Thursday, December 29, 2016

Wishes for the New Year

For many, 2016 was a difficult and divisive year. We lost many creative heroes, from legendary musicians to cherished actors and actresses, but still saw the emergence of new talents and wonderful works of art. We also survived one of the most contentious elections in American history. As we peer into the future, hoping for the best, here are our wishes and other thoughts for the year ahead:

My wish for 2017 is for our veteran programs to take off. The work we are doing in our exhibitions and writing classes for Texas Veterans has been very meaningful work and I would like to see these services reach more people across the state. I believe this is a very achievable goal because we have a great team of staff, teaching artists, partner organizations, and of course the veterans working on the project. So keep an eye out for bigger and better creative work by Texas Veterans in the coming year!
Untitled, an acrylic mixed media by Salina Loriaux, an Iraq War Army Veteran from San Antonio, TX

I hope in the New Year that we all have more time for being together with friends and loved ones in person. May it be possible to give more real hugs than virtual ones.

My wish for the New Year: Peace on Earth

My wishes for the New Year are that I would be able to simplify my life and be more present for my family and kids. I want to learn to speak with eloquence and honesty about issues that are hard and difficult with people who matter to me. And to be able to continue to learn while teaching dance and movement to diverse populations. Hyvää uutta vuotta kaikille toivottaa Silva!

  1. Get published in a higher end literary magazine. Advance my writing techniques and become a better writer overall.
  2. Perfect the art of cooking three different tasty meals, meals I prepare on my own, so good people ask me for seconds and thirds.
  3. Sell ten pieces of my art under Outsider Art on eBay.
  4. Love myself more.
  5. Get an iPad and transition from drawing in journals to doodling on an iPad.
  6. Swim.
  7. Love others more and talk less (definitely talk less).
  8. Go to Maine and Niagara Falls.
  9. Visit a maple syrup factory and see how syrup is made.
  10. Get businesses to donate to VSA Texas.

Here is what the Chinese Zodiac has to say about the upcoming year. From Astrology Club:

The Year of the Rooster (2017) will be a powerful one, with no middle of the road when it comes to moving forward. This year, impressions count. You’ll want to look your best and be clear on your intentions concerning love, money, and business. Stick to practical and well-proven paths to ensure success, rather than risky ventures. In a Rooster Year, all of the Chinese animals can reap great rewards by tapping into Rooster traits. Loyalty, commitment, hard work, family values, and top-notch appearances are just some of the characteristics that will be rewarded this year. This will be a year that the most vital promise made will result in a flawless job no matter what it takes to achieve it. It will be a year when it is truly better to do less, but do it perfectly.

The year of the Rooster teaches the lessons of order, scrutiny and strategic planning. The sage advice of Sun-Zi, which is still taught in modern military circles, advises one to “achieve psychological advantage over the adversary and use force only as a last resort.” I think we can all take heart of that advice in 2017, the year when diplomacy wins!

As a Rabbit in the Year of the Rooster, I plan to use my skills of diplomacy and strategic management to broadcast my essence for the greater good! Click here to read more about the Year of the Rooster.
White circle over purple background featuring the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac with a rooster in the center for 2017.

My wish is for healing: of fresh and old wounds, of past pains that still feel new, of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, of families torn apart by seemingly unreconcilable differences, of friendships that have withered with time and change, of the Earth itself with its vast scars we ourselves have made. May the New Year bring a fresh start, an opportunity to focus, dig in, and work harder than the year before, a chance to grow closer to our dreams, to accept our limitations as well as our strengths, and to let the regrets that distract us from the present wash away with the rain.

I am wishing for those Peaceful Waters. From Gordon Lightfoot:

The dead leaves of autumn
That cling so desperately
Must fly before the cold October winds
Their simple lives have ended
Must they be born to die again
Oh may the light of freedom shine
For all the world to see
And peace and joy to all mankind
Through all the years to be
For soon the leaves will die
And the long hard wind will blow
May this world find a resting place 
Where the peaceful waters flow
The VSA Texas crew outside Magnolia Cafe. From left to right: Janelle, April, Celia, Eric, Lynn, Adrianna
What are your wishes for 2017?? Tell us in the comments below!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

What is a Professional Actor?

Recently, several audition notices have turned up in my inbox, seeking actors with disabilities. This has caused me to think about what it means to be an actor, with or without a disability, and what it means to be a professional actor versus someone who just enjoys playing a part. And how do you get to become one or the other?

I have worked in and around the professional theater for the greater portion of my life and I have seen many people work very hard and never make it big, and some people who just seem to be in the right place at the right time. Some of these folks are on Broadway, some are big stars in Hollywood, and some are right here in Austin. All of them have worked hard developing their craft, through hundreds of classes, rehearsals, performances, auditions… the work of the actor. And all of them study the human condition to delve into themselves and find the honesty and vulnerability necessary to embody their role, their character. But the question remains, what defines a professional? Is it the money? Nah, then many of my friends who go to rehearsal prepared to work hard and discover new aspects of themselves, and who then bring this discovery to the audience night after night, would be left out.
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones
Respecting the rehearsal process, learning your lines in a timely manner, listening to the director, honoring your fellow actors, showing up 100%, these are all part of being a professional. But they are also elements of just enjoying the dressing up and playing a part bit. However, if you are serious about being an actor, you have to audition, and if you want to do well with an audition, you have to prepare. And that doesn’t mean just for the day, it means prepare to not only try out for the part, but to win the part and then do the work that comes next.

