Books, Music and Film

5 Favorite Movies About Disability

It’s Disability Pride Month! Especially in smaller US cities, this celebration often gets overlooked. For this year’s reminder, I wanted to share my top favorite films centering around disability.

Benny and Joon

Though I was just a tiny pipsqueak when this movie came out, from what I know this film was pretty progressive for its time. It presents an honest snapshot of the strain and sacrifice caring for a family member with a disability or mental illness can often entail without turning the cared-for into a burden or someone to be pitied, which is a delicate but important balance. It also ultimately advocates for independence and autonomy. These two misfits, both with brains that work differently than what is considered “normal”, end up crossing paths in a pretty comedic way that involves a lost poker game. Benny is calm, easy-going, kind hearted, and incredibly knowledgeable on antiquated and obscure film history. He can recall a plethora of dates and trivia about his area of interest, yet he can’t read or write. June is impulsive and intense, and can experience pretty severe psychosis if unmedicated but is verbose and well spoken, an intuitive painter with a genius level vocabulary. As the Benny and Joon grow together along with the other colorful characters in their community, this film shows how we all have strengths and struggles. No one is meant to do things alone. We need all kinds and we need each other.

Mr. Blue Sky

Another film that is a sort of love story centering on disability, this one is low budget and lesser known. I’ll be upfront, the intro credits look like they were done in Microsoft Power Point, and the acting is a bit after school special. It’s definitely independent. Still, it has over a 7 rating on IMDB, I believe because of the unique view of interabled relationships.  The premise involves a love triangle between a group of old friends that grew up together as kids. Very Hallmark, except for one detail … one of the two ladies involved has down syndrome. I don’t want to give too much away, but as the plot unfolded and the male character admitted his unconventional crush, even I had trouble wrapping my mind around it. I was challenged to ask myself why I found this confusing when they are two consenting adults who both have an understanding of their feelings. Challenging is exactly how I’d describe this film, and why I’ve thought of it often since first watching it last month despite the fact that it arguably isn’t the best made film in the world. Some stories just need to be told.

Best And Most Beautiful Things

Be prepared to be challenged again by this documentary. Michelle, our leading lady, is so vibrant and interesting you will wish you could hang out with her for a day. She is legally blind and autistic, and has struggled to fit in throughout her life only to finally find her place within the kink/s&m community. This documentary is not about sex. It’s about discovering your identity(ies) (we are all so much more of an “and” than an “or”), it’s about breaking barriers and assumptions, it’s about how people with disabilities are expected to live in a perpetual state of childhood and treated like they are all the same (For more on how people with disabilities can and do participate in alternative subcultures, see the fabulous Drag Syndrome). Seeing someone who loves who they are and just shines (I was an unconfident, self-deprecating mess at 20!) is a message we can all receive and apply to our own lives.

Special

Ok not a movie, but this show is just plain fun and has all the trappings of a hip, witty sitcom but the main character happens to be a gay man with Cerebral Palsy. What makes it so different is the genuineness of the situations and dialog, I’m sure because the starring actor is also the writer. Ryan O’Connell based the show on his own experiences. His mother is another major player in the story who had her own arc around caregiver burnout, yet still having a difficult time letting go when her son wants independence and privacy. There are plenty of deep, sometimes very uncomfortable situations explored, always with humor, grace, and dignity.

Margarita With A Straw

Hailing from India, this coming of age story follows a college student who travels to America to attend school in New York.  I’m going to get my one gripe out of the way early: I wish they would have cast an actress who actually had Cerebral Palsy. For insight into why this matters when “isn’t the point of acting to pretend to be someone else?”, see this short Ted Talk by Maysoon Zayid. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing skip to minute 7.

Like many at this age, the main character is finding who she is, discovering her sexuality and what she wants in life. She grapples with finding someone who finally ‘sees’ her, but still having romantic feelings towards someone else. It’s messy, she makes mistakes, she hurts people … You know, just like we all do sometimes. That’s kind of the point. Disability activism is also touched on which I think is great, as I wasn’t introduced to that world until I met some very cool people through my work … more about that at the end!

