplishments of the disability rights movement, and although we are frequently ignored and left out of wider discussions of civil rights, the ADA validates our identity as a minority group. And, coincidentally, this day doubles as my anniversary with my partner who also has a disability, the significance of which is not lost on me. For on one hand, our lives, our successes, even our relationship owes gratitude to the civil rights the ADA has granted us, while on the other, our inability to get married without losing vital services reflects how much work still lies ahead of us as a social movement. And really, the penalties endured by people with disabilities who seek marriage are just one of the many social challenges we face – any person with a disability can tell you of struggles with healthcare, low caregiver wages, housing, and even areas the ADA was passed to address, like employment and accessibility.

Iconic image of activists crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building in support of the ADA
(Photo courtesy of Tom Olin/Disability History Museum)

For many, the ADA conjures the image of disabled activists ditching their wheelchairs to crawl up the Capitol steps or George Bush, Sr. signing the bill into law while surrounded by the parents of the ADA on the White House lawn. For me, it brings to mind the songs, the slogans, the battle cries, the poems, the stories. So perhaps it is fitting I find myself working in the arts wing of the movement where we fight to ensure everyone has the right and the opportunity to express themselves creatively, to tell their stories in whatever medium serves them best. And art is one of the most effective ways to break down social stigmas and bridge connections with those who see only a wall of difference, to move hearts when minds have closed. The disability rights movement calls for action of all kinds, and art is one of them.

President George H.W. Bush signing the ADA into law on the White House lawn. Surrounding him are disability advocates Rev. Harold Wilke, Evan Kemp, Sandra Parrino, and Justin Dart Jr.
(Photo courtesy of George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

So if you are still seeking your role in the movement, maybe give the arts a try. Or even if you find direct action like the Capitol Crawl or civil disobedience to be most rewarding, you can view the arts as another set of tools to add to your activist toolkit. Whatever path you choose, we hope you have a lovely ADA Anniversary! Be proud of the hard-fought accomplishments of the disability rights movement and keep up the great work our previous generations began. And if you live in Austin, we hope you can join us as we celebrate the ADA at our Opening Minds, Opening Doors Speaking Advocates group this Saturday, July 28th, 1-3 PM and continue the tradition of storytelling to effect change. Happy ADA!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Five Tips For Supporting Students With Disabilities in Classroom Settings

Hello, my name is Adrianna Matthews. I am a former VSA Texas Work Study Student and Project Assistant. I was first introduced to VSA Texas in April 2016 through discussing my interest in disability and art with Celia Hughes. Shortly after that conversation I got involved with VSA Texas and began to think more about student-teacher relationships in terms of working together to accommodate students with disabilities in a classroom space.

Photo of me working with students in our It's My Story Workshop

My first experience teaching students with disabilities was facilitating VSA Texas’ It's My Story Digital Storytelling Workshop of February 2017. This was also the first time I worked as a teacher who identified as a person with a disability, so at times, it became quite challenging to balance my personal needs with my students’ needs. Nonetheless, I quickly learned how to accommodate both my students and myself.

It is important to make sure students with disabilities receive their accommodations so that they feel supported and can work and engage effectively in their academic abilities. I know this from my own experience in graduate school. I have also witnessed how unsuccessful students with disabilities can be and feel when they are not accommodated.

Circle of students and volunteers sharing stories in It's My Story Workshop

When creating the curriculum I was more prepared to work with individuals with visual impairments than any other types of disabilities. This was because I have a visual impairment myself, and so I tend to focus more on how visual limitations may impact academic success than anything else. This became especially apparent in working with a deaf student in the workshop. I assumed that since I had two ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters I was prepared as a facilitator to effectively engage with this particular student. However, what I didn’t realize is that ASL interpreters tend to sign with clients across the room. So when I initially tried to help the student complete her assignment, I accidentally stood in the way of her ASL interpreter! I was actually just trying to get closer to her computer screen to read her work because my visual impairment means I can only read things up close. Through this experience, I realized I had to be more conscious of how I positioned my body when interacting with this student so that both of our needs could be met. But I probably could have avoided this mistake had I done more research on working with students with different disabilities and learned effective strategies to better engage with them.

That is just one of the many lessons I have learned through my experience teaching students with disabilities. Here are some other tips that can help teachers work more effectively with their students:
  1. Always acknowledge students’ accommodations.
  2. Provide training for teachers, aides, and assistants to effectively and inclusively work with their students with disabilities.
  3. See the student first and the disability second, but acknowledge the disability and the students’ needs.
  4. Encourage students with disabilities to move past their challenges and achieve their academic goals.
  5. Teach students without disabilities how to effectively work with and support their fellow classmates with disabilities.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Audio Description in St. Louis

This week I had the opportunity to hang out with over 200 of the hardest working animals in the country.  That’s right – guide dogs for people who are blind. I was at the annual convention for the American Council of the Blind (ACB) in St. Louis, attending the Audio Description (AD) track.

A view from downtown of the St. Louis Arch, which frames the dome of the State Capitol building

It was three days of knowledge-packed presentations and discussions, where the most talked about topic was the upcoming ACB initiative to develop a national certification process for describers. They have contracted with the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals to develop this process, and will be convening individuals to form a subject content committee to work with them by September of this year. It will be a lengthy process in order to develop the best certification standards and exam, so stay tuned as they are just getting started.

One aisle of the conference exhibiters, filled with customers and smiling dogs

The conference convened on July 1st, which coincidently was the day that audio description in the top nine broadcast areas in the country increased from 50 to 87.5 hours per week, although several broadcasters already exceed this number. Kudos to them! Representatives from Amazon and Comcast were there to talk about the latest developments in content delivery. With the new digital technology and hundreds of channels and content providers, in order to get AD on your TV, you have to turn it on at the source – antenna, satellite, and cable. You can learn more about ACB's Audio Description Project here. And if you want more description on TV, please contact the providers, and your congressmen, as it is critical that they hear from you!