The first step to prepare for a successful audition is to attend some classes, so you can learn what goes in to becoming an actor. Doing a little research reveals not many opportunities in the Austin area for someone to attend such a class. But wait, you say. There are a lot of acting classes for children and adults offered at the various theater companies and community colleges in town, as well as private classes offered by local directors, actors, vocal coaches, etc. Anyone can sign up, can’t they? Yes, and no.
Actor RJ Mitte dons crutches for his role as Walter Jr. on Breaking Bad. Both the actor and the character have a mild form of cerebral palsy.
A person with a disability may be challenged by an inaccessible class location – and many stages in Austin are also not accessible – or a bias on the part of the instructor against teaching someone whom they don’t feel may be up to the task. Most people can get some basic theater experience in their middle or high school years by participating in the drama club or taking a theater class – if offered. But as a person with a disability, are they offered a meaningful role that will provide the experience and inspiration to want more?

Being a professional anything requires hard work, and it is no different for actors. However, having a disability can add extra challenges to realizing your dream. The passion, the drive, the talent may be present, but if the opportunity is not, then the road ahead will be bumpy. I applaud the directors who sent me their audition notices and I trust that they will not only provide the opportunity, but the barrier-free access required for all of their actors to succeed.
Promotional image for the short film Guest Room shows Glee star Lauren Potter holding a blanket over part of her face.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Michael’s Story

Every day I come to work, I love my job a little more. I could try and explain the magic of VSA Texas to everyone I know, but experiencing it firsthand is the only way to truly grasp what we do here. No other time do I feel more connected to our cause than when I spend time with our artists and their loved ones.

Last weekend, we had our second Meet the Artist Reception for our Annual Holiday Art Show and I had the chance to sit down with Michael Noriega. Michael is a musician with a CD for sale in our show and he provided the musical entertainment for our reception, but he is also an actor, filmmaker and has his own YouTube channel. He heard about VSA Texas last year through friends and the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.
VSA Texas artist Michael Noriega practices a few chords on his guitar before he performs at our Meet the Artist Reception
“Everybody here is really nice and cool with everybody. I’m meeting a lot of people with disabilities. It’s great to feel part of something. My whole life I felt left out.”

Michael hopes to work for VSA Texas in some capacity as he grows up. He sees his experience with us as life changing and says that it has helped him discover more things he is interested in. One of his favorite experiences with our organization was being chosen as a participant in our Side by Side Film Internship where he worked on a documentary that was filmed in the AGE Building, where VSA Texas’ offices are. The building was built in 1908 and was originally the Confederate Women’s Home and is considered to be one of the most haunted places in Austin.

“My first project with VSA Texas was A Ghostly Encounter on Cedar Street, about the AGE Building being haunted. It was a lot of fun reporting and writing and editing the documentary. And we got paid for it! Which was really cool.”

Title shot from A Ghostly Encounter on Cedar Street, the mini documentary Michael worked on for our Side by Side Film Internship in 2015
I also got the opportunity to sit down with Michael’s mother, Lisa. One of the perks of working here is the built-in network of other parents of children on the Autism spectrum I get.  As I spoke with Lisa, I saw so many similarities between our kids and it was like viewing my future. I got to talk to someone who actually really understands my life.

“VSA Texas has given my son Michael a way to express himself. He is actually proud of his disability in a way. He now sees how it can benefit him.”
Lisa Noriega sits out on the AGE Building veranda and discusses her experience raising her son and his journey with VSA Texas
I asked Michael what the best thing was about our organization and his response brought tears to my eyes:

“I’m just so glad it exists. I wish I had created it. It almost feels too good to be true. Everybody here gets a chance to do something and build each other up.”

So, next time you ask me why I love my job so much, think of Michael and his mother and the joy and understanding our programs have brought to their lives. I want to ensure VSA Texas is around to help my son when he is old enough to join our programs.

You can follow Michael Noriega on YouTube or stop by our Holiday Art Show at 3707 Home Lane and pick up his CD Vivid Dream.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

April's Book Review Series Returns!

Our Holiday Art and Gift Show is under way and I wanted to tell you about some of the merchandise we have besides our standard art and jewelry. We also have some CDs by local musicians and books by people with disabilities and their advocates. Here is a review of a few of these items:

The Sulak Family is a story about autism and hope by Sandra Sulak. The Sulaks live in the small town of Louise, TX and I have been happy to know them for several years. David Sulak is an artist with autism who has been involved with our Artworks program since the early 2000s. He creates detailed drawings and constructions of trucks, cars, and buildings. In 2015, on a trip back from Corpus Christi I got a chance to visit the Sulaks at their home. It was great to see David’s home studio and gallery and to visit with his mother who is always so pleasant on the phone. Getting to know her better, I learned more about the troubles her family went through raising two sons with autism. She mentioned she had a book coming out, which luckily was published just in time to include in our holiday show. I just finished reading it and I recommend it as a quick read and powerful book to gain some insight into one family’s struggles with the school system in the 1970s. A simple farming couple is thrust into a world of medical diagnoses and disability rights legislation in order to secure a good education for two young boys with very different versions of autism. Danny, older than David by 13 months, has anger issues and is placed in a group home. David, negatively affected by his older brother’s behavior, is treated badly in school until lawyers get involved. The book moves swiftly through their schooling and into adulthood where they both become as well adjusted to life as they can thanks to the hard work and determination of their mother, Sandra Sulak.
The cover of The Sulak Family features a photo of Sandra Sulak, smiling, wearing a white dress with red polka dots, and holding her infant son dressed in a bright red outfit.
We also have two CDs of original music in the holiday show. One is called Vivid Dream by Michael Noriega. We met Michael in 2015 when he was one of our summer film interns. He is a friendly and intelligent young man who is driven to succeed. I didn’t know he was a singer and musician until we received his CD for the holiday show. Listening to this 16-track album, I am blown away by Michael’s talent. As he says in his liner notes, “This concept album took me three years to complete. I based it on personal experiences. It’s about spirituality, daydreaming, romance, imagination and my thoughts about reality.” The title is Vivid Dream and the CD has an overall dreamy quality to it with the keyboards, orchestration, and overdubs. Michael does a great job of arranging the songs to a nice arc that starts off strong and upbeat, moves into darker and dreamier songs, then back up. Overall it is a very well-conceived group of songs that can transport you to a dream state while listening. Listen to a sample below:

The other album in our shop is This Was Never Meant To Be Permanent by Eric Clow. Eric is our Opening Minds, Opening Doors Project Coordinator. We were all excited when this album came out because we have been listening to Eric perform at our monthly open mic for a few years now and his music is always a big crowd pleaser. This CD contains 8 songs, mostly originals with a few well placed covers. Eric has a unique vocal and playing style that makes you instantly recognize his music when you hear it. His songs are a strange mix of positively upbeat and utterly bleak all at the same time in the same song. His tunes are catchy and make you want to listen again and again. My favorite song on the album is "Whiskey Sours." Here's a sample from his CD:

This book and these two CDs are just a few of the unique works created with talent, love, sweat, and tears by our friends of VSA Texas. We encourage you to come out to our Holiday Art and Gift Show to check out all of the meaningful pieces that our artists put their heart and soul into creating. We are open Monday-Saturday from 10-4 through December 23rd in Room 101 of the AGE Building, entrance at 3707 Home Lane in Austin.

You can hear Michael Noriega play his music at our Meet the Artists Reception this Saturday, December 10th from 1-4 pm. And you can hear Eric and Michael plus other great acts at Library Live: Special Edition featuring Musicians with Disabilities at the Carver Branch Library on Saturday, January 28th from 2-4 pm.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How to Make a Human Sculpture: A Reaction to On Display with Heidi Latsky

I have to be honest, folks. I am a fly by the seat of my pants kind of woman. Learning in the moment and trying not to have too many expectations usually works to my advantage, particularly as a dancer. I approached On Display with the same mentality. Before rehearsal, I watched one video so I knew it wasn’t exactly a dance. I also knew this piece originated out of an audience member’s reaction to another work of Heidi’s called The GIMP Project. Lastly I knew On Display explored the age old question, at least in my mind anyway, to stare or not to stare?

At left: Venus de Milo statue by Alexandros of Antioch; at right: Body Shift dancer, Alison Kafer in “Crippin’ the Streets” (Photo by Camille Wheeler)

Fast forward to the first rehearsal, can you say awkward? Because that’s exactly how I felt, like a bull in a china shop. I remember heads turning at the sound of my purse as it thudded across the floor into the corner of the studio. I could feel my face turning the slightest shade of red as my sticks aka crutches tingled and clanked to the floor. My butt was happily surprised by the cushiony folding chair as I sat joining the circle of bodies. Heidi’s description of the project moved quietly past my ears and up and around my brain, “We’ve always been taught not to stare; not to look at someone deeply because it might offend them; that if someone 'different' catches our eye we have objectified them. This is the life of the viewer. Alternatively, should we possess a birthmark, a glorious height, or unknown disability we risk being too noticeable and often ostracized or worse. This is the life of the viewed. On Display is a deconstructed art exhibit/fashion show and commentary on the body as spectacle and society's obsession with body image. It turns a cast of diverse and extreme bodies into a sculpture court where the performers are the sculptures. And so, I’m going to teach you some meditation techniques.” My comprehension came to a screeching halt! “Did she say meditation? Oh crap! Meditation might as well be a four letter word,” I silently groaned trying to control the horror as it floated across my face. Then I heard, “This piece is not about performing; this piece is for you.” Those words instantly took my fingernails off the chalkboard of my mind. I decided there was something to learn here and I was in it for the long haul. Maybe this meditation technique will stick and I can finally be part of the Zen crowd like I’ve always wanted.
At left: white marble statue of muscular man, title and artist unknown; at right: Body Shift dancers (from right to left) Susie Angel, Dany Casey, Errin Delperdang, and Tanya Winters strike a pose with heads turned to the sky in “Your Way of Thinking” (photo by Leon Alessi)

Where was I? Oh yeah, meditation. Take a minute to quiet your thoughts, hold the palms of your hands over your face, close your eyes, and let the weight of your palms slowly press into your face. Breathe slowly and deeply. Now repeat (to yourself) after me, “I am…right here. I am…right here…I am…right here…” When you feel ready open your eyes. You have just completed the quick and dirty version of a portion of the meditation Heidi taught us. My experience, at least for the first bit, was more like, “I am (still wearing my work badge. Why didn’t I take it off) right here…I am (having an enormous spasm. I will never get up off this floor) right here…I am (going to the grocery store after this. I need coffee).” Strive for my experience and you’re missing the point. ☺
At left: The Belvedere Torso statue (early drawings by Amico Aspertini); at right: Body Shift dancers Susie Angel and Errin  Delperdang at rehearsal (photo by Michael Joplin)