Eagle Vs. Shark

Ok, I had to add an extra one to the list because this movie is so under watched and just one of my beloved favorites. This movie was Taika Waititi’s directorial debut back in 2007, before he was a big old deal after working with Marvel. When people have seen it, they inevitably compare it to Napoleon Dynamite due to the purposeful awkwardness and quirky wardrobe, and this honestly annoys me to no end. This movie is so much more than eccentricity for the sake of eccentricity. Though disability is never mentioned, it’s pretty obvious the two main characters lie somewhere on the ASD spectrum. Amongst the quirk and whimsy serious themes such as grief, isolation, broken family relationships, isolation, trauma, bullying, and betraying yourself to be loved and accepted are all integrated into the more lighthearted moments.

Edit … One more! I was just about to hit post and I thought of another film that I just had add to the list last minute.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

This film is a true story about Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke and became almost completely paralyzed at 43 except for his left eye. It is based entirely on a memoir he wrote after the accident. How could he do this when he has what is called “locked in syndrome” (the mind still works as it always did but the individual is “locked in” to a body that can no longer move or communicate) and can’t speak? He and his speech therapist devise a system of spelling out words using a blinking system to indicate certain letters with his eye that can still move. I can’t fathom experiencing something like this. Beyond my astonishment at Bauby’s determination I don’t think I ever realized that speech therapists quite literally save lives. Throughout the film are also Bauby’s personal reflections on how different he became after the accident not just physically but spiritually and emotionally. Leading up to what happened he was … well, a bit of a jerk. He reflects, “Does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person’s true nature?” It’s a tough watch, but always a creative soul, Bauby in his own way triumphs through what I can only imagine is unbelievable psychic pain, “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly”.

I had the most wonderful experience of hosting a disability pride party this year at my workplace. Our art students with disabilities shared stories and performances, and I could tell from the whispers and reactions of guests that people went home a bit changed, with a new perspective on people with disabilities in our community.

If you’d like to see more of what we do at Creative 360, please visit our online gallery. You can watch some of the performance footage in the Acting Gallery. My favorite thing about art is its power to unlock untapped potential, and its ability to bring vastly different people together.

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Exhibitions and Other News, New Work

New Art Series : Peace

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a series … since Unlimited from way back in 2017 to be exact. This new one is going to be on 22×28″ canvases and will be completely multimedia. I love mixed media because it allows the artist to use the best tool for each component of their composition. I draw people better than I paint them still at this point, so figures will be in colored pencil. Interesting silhouettes or clothing … fabric it is! Skies and birds? Acrylics of course, and why not palette knife paint the birds ;).

This series is going to be a way different theme than I’ve explored before. I always like to include deeper messages in my work, but have never done an explicitly spiritual message because it is important to me that my art is able to speak to viewers coming from all different places. Each work in this series will represent one of the fruit of the spirit, and though this idea comes from the Christian tradition, these principles are positive to cultivate in everyone’s life.

I started with Peace, maybe because this is something I have been desperately needing to grow in my own life over the last couple of years.

Peace is active. Peace is a verb, it is not simply the absence of noise. Peace takes work, and it involves risk and often involves stepping out and becoming uncomfortable. Making the changes necessary to grow peace are often painful. To truly be at peace our view of life’s value cannot be determined solely by circumstance, because external circumstances will undulate up and down completely out of our control, leaving us to be in emotional chaos, completely sucked beneath the waves.

Being a bringer of peace in others’ lives and in society as a whole is equally difficult. It means listening when we would rather shout over someone, it means sticking your neck out to protect or defend someone else even at personal risk of how others may view you or treat you afterwards, it means setting strong boundaries.

In this image, a woman is guarding a crowd of people that are behind her, blocking them from the shadows of chaos. These shadows have tried to grab her and drag her down, her arm is marked. However, the shadows cannot penetrate. Doves circle around her head which symbolize an inner strength and calm within her spirit, and can also symbolize her halo of protection that shields her just as she is protecting others.