We also learned about UniDescription, a project of the National Park Service (NPS) and University of Hawaii. The NPS has also been working on an app where people can access described brochures and maps of many of the National Parks with the plan to have all National Park brochures available through description on this app, both on Android and Apple. The brand-new gateway park and museum at the St. Louis Arch opened on July 4th, and they expected 40,000 people to attend the first day. The NPS worked with them on their interactive exhibits, so they were glad to be a part of the festivities. And I imagine some of those hard-working dogs got to enjoy it also!

A curly, red-haired Marilee Talkington shares some of her stories in front of a projection of her photo.
One of the highlights of the three days was hearing from Marilee Talkington, acclaimed actor, writer, and director. She talked about pursuing her chosen career in the arts as a legally blind individual. She started as a stage actor, but was recently a guest artist on the “Sight Unseen” episode on NCIS. One of the amazing but unsurprising stats she cited was that 9 out of 10,000 actors in Hollywood – TV and movies – have disabilities. Nine. Let that sink in for a moment. And we wonder why there is such an uproar when a disabled individual is played by an able-bodied actor. Listening to how Marilee fought to be auditioned and cast at all is a testament to her grit and determination! Thank you for fighting to not only blast open the door for you to enter, but also for the many who are standing right behind you.

I didn't see much of St. Louis, but that’s okay because it was hot and steamy outside. At the end of the day, my brain was full of all things audio description, and that’s just the way it was way meant to be.

A man indulges in a catnap in an ornate hotel lobby.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Peer to Peer

We were invited for the second time to run the Peer to Peer portion of the annual Parent to Parent conference. This event is hosted by Texas Parent to Parent, a statewide non-profit that does great work of educating and supporting parents of children with disabilities. Their annual conference is a big hit with topics on all the important issues a parent needs to be aware of when raising a child with a disability as well as advice and mentoring from parents who have been in their shoes.

Families come from all over the state, from the Valley to the Panhandle and everywhere in between. And they bring the entire family because there is something for everyone at this conference. Texas Parent to Parent wants to make sure that all that come get the most out of the experience. They want the parents to be able to focus on the panel discussions and workshops. They provide a SibShop for siblings. Childcare for the young ones. And Peer to Peer for the teenagers.

That’s where we come in! Our goal is to provide stimulating arts, performance, movement, and music activities for these young adults to take part in while their parents are at the conference. This year we started with Flower Fairies. While very messy, with glue and flower petals, we got some great results and a few participants spent the entire day working with the flowers.

A mer-man decorated with flower petals

We also provided other art stations throughout the day including Egg Shakers, Drawing, Beads and Pipe Cleaners, Costumes, and Cameras. You just never know what art supply is going to be the one that captures someone’s creativity.

Grant holds up some of his pipe cleaner creations.

David wears red boxing shorts, a black cape, and a Mardi Gras mask from the costume box.

A highlight of the morning was having Zach Anner visit us! Zach is a comedian, actor, writer, and YouTube star. The teens were able to ask him questions, converse with him, and get his autograph.

Later that day we had a visiting musician, Sterling Steffan. He brought his saxophone, a violin, digital drums, a recorder, and other various instruments. Some of the students’ eyes and smiles really lit up when they had a chance to make music. Eric was especially excited by the opportunity. And his sense of rhythm was natural. The participants had a chance to step up to the mic and record their voice or playing an instrument.

Elsa plays the violin.

Day 2 was another day packed with art activities led by teaching artist Mary Oliver. Using small pizza boxes we created names on the outside and self portraits on the inside of the box.

Josh’s pizza box self portrait

We also used recycled water bottles to create Maracas. We painted them in the morning, then after a movie in the afternoon, used them in our drum circle.

The drum circle!

After two exhausting but fun days the teens were picked up by their parents to start the travel back home. So many parents were grateful for the opportunity to attend this conference and know their children were in good hands. Thanks to our friends at Texas Parent to Parent for making that possible!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pursue Your Musical Dreams with VSA Texas

From time to time I'm asked something along the lines of "what is the most soul nourishing part of your job?" I am normally caught off guard by the directness of such a heavy question, but inevitably my mind wanders to the music and other performance opportunities offered through VSA Texas. Even to those who know me, my affinity for the stage may seem peculiar as in any other circumstance I do everything I can to avoid drawing attention to myself. Performing music on stage, however, feels liberating; I am free to make myself into someone different, to lose myself in chords, rhythms, lyrics, and in doing so, I inch closer to the person I aspire to be offstage. Call me corny, but I truly believe that playing music makes me a better human being. And that's why the highlights, or most soul nourishing moments of my job, are those where I can extend the same opportunities I have received to others.

Music is the foundation of my relationship with VSA Texas. My first involvement with the organization came in the form of volunteering in the Summer of 2012 Music and Recording Camp; then in February of 2014 I made my first serious public debut of my own music at the inaugural Lion and Pirate Open Mic, which I now co-host with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities' Pen 2 Paper Creative Writing Contest; and in January of 2017 I organized, emceed, and performed at our first VSA Texas at Library Live concert at Carver Branch Library, which was so successful the branch manager invited us to make it a quarterly concert series, which has since extended performance opportunities to twelve different musical groups. At each stop along the journey, I have been grateful to learn as much, if not more, than the performers I hope to empower, and that's how I know these programs work.

Me performing at the Lion and Pirate Open Mic. Did I mention Malvern Books takes great photos and videos of the open mic performances? Of course you can opt out, but I'd say it's super cool if you ask me!