Try to keep your mind on your breath and those Zen feelings with you, as I move on to my favorite part of the rehearsal. If you’re like me and you grapple with spasticity on a daily basis, you know we move about as fast as a herd of turtles. Add aging to the equation and you’ve got a herd of turtles slugging through molasses. So you can imagine the pure joy that beamed out of every part of my body when I heard Heidi say that our goal was to stay as still as we could for as long as we could. When we did move we had to move as slow as we could-keeping our focus inside. Our intention was to explore every glorious nook and cranny of our insides as we changed position. Halleluiah! I was on it. As soon as I closed my eyes, I felt like I was the only person on the planet-floating in a bubble that gently hovered above the ground. I was tuned in to every tiny flutter of every muscle. Priceless, gratitude, beautiful, and precious are the only words that begin to describe how I felt. Validated, genuine, worthy, and valuable were my only thoughts. Finally I get to be me; for me, and nobody else but me. This, this is what dance should be about. How can we dance with others if we can’t dance with ourselves?
At left: The Winged Victory of Samothrace statue, artist unknown; at right: Body Shift dancer, Silva Laukkanen from On Display Austin Pfluger Bridge Installment (photo by Kelly O’hare)

Listen friends, I hate to say it, but it’s time for me to wrap this up. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this blog post is a tiny sliver of my experience. There is so much more to tell both as the viewer and the viewed. To get the full effect of On Display Austin: A Movement Installation you must see it/feel it live and in person for yourself. I am over the moon grateful to have had the chance to be a part of it! I hope you’ll join me and many other Body Shifters on Saturday, December 3rd as we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with two showings at The Blanton Museum of Art located at 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Austin, TX 78712 from 12-1:30 PM and 2-3:30 PM!
 Body Shift dancer Susie Angel from On Display Austin Pfluger Bridge Installation (photo by Kelly O’hare)

 Body Shift dancer Michael Joplin from On Display Austin Pfluger Bridge Installation (photo by Kelly O’hare)

Body Shift dancer Jae Hoon Lim from On Display Austin Pfluger Bridge Installation (photo by Kelly O’hare)

Only you move like you. Feel it; celebrate it!


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What Are You Thankful For?

Happy Thanksgiving friends and supporters of VSA Texas! As this is the official day for giving thanks, we would like to share with you what we are thankful for:

I am thankful for the amount of creativity I have in my life. As every artist knows, it is really hard to make your living just by your artwork alone. So I must have a job. But I don’t mind at all, because I love my job. I get a chance to interact with artists and writers and dancers and singers on a daily basis and that makes my life more enriched and fuels my creativity when I do get a chance to create my own art. So thank you to all of the artists out there. Keep it up!
April Sullivan creating a yarn painting during the East Austin Studio Tour. Wearing a t-shirt designed by artist Steve Connor. (Photo taken by Jennifer M. Ramos

I struggle every year at this time to name what it is I am thankful for. I was raised in a home where we didn’t talk about our feelings, and what is Thanksgiving about if it isn’t about your feelings? But, because I have been given the assignment to cast out into the air my thankfulness, I will. I am thankful I have two brothers who love me warts and all, and who didn’t kill me those many years ago, although they tried their best. I am thankful for good friends who listen to my rantings and know that I just really, really care about all things vulnerable and powerless and want the world to be a better place. I am thankful that I have a challenging but rewarding job, working with people whom I admire and respect. I am thankful, although Austin is changing and growing in ways that I don’t like, that it still is one of the best places to live when you dislike the cold and snow and ice. And, finally, I am thankful that I still have all my five senses in good working order, that my intellect and cognition continue to keep me upright and forging ahead, and that the absence of TV and other media from my home has kept my sanity somewhat intact. Although some would question that last one.
Celia and her trusty steed in Iceland earlier this year

5 Things I’m Thankful for:

  • Dogs! Because of their ears. I love to pet a dog’s ears! Dog ear therapy!
  • The Instacart app. Delivering groceries to my house? Way worth it!
  • People who get right to the point
  • My support system (aka Mom)
  • My boss for her accommodating nature (she lets me sleep at work!!)

A German Shepherd puppy with ears forming a triangle over its head peers over a fence.
A gray and white basset hound with huge outstretched ears like an elephant stares straight at the camera.

First and foremost I am thankful for parents who taught me the golden rule, to embrace diversity, and to value giving to those who are hurting and especially those who are spiritually depleted. I am also thankful for being accepted at VSA Texas by such fun loving and conscientious individuals that raise me up to be a better person and help raise my awareness of folks with different needs. A special shout out to an amazing brother that challenges me to cook better, read more, take better photographs, and be good to myself. And even though he thinks he's right about everything, he usually has pretty good reasoning to substantiate his rightness. Darn he is so witty. Of course there are other family and friends that always provide me with wonderful sources of entertainment and wittiness as well, including play time with my great nephew. I am thankful for my theatre family and my film family who amazingly I still know throughout the years and we still pick up where we left off. Lastly I cannot thank enough the brave and courageous women that went before me to pave the way towards equality for women, those suffragettes, those in the background that fought the way for me to vote. I am grateful for the freedoms I have and hope to continue to have. I hope I can still fight the good fight for freedoms for everybody and am grateful again to my parents, that through their wisdom I learned to think for myself, make my mistakes, and make my choices knowing I would one day understand the wisdom in them.
VSA Texas staff members pose atop the snow-covered Great Wall of China with the help of a
choose-your-own-background phone app.
VSA Texas staff with the addition of new Development Director Janelle line up before a dozen flip charts posted on a white wall at the 2016 staff retreat.