The source from which we draw our peace protects us. The source can be sturdy and formidable, or … not so much. I am reminded of a speech one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace (who was actually an atheist), gave that really had an impact on me when I was floundering in the waves. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”. I’d encourage you to check out the entire speech discussed here. Another author that probably has about as opposite a personality from me as you can get but has really made me think, Mark Manson, writes in his self help book perfect for people who hate self help books, “True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving”. Much of life is composed of struggle, which is why if we wait for the perfect external circumstances to be at peace, we will never have it. Similarly, he discusses the importance of choosing the right metrics to determine what makes us and our life “good”. Faulty metrics used to define our life’s success and value are anything we don’t have control over, such as money, social standing, etc. which DFW also cited in his speech as destructive forces to worship. He calls worshiping these forces slipping into our “default mode”. They are the things we chase after and value when we are living without reflection, consideration, or deeper evaluation. They represent our base human nature, so to speak, and we all slip into this mode from time to time especially when under considerable strain.

Where does your peace spring from? What creates your circle of protection as you brave life’s trials? Are you more often a bringer of peace or of chaos to the people whose paths you cross in your day to day life? These are all questions I considered while creating this work. I strongly believe this series is going to be true art therapy for me as I work, and that my eyes will be opened throughout the process. I truly hope I am able to impart something of value to viewers as well.

There are layers of meaning, as I am a big believer in the fact that art should make people think. I’d love to hear what others see in this image, so please share if you are so inclined!

PS … I am so honored this first installment won an Award of Excellence at the Midland Artists Guild’s Annual Juried Exhibition last night, especially amongst such a fabulous collection works! Click here to view the entire show virtually. And yes, I made my jacket and paintbrush necklace! More on the inspiration for my wearable art creating spree soon.

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New Work

An Early MerMay Surprise!

Timely as May is getting closer and closer, I recently after long last finished my mermaid painting that I started at the beginning of 2020. This poor little lady kept getting brushed aside for more urgent projects over the years. It is also the first human figure I’d ever started with acrylics when my preferred mediums are colored pencil, ink, or watercolor, so there was definitely a self education process.

I’ve described this project as really giving the proverbial finger to gatekeepers who believe certain supplies can’t be used in fine art. Working at an arts non-profit, I am a big fan of use everything, and actually one of my favorite pieces I’ve seen at a museum in awhile was a giant panther in the jungle that was composed entirely out of flatback rhinestones and pony beads!

I first sketched the basic outline of my mermaid on the canvas base. I then used gesso to apply a variety of textured materials where I wanted a 3-dimensional surface: netting from avocado bags, tissue paper, and yarn. After I acrylic painted the main imagery, I dry brushed over certain areas I wanted to have an iridescent sheen with metallic craft paints which are also perfect for highlighting the texture. I glued tiny shells to the tail and the edges of the rock, brushing over with a watered down coat of black metallic to help them fade into the rest of the design.

She certainly exceeded my expectations! This is why you see projects through to the end past that “ugly phase” in the middle.

While we are on the subject of beautiful mermaids, check out this mermaid themed merchandise created by my Artshop Students! All designs were created by artists with disabilities. Show them some support by checking out our Redbubble Shop! Happy (early) MerMay 😉 …

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Artist Bio

5 Things I’ve Learned As A Working Artist

These last two years have been tough for a lot of people, but especially tough for creators. As we are just now shifting towards some degree of normalcy, I wanted to share 5 things I’ve learned as a creative over this strange journey.

Your reason for creating and metric for success needs to be something you can control.

Reasons that depend on the public’s reaction and choices that are completely out of our control, such as money and popularity, will ultimately lead to a whole lot of frustration and angst. Making money off of what you do is valid and necessary, we all have bills. However, it is nearly impossible to be happy if this is the core reason you are creating. Many people create for self expression or therapy. Not everyone creates for themselves, and that’s ok too. For some, just the act of creating itself doesn’t do it; their work is meant to be shared, seen, and heard in order for the process to be complete. Reasons for creating along this vein can be to inspire others to look at the world in a new way, to make other think about x, to connect with and speak to x group of people, to spread joy, to educate. Everyone’s reason is going to be different. My reason is a combination of public and private, which makes sense for me as a hybrid INTROextrovert. I create for self expression and as a form of communication, but also to share the joy of art with others. When I teach, I especially like reaching those who have previously felt limited. I love releasing untapped potential and work a lot with adults with disabilities and older adults beginning artistic journeys late in life. You can control outreach and expression by actively seeking opportunities. You can’t always control fame and fortune.