Over the past few years, I have seen performers grow in confidence, turn a few original songs into a dozen, explore new collaborations, and seek new venues to perform. Most importantly, I have witnessed the burgeoning of an inclusive community, where performers inspire and learn from each other, lift each other up and offer encouraging words when they need to be heard. So if you are a chronic bedroom performer (like I used to be – and still am, frankly) and are ready to share your songs with the world – or even if you aren't ready – there is a place for you at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic held each month at Malvern Books (613 West 29th Street, Austin, TX 78705)! Our next four open mics are this Saturday, June 9th from 7-9 PM, Saturday, July 7th from 7-9 PM, Sunday, August 12th from 1-3 PM, and Saturday, September 15th from 7-9 PM. Join us at one or all of the above!

Flyer for our Lion and Pirate Open Mic at Malvern Books this Saturday, June 9th from 7-9 PM

And if you want to really stretch your performance muscles with a fully mic'd 25-minute set at the Carver Branch Library, email me at eric@vsatx.org to book a performance slot. If you need any added incentive, you get high quality videos of your performance (see past Library Live performances here) that you can use to promote your music and pursue future gigs. No matter your genre or level of experience, we are here to launch you where you want to go!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Don’t Believe Everything You See or Think You Know

Pondering my thoughts for what I might have interesting to say or what might provoke other folks to talk about. I was sitting in a staff meeting (yes I was paying attention) but we were discussing and planning programs that would be exciting, fun, educational, and informative for our patrons. My Secret Life of Walter Mitty popped up and has been swirling through my mind.

From The New York Times:
“It begins with a film ‘The Red Chapel,’ the name of a small experimental theater troupe from Holland that was formed by a pair of Danish performers of Korean descent (Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell). Or at least that's what the North Korean government was led to believe when they gave them permission to do a vaudeville performance tour of the country; in truth, ‘The Red Chapel’ was formed by a pair of improvisational comics (who are in fact of Korean heritage) and a radical journalist, director, and filmmaker Mads Brügger who traveled to North Korea in hopes of using subversive, satirical performances as a commentary on the nation's oppressive policies and lamentable human rights record. This was all done as a cultural exchange between North Korea and Holland.”
Movie poster for “The Red Chapel”

The interesting fact is that one of the performers has a disability and exaggerates his condition as a way of throwing those around him off track. One of the “The Red Chapel” pranksters, Mads Brügger, brought along a video camera to chronicle their journey through Korea, and “Det Rode Kapel” (aka “The Red Chapel”) is a documentary offering a glimpse of their performances and the often surprising reactions they receive. It’s like telling bad jokes that no one gets, but people laugh anyway.

The disabled performer in “The Red Chapel” stands beside the wheelchair he uses throughout the film.

The most poignant question the person with the disability asks their cultural attaché Ms. Pak (who is benevolent and kind) is “where are all the people with disabilities?” to which she replies “we send them away.”

Ask yourself: how do different countries including the USA help or deny humans with disabilities, and where do they get sent?

Here at VSA Texas we are launching a quarterly film screening series about and/or by people with disabilities and we would like your input as to what kind of films you would like to see or that you think would spark engaging discussions around disability issues (like “The Red Chapel,” for example). Please leave your suggestions in the comments below or email them to me at lynn@vsatx.org. We look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Body Shift: Dance and Social Justice

Body Shift project coordinator, Olivia O’Hare here to share some thoughts regarding our upcoming annual intensive, Patterns of Disruption with Sandra Paola, which will take place June 2-3, 2018. Paola’s focus lies at the intersection of dance and social justice/access/inclusion/diversity. This got me thinking about what social justice means within the context of Body Shift and DanceAbility. Though we do not openly state a political agenda, I do believe that the personal is political. Dance improvisation is extremely personal. Because the dancer generates their own movements and responds by intuition as well as conscious choice making, their personality, habits and desires show up immediately. In general, we do not openly discuss the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within our society that have shaped our bodies and the ways we have been taught are ‘appropriate’ for personal expression. Instead we focus on movement quality, body awareness, and relationship in real time with our dance partner(s). But what if we take some time to work using community-centered inquiry and turn research into movement?

Photo from Crippin' the Streets – DanceAbility Urban Intervention, Fusebox 2014

We might ask the following questions: How do Idealogical ‘Movements’ (i.e., Civil Rights Movement, Disability Rights Movement) affect our culture? How can our own ‘movements’ (physicality of/in ones body) affect our culture or be affected by our culture? By using the universal language of movement we can generate conversations and create art around social justice issues in our communities – ultimately movement initiating ‘Movements.’

It was a purposeful choice made by the Body Shift organizers to focus on dance improvisation, and more specifically the DanceAbility method, rather than styles of dance that emphasize learning steps or predetermined choreography. This is not to downgrade moving together through set choreography as repeating and refining movements can be very powerful. Rather it was a question of inclusivity. The flexibility allowed by improvisation more easily creates an environment that is non-isolating. By starting with improv, participants are given the opportunity to learn the language of their own body and discover their own unique ways of moving. Then participants themselves may be guided to choreograph from their own self-generated movements. (Video below shows more highlights from Crippin' the Streets – DanceAbility Urban Intervention, Fusebox 2014)


To improvise is to make choices in the moment. As Alito Alessi, founder of the DanceAbility method, says, “Always know what you are doing and what else is happening.” This seems very direct and simple but it is actually a skill that must be refined over time – the ability to sense and stay connected to your self while also opening your awareness to the choices that other people are making around you and how your environment shapes your choices moment to moment. By dancing together with people who have unique mental and physical characteristics that may be outside the established norms we are able to open ourselves to new ways of moving and thinking and go beyond habitual ways of being.