I am thankful for my new home and even more for surviving another move with the added stress of remodeling that home for accessibility. Now that we're all moved in, I am happy to say it was well worth the wait and I finally live in a home designed with my needs in mind! I am also thankful for my creativity and for the people and organizations (VSA included) that consistently provide opportunities for me to express that creativity. Last, as with every other year, I am thankful for my family, friends, co-workers, personal care attendants, and I hope to add a dog and a new wheelchair to the list sometime during the next year!
Eric and friend Ryan perform a song at the VSA TX/CTD-sponsored Lion and Pirate open mic
(Photo courtesy of Malvern Books)

And last but certainly not least, on behalf of everyone here at VSA Texas, we would like to thank all of our generous friends and supporters – be they donors, teaching artists, contractors, volunteers, program participants and their families, or members of our statewide community of artists with disabilities and veterans. Your support in whatever form you express it means the world to us!

Okay, enough blogging for us! We want to know what you are thankful for! So if you can spare a moment on your turkey day, please leave us a comment below and tell us what you cherish most.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

OMOD San Antonio

Hey everyone! This is your friendly OMOD project coordinator here with the latest in OMOD news. Over the past six weeks, we took the OMOD program on the road yet again – this time to San Antonio. We partnered with the Center for Higher Independence (CHI) at Providence Place to provide an OMOD class to participants of the CHI program and members of the San Antonio community at large. We ultimately served eight participants in our program mostly from Providence Place. As for classroom assistants, we assembled an all-star team in Austin OMOD graduates Jennifer McKinney and Nissi Salazar, OMOD project facilitator Nicole Cortichiato, and veteran OMOD videographer and long-distance driver Nic Hester. Providence Place provided us with a rotating cast of staff members to make up the difference, and we even reached out to our original instructor extraordinaire Chris Strickling in Izamal, Mexico for her suggestions and revisions, and she truly was the secret weapon, ingredient, magician, story whisperer – I think you get the idea – of the class.

The San Antonio program was much like any other OMOD class, only with the addition of hellish traffic and Schlotzsky's on the way home. Whereas in our El Paso and Houston classes we contracted with local writing instructors to facilitate the classes, this time, with San Antonio much closer than the previous two long-distance programs, we decided to commute back and forth to San Antonio for six consecutive Tuesdays. Although we were present and on the ground for every class and thus eliminated the extra, often unreliable layer of Skype to reckon with, the San Antonio class did present its own set of challenges – as does most any class anywhere – but through creative problem solving and advice from OMOD staff members near and far, we were able to surmount each challenge with relative ease.
The San Antonio group sits in front of the packed cafeteria waiting for the showcase to begin. 
In typical OMOD style, the final class showcase evoked honesty, warmth, and humor through the telling of real personal stories capable of upending the dominant narratives told about people with disabilities. We heard stories about transformation, likes/dislikes, vacation adventures, pets, acting, bullying, friendship, aspirations, and independence. As OMOD instructors and staff members, we can never anticipate exactly how the audience will receive the showcase stories and we rarely expect which specific presentation tips or strategies will resonate with which participants – for some it's using hand gestures or eye contact; for others it may be losing their scripts in favor of remembering key points, or incorporating photos or other visual media to supplement a presentation by someone with difficulty reading or slow speech – but as long as we all show up, remain patient, and keep our faith in the process, we almost always succeed. Our showcase might have been on the shorter side, but it packed a punch I'm sure the audience will not soon forget!
Hannah smiles while presenting her story at the San Antonio class showcase.
Thanks again to Providence Place for hosting our OMOD class and to our myriad assistants, staff, and volunteers who made it possible!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Circle of Gifting

Hi everyone! It is April here and guess what! It is time for our annual Holiday Art and Gift Show at VSA Texas. This is our 8th annual exhibition of great art and gift items made by Texas artists with disabilities. If you haven’t been before, or even if you have, I highly suggest you attend. This is an event we started back in 2009 when we had our gallery. Who remembers Access Gallery? I miss that quiet little spot on Guadalupe. But even when we closed the gallery, we continued this show, because it is a way for us to showcase the talent of our artists from all over the state. We turn our classroom 101 into a shopping extravaganza. And I must say, the room really looks great this year (thanks to the fresh vision of our new staff member Janelle, who also took the photos for this blog, so you will see what I mean by vision)!

Here is why you should come shop at our Holiday Art and Gift Show. We are calling it the Circle of Gifting:
  • You buy something you like at our Holiday Show.
  • You give VSA Texas the money.
  • We give 70% of that money to the artist who created the art.
  • We take the remaining 30% and use it to keep our outstanding programs going.
  • Then you give that gift to your friend.
  • Your friend now knows about VSA Texas and may know someone who can benefit from our programs.
  • They send their friend to VSA Texas.
  • Maybe that friend is an artist and enters next year’s Holiday Art and Gift Show.
And it just keeps going! Don’t you want to be a part of that? I know I do. So come visit our Holiday Show. Here are the details:

Our shop will be open Monday-Saturday from 10am-4pm each day in Room 101 of the AGE Building. Come to 3707 Home Lane, Austin, TX 78705 and follow the signs for the closest entrance.
Poster for the Holiday Show

Here is a sneak peak of the show:

An overview of the exhibit
Lightcatchers by Sue Ducett-Lloyd of Austin, TX
Mugs by David Lamb-Vines of Lubbock, TX
Jewelry by Denise Knebel of San Antonio, TX
This is just a small sample of what you have to look forward to when you come to the VSA Texas Holiday Art and Gift Sale. We open up next Monday and run through Christmas Eve. Have you ever seen a Thanksgiving card? In Braille? Well, we have them! And you can be the unique person who sends one to a friend and starts the circle of gifting.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Halloween Edition

Greetings blog readers! On behalf of all of us here at VSA Texas, we would like to wish you a happy (and spooky) Halloween! Here are some of our fondest Halloween memories:

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays! First of all because CANDY!! I love candy and I rate all of my holidays based on the opportunity for candy intake. So that puts Halloween at the top of the list. I also love dressing up for Halloween! I am a big procrastinator on getting a costume together. Last year I was making a mask out of a recycled cereal box an hour before the party started. This year, I am sure I will pull something together before the big day.