Don’t include others by limiting yourself.

In other words, don’t do less to make others comfortable – take them alongside you. Creating is so personal, it can be devastating when your work is getting overlooked. Creative fields are also so niche and not as prevalent as other pursuits, so that creators often feel like they are in constant competition with over creatives. It can get weird when a fellow artist starts having a ton of success and you feel like you’ve been working just as hard. I’ve been in both places. I’ve felt like a fool for devoting my life to the hard work I am doing to see things keep falling into place for everyone else. I’ve also recently been in the place where certain things finally began to come together, and I’ve felt some pushback. At times I’ve questioned whether I should move out of the way for other emerging creators. Especially if creating is life-giving for you, do not do less because someone else is asking why not me? Take them along for the ride, collaborate, invite them to share a space with you at shows or festivals. They may end up saying nah, and that’s ok, but don’t crush your own momentum that you’ve worked so hard for. Everything is an eb and flow, up and down like much of life. If you sense a jealous vibe, reach out as a mentor because you know how it is – you’ve been there. Don’t be inclusive by holding yourself back.

There’s nothing wrong with grabbing onto trends that are fun, but follow trends because you want to not because you think it will make your art better. It won’t.

The thing with trends is, the market ends up becoming oversaturated with copies. There is no guarantee your watercolor paintings of Pokémon will take off more than the other 5000 artist on Instagram doing the same thing. (As you can see, I tend to not be so great at following trends. I’m pretty sure Pokémon is over, but I just started playing Pokémon Go last year. Late to the party as always!) If it’s fun and makes you happy, then that’s reason enough to go for it. But, don’t struggle through trying to force your work into a shape it doesn’t fit just to be trend aligned.

Doing art you aren’t good at isn’t a waste of time.

As working creatives, it’s important to set aside time for art to be play as well as work. I recently took a clay hand building class after putting it off for the longest time because my head kept telling me, “In school clay was the only time you ever got Bs in art class, it’s not like you’re ever going to go buy a kiln and start doing this professionally so what’s the point”. The point is to play. For me, it is the same thing with piano. As I plunk along on my little keyboard learning the same song I started trying to play a year ago, do I ever think I’m going to play for a crowd or write my own music? Absolutely not. But in that moment, am I feeling relaxation, joy, and a sense of growth? Certainly.

Going digital isn’t all bad.

Social media and now especially Covid has changed how artists are expected to interact with the public. It can get tedious to constantly curate online media and feel like it is taking away from important time that could be spent creating. Virtual classes can feel impersonal and lacking an important social and experiential element. Virtual exhibits can flatten work and we all know viewing a tiny jpeg on a phone screen can’t compare with standing in front of a largescale work immersed in it. Neither is the experience being at a venue hearing live music the same as watching a livestream. Valid points, but all artists should be excited about the increased accessibility technology provides. I saw an artist I love post a discussion about how harmful it is to consider digital art to be just as valid as traditional art, because an important element of emotional connection with art is the artist physically touching the materials, moving their hands to create. As an advocate for creators with disabilities, the first thought that popped into my head is, what if an artist can’t move their hands the same way as everyone else? Why is art invalid because it uses a different process? What if a person doesn’t have access to transportation but would like to take an art class? What if a person gets anxiety in crowds but wants to experience a live concert or theatrical performance? What if a person can’t afford to travel to a big name art museum but wants to become inspired by some of the world’s most famous masterworks? I get it, change is hard for me too and I truly don’t enjoy creating digitally as much as I do traditionally. Creating video content doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s not perfect. Inspiring others to create who live on the opposite side of the country and will never attend one of my in-person art classes? That’s amazing regardless.