Sandra Paola

An excerpt from Sandra Paola’s website:
“I believe that learning about our body through our relationships with others in ensemble improvisation and social dance is an extraordinary way to achieve this and I seek to create spaces and environments where this can be possible. Acknowledging our body (and its relationship to others and the environment) is not something we are often taught. It is something that we have to seek out, or what is more often the case, something we never get to do. Recognizing ourselves in our body fosters a new understanding of who we are and how we relate to the world. This understanding allows love and compassion to flourish and deep transformation happens.
“…My dancemaking is community-driven and community-integrated and it tackles issues of identity and power. I am committed to creating access to experimental dance and improvisation in spaces where it is usually absent and to share its developmental power with the public. I use culture to organize community and organize community to create culture. 
“My work is political by nature; improvisation is playful resistance.”

I hope you will join Sandra Paola and the Body Shift crew for a weekend of dancing and inquiry into education and community organizing that relates to people as social creators of their lives. We will meet all day Saturday, and Sunday will be a continuation of Saturday's work but open to newcomers and will culminate in a jam. Click here to register for Patterns of Disruption with Sandra Paola.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Lessons I Have Learned Over the Years

It was a little over 19 years ago that I took over the helm of the organization that is now known as VSA Texas. Little did I suspect back then what a wild and rewarding ride it would be. I have made many friends and a few not so good friends along the way, and have witnessed the joy and success of countless individuals in Austin, across the state, and around the world. I have made some wise decisions and I have made a few real bloopers, but I have never regretted a thing. Oh sure, a lot of things have kept me awake at night, and still do, but all in all I can say that this has been the best job of my life. Does this sound like a farewell letter? No, it isn’t. I always get reminiscent at this time of the year and like to take stock of my life within the context of the current times.

Celia posing beside a rusty sculpture of a bear

I reflect on what I have learned and how these lessons have guided my decisions. It seems like I always come back to the same core beliefs.

Trust your instincts. Do your research, gather the facts, listen to other options, and trust that you will make the right decision. If it doesn’t always work out the way you planned, study how it did work out so you can use that knowledge next time around.

Measure twice and cut once. This is true in almost everything that you do. Because what is cut can never be uncut.

Be kind. Sometimes it can feel like life is awash with unkindness, mean-spirits and downright cruelty, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We are all born with love in our hearts. It is what we do with this love that matters. Practice kindness. It is like a muscle that needs to be developed and used everyday.

Street art of a Golden Retriever with pink wings

Don’t dwell on the negative. I am the first person to complain about something that I don’t like, and in this current time, there are many things that I do not like! But living in that space of darkness does not help me day to day to do the things that need to be done. See it, determine if you can do anything immediately to address it, prioritize, and then refocus your attention.

Cry once a day. A good cry can be cathartic. My eyes well with tears often, and sometimes, I am overcome with the need to weep. I always feel better afterwards. Crying and belly laughs: the best medicine.

Keep your mind and body engaged and learning. The world is advancing and changing at a rapid pace. We need to stay nimble to keep up. We need to stay sharp to lead.

Abstract metal sculpture in a park

Enjoy silence. Turn the TV off. Turn off all your devices. Sit in the stillness and listen to the world rotating on its axis. You may hear a bird song you never noticed before. You may hear the wind rustle through the leaves of a tree. You may just hear the sound of your own breath. In. Out.

Love someone more than you can imagine. This one is the hardest for me, and yet I know it is the most important one. ‘Cause you know the old saying, “Love makes the world go round.”

Lamppost sticker of a red figure with a heart-shaped head and the words "Share Your Heart" scrawled across the face with a black magic marker

I am thankful for the great team I have had the good fortune to gather around me at VSA Texas and I look forward to another year of creativity, inspiration, empowerment, laughter, and yes, tears.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Magical Gardens and Brain Puzzles

Our summer classes are coming up and we are trying something a little different. We have two classes. Each is for ages 16 and above and inclusive for those with and without disabilities. Usually these summer classes serve a limited age range, so we are excited to open them up and invite one and all to join us for some fun!

First, we have Fairy Gardens and Nature Art with instructor Mary Kraemer held Monday, June 11th through Wednesday, June 13th from 10 am to 2 pm each day in our VSA Texas Classroom 101 at 3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705. In this class Mary will use her horticulture and garden experience to help inspire you to create a Fairy Garden at VSA Texas. Fairy Gardens are magical places created by humans to invite fairies to live among us. They are created with plants, found objects, repurposed materials, and lots of imagination!

A fairy garden house created out of natural materials

The class will also include making nature prints, working with dried flowers, and more. Mary is full of knowledge about plants and loves to share it. So we hope you will join us in June for this class.

A student printing leaves on blue paper with green ink

Want to learn more about Mary’s classes? Read this blog Celia and Lynn wrote after taking one of her classes.

Then, we have Stop Motion Animation with Tangrams with instructor Johnny Villarreal held Tuesday, June 26th through Thursday, June 28th from 10 am to 2 pm each day also in our VSA Texas Classroom 101 at 3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705.  Johnny has been a great friend of VSA Texas and has taught many classes for us for children and young adults.

Johnny working with a student at Manor High School on Stop Motion Animation

This is our first time opening up a class for adults taught by Johnny. So if you have heard of his work at The Edge of Imagination Station, take this opportunity to learn from the best in Stop Motion Animation. This class will have a twist though, Tangrams! A tangram is a dissection puzzle consisting of seven flat shapes, called tans, which are put together to form shapes. Challenge your brain to create characters and a story using only these seven shapes.