My best Halloween memories are of dressing up and going out to Halloween parties with Milton. As a big lover of anything silly, he really enjoyed coming up with a wacky idea and then I would get creative on putting it together on a budget. This was not always easy since Milton was over 6 feet tall and the outfits at the local thrift store never fit that well. But that one time he was Frankenstein, the suit being too short at the ankles and wrists really worked out to be an advantage. Here are some photos of our Halloween fun:
Milton and April dressed up as Aliens (but mistaken for bees)
Milton dressed up as Joey Ramone and April dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood
April dressed up as a Zebra and Milton dressed up as Buckethead

One year I dressed up as a care bear and this amazing photo (below) was born. As my aunt tells me I was crying "probably because your mom cut your bangs crooked. Seriously. You were little, tired, jonesing for candy and a tad bit overwhelmed. You wanted to get the show on the road already."
Janelle as pouty care bear beside Godzilla, the devil, and a bat, all carrying plastic pumpkins for candy

I hate to kill the mood of this blog, but Halloween is hands-down my least favorite holiday. Really, my issue lies with the costumes, be it picking a costume that everyone else has already picked out, lacking the resources or craftiness to piece together my own, choosing a costume I should have known would offend everybody (dressing up as a disabled Vietnam vet = terrible idea), or not being able to realize a costume that is actually comfortable to wear. That said, there have been a few Halloweens where I was proud of my costume and one where I even won a costume contest, when I dressed up as a box of Chinese take-out and gave out fortunes I made in my first ever wheelchair costume (comfortable? not so much). Below is a picture of another fond costume memory: myself and my friends Rachel, Kat, and Bry posing for a photo at a haunted mansion themed dance in high school. I believe the ladies are dressed up as a hippie, a fairy, and a vampire; I am dressed up as a bum sporting a classic fedora and an upside-down sign reading, "To Scotland."
Eric and three friends posing in their costumes before a haunted mansion backdrop at the high school dance

Recalling memories of Halloweens and trick-or-treating is rather sketchy. I remember I liked the candy but not having to work for it. When we lived at Ft. Hamilton in Brooklyn, I remember going to the apartments of people my parents knew, and there were always homemade candy apples, popcorn balls, brownies, sometimes fruit or chocolate covered raisins, but not much in the way of candy bars. My brother and I usually wore makeshift costumes from my mother’s closet since there weren’t any costume stores and carried brown paper bags for the treats. Still I didn’t like trick-or-treating because I felt like I was begging for food from strangers. So I quit going out and made my brother share his loot.

My fondest memories are of my dad when we moved to Austin. He loved greeting the kids and commenting on their costumes. He set a big planter shaped like a cauldron in the bay window at the front of the house, put dry ice in it, and placed a corpse hanging from a noose above the cauldron. Of course all the lights were turned off, and it made for quite a show. Today I enjoy going around the neighborhood where my niece lives with my great nephew in his homemade costume and watching the outdoor parties where kids and parents alike have really decorated their yards.

Here’s a picture of the costume I might wear this year, if I decide to roam the neighborhood:
Count Orlok, the vampire from Nosferatu

Halloween has never been a big deal for me. My mother was Canadian, so she thought the idea of dressing up in a costume and going door to door to beg for candy was just a ridiculous idea. So I only went trick-or-treating once in my life – that I can remember. My brothers and I did go to the Halloween party at our school one year. I wore my mother’s dark blue wool army nurse's cape, which dragged behind me on the floor because I was around 7 years old. I won a silver dollar. I don’t think any candy was involved.

So, fast forward a few years. I am living in New York City and I have met my wonderfully crazy friend Janet, who is all over holidays of any kind, and Halloween ranks right up there. We are going to our company’s Halloween party and she insists that we dress up. So, I give her the lead and just go along for the ride. She took my father’s formal dress tailcoat from the 1930s and covered it with glittered fruit cut from oranges, bananas, limes, and lemons. She created antennae from orange Styrofoam balls to affix to the top hat, and glittered red satin sashes with our names. So this is the picture: top hats with antennae, black tail coat covered with colorful fruit, a red sequin scarf for a very short skirt, and a glittered sash.. Voila! FiFi and FruFru, the Manhattan Fruit Flies! And yes, we won the costume contest.

Now, onward to Austin. My friend Beverly asks me to help her greet the trick-or-treaters every year. She always does it up nice. I dress in black, with spider webs in my hair, and wear the frog feet I got from my friend Ann. I put the candy in a big cast iron pot with dry ice, so smoke rises up. I reach into this pot to get the candy. A nice effect! Bev is cooking stew, so the kids are afraid we are going to eat them, thanks to a little acting on my part. On the porch sit several mannequins, dressed realistically, with dark shadows and eerie music. Four middle school boys come to the door and physically jump back when I slowly open the door. After getting their candy they slowly back away from the door and then turn and run down her driveway. I heard one say, “ I wasn’t scary at all.” HA!