A wooden Tangram set

As always, our classes are fully accessible for any ability and skill level. You won’t be disappointed. You will make new friends, learn a new skill, and most of all have fun. For the $115 fee, you get lots of great instruction plus all the supplies provided. These classes fill quickly, so register now by calling Lynn at 512-454-9912 or emailing her at lynn@vsatx.org. See you this summer!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Do Animals Have Disability Rights?

Hi folks! With National Pet Month around the corner, I decided to learn more about pets with disabilities. As a pet lover, I was particularly interested in how you help pets with disabilities live good and healthy lives, but I must admit it was difficult to find materials on this topic! I also found in researching I had to search for specific pets, and more places popped up about dogs than cats. I knew that animals are also prone to accidents, losing limbs, going deaf or blind, and a host of other ailments, and I was interested in what kind of assistance or treatment is available in such instances. Another burning question arose of would you help your pet if you couldn’t afford it? There are some veterinarian groups that will help in funding as well as some private individual organizations, but far and few between.

A small pig uses a hind-end wheelchair to get around.

I don’t have a definitive answer for every question that came up, but I did find a wonderful New York Times article by Neil Genzlinger called “The Lives of Animals, Disabled and Otherwise” that mentioned some great organizations and provided a glimpse into the world of animals with disabilities. The article explores the television programs “My Bionic Pet,” “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet,” and “Inside Animal Minds,” which each offer a different perspective on pets and other animals, with and without disabilities. What these programs failed to address, however, were the costs involved in treating and caring for animals coping with a variety of hardships, especially in light of the many humans with disabilities who can't secure adequate healthcare and safety.

A rabbit using a similar hind-end wheelchair

I think it is clear to me that people with any kind of pet, see their pet as part of their family, and the thought of losing them is unacceptable. No matter the cost, we look for answers and solutions. We reach out to any methods of care available.

Researchers are also seeking to understand animal intelligence, and I for one see intelligence in so many of Earth’s animals. Some are loyal to their families, some mate for life, others make for very loving pets. In any case scientists keep striving to understand those inner secrets.

Bella, a llama with a prosthetic leg

So, how far are you willing to go? I say choose your battles and campaigns, give where you can, and have compassion. There are organizations willing to help if that’s what you choose to do. All in all, the phenomenon of disabled animals is a complicated subject.

Regardless of your perspective on the matter, we hope you will join us for our Pet Portrait Pop-Up Art Show at Fast Folks Cyclery coming up on Saturday, May 5th, from 12-4 PM! We will have 30 original pet portraits on display for this free one-day art exhibition, so you don't want to miss out!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Body Shift: April Elements Teacher Profile-Veronica DeWitt

Veronica DeWitt and Linda Farwell practicing Follow and Lead during the DanceAbility Teacher Certification Course in Austin (2015)

Elements class in which we practice movement improvisation for people of all abilities is this Saturday, April 14th from 2:30-4:30pm at the Town Lake YMCA. Do you tend to be a leader or a follower? Are you aware of your habitual tendencies and preferences? Veronica DeWitt will take you on an exploration of leading/following using the DanceAbility method. Move towards the edge of your comfort zone and allow yourself to try on a different role than you may be used to. Through movement improvisation exercises, we will allow our bodies to speak and be heard while also listening to others with all our senses to make relationships. We will play with time to thoughtfully identify habits and thus awaken the nervous system. Beginning in small groups, eventually we will arrive in a large group dance (with no wrong choices!). This class is open to people of all abilities at any level of movement study.

Teacher Profile:

Veronica DeWitt moved to Austin from Ashland, OR after completing the DanceAbility teacher certification in December 2015. She also completed the DanceAbility Master Trainer course in October 2017 which was held in Trier, Germany. Most recently, she has taken on more leadership with Body Shift. She directed and performed in ‘Walk & Roll’, which was presented at the Austin Dance Festival last weekend (2018). The video below was taken during rehearsal of ‘Walk & Roll’:


Other Body Shift projects she is involved in are teaching DanceAbility classes at Rosedale Elementary, the VA Outpatient Clinic, the Mary Lee Foundation, as well as the ongoing Elements classes.

In February 2018, Veronica joined Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company (KDH Dance) to perform a re-staging of ‘Glacier’ (2017) at Texas A&M University, and she has been enjoying working with KDH Dance very much. Veronica will be joining KDH Dance again in their June concert titled ‘Company’.

In Ashland, Veronica worked for nine years as a full0time member with Dancing People Company, six years with the Curtain Climbers Aerial Dance Company, and wrote and performed music with three different projects. She holds a B.A. in Dance from the University of Oregon (2007) with no prior dance training.

In addition to Rosedale Elementary, she teaches at other AISD campuses for after school programming through Leap of Joy. Other work Veronica is a part of includes: stage crew for several local professional performance groups, co-directing a dance project called Vitamin D with Jana Meszaros (Eugene, OR), and performing/teaching aerial dance.

Veronica during the DanceAbility Teacher Certification Course in Austin (2015)

She has always enjoyed improvisation as a dance form, but the DanceAbility method has changed her perspectives on and off the dance floor. One of her favorite descriptions of this type of dance is, "the art of being together." Finding a common language of movement within a diverse group of people has become one of her most exciting dance endeavors. Huge thanks to DanceAbility and the community here in Austin (and Eugene, OR)! Looking toward the future, Veronica would like to experiment more with combining aerial dance with non traditional aerial dancers; she is interested in finding ways to allow accessibility of aerial equipment to more types of bodies, create more opportunities to experience sensation, and move from the ground to the air with this intention... she is open for suggestions on where she can open a wheelchair accessible aerial studio!

In her spare time, she is getting back into writing and performing music, taking care of her geriatric pug named Gus, and enjoying the plethora of outdoor activities Austin offers.