Finally, the frog feet played another prominent role a few years later. I went with a friend and her 4-year-old boy to Boo at the Zoo at the Austin Zoo, wearing my frog feet because becoming an amphibian at Halloween just seems right somehow. So we arrive at the store/cashier and are waiting for the train ride to begin. I sit on the couch and lean by head back. Something is not right. I turn my head to the right and am eye-to-eye with a large iguana, who was perched on the back of the couch. Yep, eye-to-eye we communed, and I could tell that he approved of my feet. Just saying.

Happy Halloween everyone. Be safe out there, have fun, don’t get sick on candy, and above all, celebrate your inner amphibian!

What are your fondest Halloween memories? Tell us in the comments!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mama's Got a Brand New Bed (For Now)

Yes, it’s true. I bought a bed for work. My name is Nicole Cortichiato, and I have narcolepsy. It’s a sleep disorder where my sleep schedule is different than yours. Way different, trust me.

Napping is medicine to me. I need a nap every 2-3 hours to function. It doesn’t alleviate all the symptoms, but it helps tremendously and my boss Celia provides me with that accommodation.

I need to sleep like you need to use the bathroom. Unfortunately, finding a bed to sleep on at a moment's notice isn’t easy. Often I’ve had to sleep in a coworker's car while at work, or if I'm out in public, find a coffee shop with a couch. Sometimes, if I’m alert enough, I’ll even walk into a business with a comfortable chair and tell the employee I need to sit down for 30 minutes, say I have narcolepsy or just that I have a medical condition, and hope they will be kind enough to let me rest there.

Fun fact! There are also horses, goats, and dogs that have narcolepsy. See below:

I know... when it’s a dog or other animal, we feel way more empathetic. That poor, poor puppy. Look at what he has to go through. :(

Anyway, I’m not writing to get your sympathy. I’m writing to tell you about my brand new bed. Why did I get a new bed? Well, the old one was this pathetic lawn chair with no lower back support and a screw missing. Not to mention it was three rounds in the boxing ring to find a comfortable sleeping position!

So, I found two different businesses that make a portable blow-up bed (Outdoor Junkie and Akface). A portable bed I can carry around with me and fold up into a purse? Awesome! Naturally I bought one from each company (one to keep with me and one to stay at work). Now if they could just sell it in a vending machine... Then I would really be in heaven.
Me in the midst of a work nap on a new bright blue bed.
Remember: no nap is complete without a blanket and Teddy. Yes, this is a medical condition.
The beds arrived AND I slept like a baby for two weeks! But then... one day I fell back trying to sit on one, and I hit my head pretty hard on a bookshelf. Ever try getting on an inner tube in the water? These beds are just like that, only there is no water. So, after my little accident, I decided to sleep on the couch in Room 101, which is sometimes available but definitely not a permanent solution for space reasons. For now, I guess I will keep the beds for when the couch isn’t an option, and maybe I need to look for a helmet to go with the blow-up beds:
Me in a motorcycle helmet. Somehow the lawn chair doesn’t seem so bad now.
So if you think a nap would do you some good at work – you know, to increase productivity – then I fully support your decision to get a bed and take naps at work. My suggestion though would be to get a giant bean bag chair or some other safer option. And if you have any suggestions for my plight, please send them my way, because mama could always use a brand new bed.

If you want to learn more about narcolepsy, you can find more information here:

Happy Napping!


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why We Need to See Characters with Autism on TV

One of the most frustrating things about parenting a child on the Autism spectrum is explaining to people how a spectrum works. Autism is one of those things where people have one experience with it and apply that to each and every kid that they come across. I suppose it is human nature to lump things into categories; I just never thought it would apply to my kid.

Most movies and television shows that portray a character on the spectrum give them some sort of “talent.” This has led to more people than you want to know about asking me point blank “So, what’s your son’s THING? I heard all kids with autism have that, right?” How I longed for years to see something that took away the ‘magic’ from kids on the spectrum and showed the day-to-day life.

Then, Parenthood got really popular on television and I had an entirely new thing to bitch about.
Max Braverman, a character on the popular television show Parenthood played by Max Burkholder, struggles with transitioning when a trip he was supposed to go on did not go as he had planned and begins to throw things around the room. His mother Kristina, played by the actress Monica Potter, stands by and attempts to help Max calm down.

I used to find myself incredibly annoyed at people coming up to me and saying “That kid on that show reminds me so much of your son! They are like the same person!” Then I would watch the show and want to punch a wall because what I was seeing was different from what I knew my child to be. It felt like such a disconnect and all I could think was “They have the same haircut and they are both on the spectrum. That’s it. Now stop talking to me and trying to make me watch that show.”

After years of staying angry at anyone who tried to compare my kid to one on television, it dawned on me that I was looking at things all wrong. I started to see the similarities – the trouble adjusting when things did not go exactly as planned, getting up in the morning, switching from one task to another. I started seeing what other people saw. I realized that my kid and the kid on that show didn’t have to be exactly the same for it to translate.

From Parenthood: Max sits on his bed cleaning the lens on his camera while his father Adam,
played by actor Peter Krause, stands beside him talking.