The Body Shift: Elements class takes place every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month (this month it will be April 14th and 28th) from 2:30-4:30pm at the Town Lake YMCA in the large group exercise room on the first floor.

No gym membership is required to attend. Open to adults age 16 and up; all abilities and experience levels. No registration necessary and fee for class is on a sliding scale from $5-$20, cash or check accepted. See you at the Y!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Celebrate Your Pet with VSA Texas!

Most people aren’t shy about expressing their love for a beloved pet. Upon gentle prompting, they will immediately share stories about adventures together—in fields and forests or on the living room floor. Often exceeding the loyalty of human relationships, the bonds we’ve had with our sentient furry, fuzzy, and feathered companions might be the most memorable emotional experiences of our lives.

Watching people playing and caring for their pets gives me hope for humanity. These visible expressions of compassion and kindness inspired me to create “Austin’s Best Friends: Paws & Claws Pet Portraits” as a fundraiser and community building activity for VSA Texas. From the Bronze Age through today, humans have frequently found ways to incorporate imagery of their much adored animal friends into art. Through our unique fundraiser, each donor will receive an original painted, drawn, or sewn portrait of a treasured pet or other meaningful animal for every $75 they donate by April 15th.

I donated $150 and submitted two photos. The first photo is of Zuzu, my girlfriend’s dog. For you classic movie buffs, Zuzu’s namesake is Zuzu Bailey, the daughter of George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1946 Christmas comedy-drama film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Zuzu is a wild teenage Australian Shepherd. The second photo is of Bwana Mabvuto, a large and rambunctious single-tusked elephant I frequently observed in Malawi’s Upper Shire River Valley. In Chichewa, the local vernacular, Bwana Mabvuto means Boss Trouble.

Photograph of Bwana Mabvuto by Frank Weitzer

Our Pet Portrait fundraiser has attracted donations from across the country! My colleague, April Sullivan, VSA Texas’ Artworks Director, has lined up dozens of artists to create the original art. I’ve had a sneak peek at some of the results and the portraits are exceptional. However, we aren’t sharing the art with our donors quite yet. On Saturday, May 5, Cinco de Mayo, we are presenting a special art show at East Austin’s Fast Folks Cyclery. From 12:00-4:00 PM, we will display all of the animal and pet portraits created for this very special fundraiser. The paintings will be sent to their owners, our generous donors, after the show. Please come to the show, even if you didn’t participate in the fundraiser!

It isn’t too late for you to participate in this heartwarming project. Follow this link to register for our Pet Portrait fundraiser and donate today. We need your help!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Celebrating Arts & Disability in Asia Pacific

I recently had the pleasure to attend the 2018 Arts & Disability International Conference and True Colours Festival in Singapore. The event, presented by UNESCO and the Nippon Foundation, was organized by VSA Singapore in partnership with the National Arts Council Singapore. It was quite a celebration of Asian Pacific artists with disabilities and featured artists from Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, India, China, and Micronesia, as well as Canada, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia.

One of the takeaways for me was this definition of creativity: Creativity is taking something that exists and turning it into something that doesn’t. If you think about an artist like Picasso, he took the techniques used for painting realism and created a new form, cubism. One of the groups that fits that description is the Digital Orchestra of Drake Music Scotland. They play music using such apps and equipment as ThunbJam, SoundBeam, Brainfingers, and Wowee. I was amazed by the vast capabilities of these digital resources and know that the argument “Is this orchestral music?” will soon be as active as the “Is a photograph art?” conversation of several years ago. You can hear one of their compositions, a tribute to a band member who has passed away, in the video below:


Here I am trying out one of the Sound Beam instruments during the Drake Music Scotland presentation.

Another takeaway was given to me by Alirio Zavarce of No Strings Attached, Australia: Be open to all possibilities, inside in and outside out. Be true to the art form, but flexible in your approach and methodology. You have one job. Make it look good. And look good indeed did their world premiere of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” a multimedia journey through memory and memory loss. There was also a very touching work in progress presented by Very Special Theatrics Singapore and No Strings Attached, “My Home is Not a Shell.” This piece was developed in response to the invasion of their tropical island city by numerous glass and metal high-rise buildings of commerce and finance. Conceived and developed over a 23-hour rehearsal process, the story was well-developed and very touching. I could relate to their sorrow as I also mourn the loss of my native Austin to the facades of progress and finance.

My traveling companion Jeannine and I with Alirio on the first day of the conference

A final takeaway was shared by Adrian Anantawan, a violinist I have had the opportunity to perform with through Inclusive by Design with VSA Massachusetts: The greatest accommodation is acceptance. This was evidenced every day in every way at the True Colours Festival Village, Concert and Conference. There was so much more food for my senses than I can mention here including Epic Arts Cambodia, Kate Hood of Raspberry Ripple, and Slow Label Japan. I am lingering in my memories, refreshing at the well of creativity. Thank you Singapore for showing me and the world your True Colours.

One of my real pleasures was getting to know Sokny Onn and the Epic Arts Cambodia dance troupe.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

VSA Texas at Library Live: Veterans Edition!

Hey all, Eric here to tell you about our next concert at the Carver Branch of Austin Public Library coming up this Saturday, March 24th, from 2:00-4:00 PM! We are particularly excited about this upcoming concert because it will feature Veteran musicians, most of whom have participated in our Distinguished Artist Veterans program. Here's a bit more about the musicians playing this Saturday:

Our opening act Rick Milisci is a U.S. Army Veteran who grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas. His song “People Just Need Love” was featured in our 2017 Veteran music compilation The Re-Integration Project {Sounds} which you can download here. His music has a bluesy vibe while his vocal delivery has a raw yet soulful appeal.