People NEED to see things on television or in movies in order to understand them better. It doesn’t matter if my kid and the kid on that show are the same, to the person watching, it’s about a connection to another perspective. If even one single similarity exists between the two, then it is a success. That’s one of the greatest things about visual storytelling; people feel connected to it. They feel like it’s part of their own life and maybe they understand my life a little more. And that is a wonderful thing.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Adventures in Choreography

(All photos by Camille Wheeler)

To be perfectly honest the making of this dance was a first for me. It was so full of energy and rich with possibility that the hairs on my arm stand up when I think about it. You’d think with that kind of inspiration this blog post would be a piece of cake. However, I have spent the last couple of weeks playing ping pong with my thoughts trying to make sense of it all. Then it hit me! In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a column entitled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” The piece became so well known that Australian film director Baz Luhrmann used the essay to create his hit song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” Besides being a clever piece of writing and a personal manifesto I try to live by, the words: “Enjoy your body, use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own. Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your own living room. Read the directions even if you don't follow them.” perfectly describe how I feel about what Silva and I casually call Together and Apart.
“Encountering Balance.” Silva and I find a moment of balance as we sit side by side on the bus stop bench while holding hands. My crutch dangles from my arm as we pull away from each other. We are together and apart.
From studio to pavement and everywhere in between Together and Apart reminded me that dance is fun and that the panic I feel when I try to make work is all in my mind. What else did you notice, you ask? Well, I’ve done a lot of work outdoors but this is the first time I have gone from place to place. As improvisers, we are taught to connect with ourselves first and then relate to our environment. With this work, I had to dare myself to move differently. There was so much to take in! I had to process it all before I could see where I fit. I discovered I could use all my senses. While I found it challenging to push beyond just using my eyes and skin for inspiration, it was so freeing. In fact, right before we called it quits, Silva and I were dancing on a sand-kissed concrete courtyard. I will never forget how that sand vibrated throughout my body or how the sound felt as it cascaded over my eardrums. It was like the sidewalk was saying, “May I have this dance.” Now I understand what dance teachers mean when they say things like, “The floor is your dance partner too.” It was beautiful.
“Hello sand! Shall we dance?” Our dance becomes a trio as Silva and I find ourselves doling with the sand that has blown across a concrete court yard. We stand facing each other, about 2 feet apart. Silva strikes a modified warrior pose as she lounges forward. Her chest is low to the ground as one leg bends in front of her and the other extends behind. She stretches her arms out wide to either side. She is looking down as if she is going to kiss the sidewalk. I respond by bending both knees and crouching as low as I can while extending a crutch out in front me. I am looking down like a bull ready to take on her matador.
Tell me more, you say? Your wish is my command. Unlike other on-site pieces I’ve been in, we never rehearsed in the space for this piece. It was a true adventure. Eat your heart out Dora the Explorer! Before you trade in your ballet tickets for safari tickets, let me tell you what I think made our adventure possible. First, the score or movement “rules” for this piece were short, simple and sweet. If our movement was any more complex, I’m pretty sure our adventure would have turned into a disaster. Second, we had no official audience. As with any performance, whether in a studio; on a stage; or somewhere in the community an audience is a given. Basic expectations have been set before you take your seat. The performers are “on” way before the curtain rises. But, like a polka dot on a striped shirt, Together and Apart dared to be different. I never felt like I was performing! You’d think our matching outfits would have been a dead giveaway. Yet, I was stunned when barely a head turned as shoppers passed at Wheatsville Co-op. Plus; I’m always hyperaware of cameras during a performance. However, with Camille and Rey it was different. They were adventurers too. This experience would not have been the same without them. For those of you who have ever taken an Elements class or attended a DanceAbility training it was “One Mover, One Watcher” at its finest ☺  Silva and I had the freedom to focus on our relationship. I’m so glad we had each other’s backs because for the first time ever the risk taker in me didn’t mind taking a back seat. I was happy when Silva started climbing tables and lying on the ground because it helped me conserve my strength for the journey ahead. And, believe me I needed all the energy I could get. I have never been more present and more authentic in my life. I felt awesome! By the way, we did build a little bit of an audience. By the end of the day, people were definitely wondering if they should cross our path.
“Peek-a-boo. I see you.” Silva and I see each other in a whole new way as we sit side by side on a bus. Our torsos twist toward each other and our eyes meet. We take a moment to acknowledge one another through the finger telescopes we made with our hands.
But, wait there’s more. The bus, there’s no way I’m ever going to forget dancing on a bus! Seriously friends, this is tombstone material. It was thrilling to feel the motion of the bus as it moved forward. I loved how the up and down movement of its shocks and struts affected the quality of my movement. The space was so concentrated you could feel a pin drop through the sound of steel and motor oil. Truly a fantastic lesson in how gravity moves through the body, pure fun. Again, I felt like the bus was dancing with me. I felt like a sponge again. I had to take in before I could make a move. I felt completely taken care of. The best part was hearing the bus driver tell us how much he enjoyed our dance and that he hoped his driving was okay. He played a dual role of audience member and performer. I have always wanted to make a piece that explored this concept. I finally got my chance. Capital Metro you haven’t seen the last of me.
“Movement meets inertia.” As we sit side by side on the bus, our arms swing out in front of us as they complete a spiral that came from above. The palms of our hands grow wider as they face the floor. Our fingers grow longer as they pull away from each other. We are waving goodbye to the old and welcoming the new. It’s time for a new dimension of on-site choreography.
Well friends, I’m just about out of words. But, before I sign off let me leave you with this: GET OUT THERE AND EXPLORE THE WORLD AROUND YOU. Be a sponge and soak in the inspiration. Then, move the furniture in your living room, introduce yourself to the nearest sidewalk, or star in your own personal dance party during your next commute (remember safety first, of course ☺) Just get out there and move! Your environment is waiting and it wants to dance.

With love and gratitude,

Click here to see Rey Barrera's video of the Together and Apart performance!