Hope in the Day is a duo featuring Kris Tidwell and Steven Clarkson who have combined their separate passions for music and poetry into a unique sound. Kris recently completed one of our Veteran writing classes in Austin and read several poems with accompaniment from Steven on mandolin at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic. In their performances Kris reads original poetry over a soundscape created by Steven's electric mandolin run through a variety of ambient effects. The result is nothing short of psychedelic and thought-provoking.

David Romero is a regular at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic known for his burgeoning collection of rare folk instruments and heartfelt covers of traditional folk tunes with originals in the mix. He is frequently accompanied by his wife Ann Marie on flute, and they usually get the crowd to sing along! David is heavily influenced by English, Irish, Scottish, and American folk music, and he sings in Spanish as well. His song “Absence Inside” was also featured in our 2017 Veteran music compilation The Re-Integration Project {Sounds}.

David and Ann Marie Romero perform a song at the Lion and Pirate.

Our final performer Matthew Owen Williams joins us all the way from Florida for this concert! Matt is a Retired Army Chaplain and one of the founding members of Vet Church, an outreach to those who struggle with hurt, anger, depression and pain. As a singer/songwriter Matt has written and recorded a single, an EP, and a full-length record. His lyrics are witty and honest, and he sings with a raw passion. He travels around the country playing music, offering encouragement, and instilling hope to other Veterans and their communities. His performance is one you won't want to miss!

So come out to the Carver Branch (1161 Angelina Street, Austin, TX 78702) and support Veteran musicians this Saturday afternoon! The concert is free, doors open at 1:30 PM, show starts at 2:00 PM. You can RSVP, get updates, and invite your friends to our Facebook event page here. See you there!

Flyer for March 24th Veterans concert at the Carver Branch of Austin Public Library

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Spring Forward and Create Art!

I don’t know about you, but this time change has been hard to deal with this year. I just don’t want to get out of bed in the mornings! But the chirping birds, the promise of warmer weather and longer evenings in the sunshine makes me remember that it is time to get up and that the day is going to be great.

"Happy Mountains" yarn painting by April Sullivan

With the name April, I bet you can guess Spring is my favorite time of year. It is time to start new projects and finish old ones. For me, that means making more art. If it means the same for you, then I have some opportunities coming up that you might want to get involved in.

At VSA Texas, we have some great new calls for art out and we are looking for artists to participate. There’s something for everyone in this list!

Ground Floor Theatre Gallery – Austin, TX
April 3-30, 2018
DEADLINE: ASAP
We are having a one month exhibition of local Austin artists with disabilities at this theatre lobby in East Austin. I have four artists confirmed, but there is probably room for 1-2 more. Just let me know if you are interested. This one is coming up quick!

SPRING Mobile Art Exhibition – Bass Concert Hall Gallery – 2nd Floor – Austin, TX
May-August 2018
DEADLINE: April 9, 2018
This call for art is specifically for Texas seniors, age 65 and up. We have space for wall-hanging work in this exhibit. So if you are an older artist, show us what you got!

Photo from last year’s Mobile Art Exhibition at Austin Bergstrom International Airport

9th Annual Distinguished Artist Veterans Exhibit – Cultural Activities Center – Howard Gallery – Temple, TX
June-July 2018
DEADLINE: April 17, 2018
We have space for 2D and 3D work in this large gallery in Temple. We invite all Veterans with disabilities and Wounded Warriors in Texas to enter this call for art.

Howard Gallery at the Cultural Activities Center in Temple

WEST – West Austin Studio Tour – AGE of Central Texas Building Lawn – Austin, TX
May 12-13 and May 19-20
DEADLINE: ASAP
We are an official stop on the WEST tour hosted by Big Medium and we are looking for artists with disabilities to come out with their tents and artwork to sell on the lawn. We have an indoor location secured in case of rain. If you have always wanted to be on this annual city-wide art tour but couldn’t afford the fee, we offer a low-cost way to get involved.

2018 West Austin Studio Tour logo

So as you see, there are plenty of ways you can get your art out in the world this Spring with VSA Texas. You can always check our calls for art on our website or just contact me at april@vsatx.org. I’m always planning something new and I want to see what you are creating.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thoughts on Romantic Disability

What makes a disabled person into a romantic figure in literature, films, plays, musicals, and other means of entertainment? What draws us to the underdog and makes us love them romantically? I haven’t a clue as to what the human heart likes, desires, or is conditioned to, but this is the subject of my blog. I have no scientific research behind this but would like to start a conversation. I watch a lot of movies and still can’t manage to cram everything in but got to thinking about the romance in figures that we see, that we (me) are attracted to:

Sketch of Quasimodo in "Hunchback of Notre Dame"

  • In "Hunchback of Notre Dame" I wanted so much for Quasimodo to get the girl Esmeralda, but I didn’t see how that was going to work out in my mind because the great looking guy usually wins.
  • In the film "Dracula" the one with Gary Oldman, Vlad the Impaler turns very unusual with pale skin and weird eyes and crawls up buildings but has unrelenting lure for the heroine. Humm.
  • In the TV series "Beauty and the Beast" Vincent has a mane of hair all over him but still has human qualities, and he is the love interest.
  • In the Disney film "Beauty and the Beast" Vincent again has a temper, looks like a lion, isn’t exactly handsome, but we all still believe that Belle will fall in love with him, and we all hope that she will.
  • In Bronte’s "Jane Eyre" Rochester’s disabilities softens his somewhat arrogant nature and Jane stays with the man she loves.
  • In "The Shape of Water" an amphibious creature and a janitor fall in love. I haven’t seen the movie, but the romantic lead figure looks appealing, and again a scaly character pines for a woman.
  • In "Avatar" the alien creatures have big fangs, large ears, large eyes. These folks are covered in scales, feathers, yellow eyes and so much more, yet we believe in the romance. Why is that?
  • In "Forrest Gump" Lieutenant Dan is a feisty alcoholic, and yet we still love him and find him attractive, even without two legs. Maybe this is due to good casting?
  • In "The Station Agent" the protagonist was born with dwarfism, has a sarcastic temper, but a warm heart when he wants to use it. He shows sentimental sides and has affection for his female counterpart and she reciprocates.

So I didn’t do massive research into this topic, but it brought up the notion that movies, books, dance, etc. can bring us into the evolution of who we love and are attracted to. Maybe Hollywood and filmmakers do know how to create love stories using people with disabilities, they just don’t tap into the reality nearly as much as they could without using costumes to disguise it. I know there is a mile-long list of films involving people with disabilities, but these folks are usually very attractive according to modern standards.

What would have happened if Princess Leia fell for Jabba the Hutt in "Star Wars?" That would be something.

Is this because we don’t want a hero who is physically imperfect?

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Getting in Touch with Body Shift

Hello, friends! Body Shift project coordinator Olivia here to share a little about our recent class happenings. The February Body Shift: Elements class was taught by guest instructor, Brandon Gonzalez. Brandon and I have danced together and in similar circles for nearly 20 years now. We both have a deep appreciation and natural inclination toward dancing from the inside out. Brandon has traveled the world studying, practicing, teaching, and performing as an improviser. And, in an effort to offer varied perspectives on somatics and movement training, I invited him to share some of his extensive body knowledge with our Body Shifters.

Brandon called his two-part class “Touching Form.” His description of the focus of the class was as follows: What is the feeling of our contact? How is our dialogue resonating and taking shape? Inspired by elements from contact improvisation we’ll find pathways that bridge our sensory perceptions to the dances we create. Flexing our muscles of attention, we’ll investigate how we move and imagine together. Let’s discover new ways of being “in touch.”

Brandon called on Nita Little’s work with ‘attention’ for his first class. There was no literal physical contact. Instead we started with noticing the sensations generated from our own attention and internal awareness. We then layered on giving attention to a partner and noticing how we attend to ourselves as well as how our partner was attending to us and so on. By the end of the class there was a palpable connection – a sort of ‘touch’ – through the negative space between people. For his second class, Brandon focused our awareness on the fascia, or connective tissue, that wraps throughout, supports, and gives the literal shape to our bodies. We began with a solo of reaching and finding the fullest range of our joints, bouncing, and dragging our hands across our own bodies to experience the elastic quality of the fascia. We then worked with various partners in the same way but this time exploring the sliding and gliding of our partners' tissues. This developed into a more free form contact duet that drew attention to the reciprocal relationship of our individual nervous systems through the webbing of the connective tissue. The initial awkwardness of coming in contact with someone you may not know very well was mitigated by setting the focus on the anatomical structure of the body. Regardless of spasticity, rigidity, or other perceived limitations, everyone in the group was able to participate equally and in their own way.

With all that said…touch can be controversial. How we are led into physical contact can stir up different emotional and physical responses based on each person’s past relationship with touch. Some people may be touched a lot when getting assistance with their morning routine, eating, transferring, being exercised…all moments that are potentially quite intimate and yet are often executed in a more clinical or impersonal way. Some people may have a negative association with touch because of past abuse. Perhaps someone might have a particularly sensitive nervous system that gets overstimulated by certain kinds of touch or maybe they have medical concerns around germs that could have a very real impact on their immune system.

And, yet, touch can also be calming and playful. It can be intimate and personal without being sexual. It can be a powerful tool for getting to know yourself and other people on a deeper or maybe just different level than we experience in talking. In the DanceAbility method we work a lot with the idea of dance as a non-verbal conversation. Instead of learning steps or pre-determined choreography, the dancers generate movements in response to sensations they have inside their own body as well as information that they get from communicating non-verbally with their partner(s). Because of all the reasons people may be intimidated by touch I sometimes shy away from teaching contact work in a mixed-ability/mixed-level class and choose to work in relationship through space. That said, it can be limiting and isolating to avoid touch. Many of us rely heavily on our eyes to navigate through our interactions with people and the environment. For people who are visually impaired or blind, to ‘see’ is to sense with their whole body and allowing for touch allows for more information to be shared between partners. When someone is non-mobile or has limited mobility, touch can give access to traveling through space without being forced or manipulated or simply pushed around. Essentially touch is the most fundamental way we can connect with everyone regardless of their unique physical or mental characteristics and ensure that no one is isolated.

The video below shares a moment from the free dance portion of a recent Elements class:


During the closing circle of Brandon’s second class the participants expressed a sense of calm, joyfulness, and gratitude at being given the space to explore the systems of the body experientially and the deep listening that accompanies such exploration. I immediately thought of a quotation from bodyworker Deane Juhan, “We can never touch just one thing; we always touch two things at the same instant, an object and ourselves, and it is in the simultaneous interplay between these two contiguities that the internal sense of self—different from both the collection of body parts and the collection of external objects—is encountered...my tactile surface is not only the interface between my body and the world, it is the interface between my thought processes and my physical existence as well. By rubbing up against the world, I define myself to myself.”

I hope that you all will come and dance with us in the Elements class next month. I will be teaching on March 10th and will host our spring dance jam on March 24th. Please feel free to email me with questions. And if you are new to dance or new to dance improvisation/somatics, you are welcome to join us as an observer before diving in.

Elements class takes place every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month from 2:30-4:30pm at the Town Lake YMCA in the large group exercise room on the first floor. No gym membership is required to attend. Open to adults age 16 and up; all abilities and experience levels. No registration necessary and fee for class is on a sliding scale from $5-$20, cash or check accepted. See you at the Y!