Other creatives – what is something you’ve learned recently?

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New Work

Surviving Winter In MI, Or Unleashing My Inner Bob Ross

I am like a plant. If I don’t stand in the sun every day I wilt. Unfortunately, I also live in Michigan and I am more wimpy about the cold with each year that passes. Incidentally, I have not been outside as much as I should over the last 2 months. I am always a big fan of if you can’t be outside, bring the outside in so I recently started doing something I never thought I would do after university classes … Painting landscapes!

Though I feel most at peace during a walk in the woods, I always shied away from nature paintings because I tend to lose interest creating something that one could easily just look out their window or at a photo to see. But then I remembered Eyvind Earle, who did the breathtaking background illustrations for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. He was able to capture a dreamlike quality in his landscapes that still showed us a world that was comforting and familiar, but that we couldn’t quite access in our waking hours.

Growing up in Midland, MI one of our local landmarks is Dow Gardens, a Japanese style garden that celebrates color and geometry. I chose this place as the subject for my first largescale landscape, replacing the blues and greens with purples, yellow ochres, teal, black, and burgundy. I embellished with abstract patterned upholstery fabric for some of the trees, floral cutouts and lily pads for the foreground, and accented some of the rocks and branches with metallic acrylic.

I actually just finished the above piece this past weekend though I started it before my triptych below. Just as I was starting my landscape, I was contacted by King’s Daughters Assisted Living, also in Midland (I live only a city over now but still work in Midland!), to come up with a piece of art for a blank wall they had that would tie together their newly renovated space. I was excited to not only put my painting brain, but my interior design brain as well, to use for this project. The new upholstery and decor was all in blues and greens, but much of the carpet in this mid-century-modern building was a brilliant fire engine red, and that was staying. I immediately thought of the red bridge at Dow Gardens, and suggested this nature scene as a way to tie together the carpet and the new furnishings. Many of the residents at King’s Daughters lived in Midland for decades, and being surrounded by images of familiar places brings joy and comfort, especially for those struggling with memory.

I’m inspired to capture more locations from my own past as I continue to develop my acrylic painting, a relatively new focus for me. Maybe some architecture will be next!

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Exhibitions and Other News

Now Showing : Breaking The Stigma

I have not been making as regular and in-depth posts as usual over the last year as I’ve gotten busier and have been devoting more time to youtube, but I wanted to share about a very special show I am a part of this month running through February 20 called “Breaking The Stigma“.

I was beyond thrilled with both the priviledge and responsibility of being invited to be part of a show centering around using art as both a personal therapy and a way to communicate inner experiences in a way that makes them accessible and understandable to people from all walks of life. I’ve written often on this site on what an important communication tool art always was to me as someone with anxiety, especially social anxiety. In a recent Throwback Thursday post (Yes, I promise I will be getting back to those!), I talked about how even as a young kid I was prone to using art to tackle darker themes or difficult emotions. Art allows for a method of transparency and vulnerability that can often be easier for others to understand and embrace than by using words alone. Aside from the end result, the process itself of art making has the power to manifest a sense of purpose and peace no matter what else may be going on around the creator.  Creativity allows people to unlock their untapped potential. I see this firsthand in the classes I teach where many of my students are beginning artists or artists with disabilities

You can read the article announcing the show opening which introduces the other artists involved in this show and shows photos of some of their work. I wanted to also share some of my personal thoughts about their art.

David Feingold’s art was exciting for me to see because a lot of it I would consider surreal portraiture which is the subject I myself enjoy creating most, but it was digital rather than traditional. His narratives were very personal, and spoke directly to the title of the show as they addressed the idea of mental health stigma head on. I found myself inspired to once and for all fully explore creating art digitally this year.

2 of Rebecca Allen’s pieces have been familiar to me since before I knew they belonged to her, as they take up residence in our elevator lobby display where I also maintain a showcase for my students with their work for sale. I loved the surreal nature of her figures. They are raw and honest, and the pain they feel is visually represented in the sharp, rough textures of her sculpture. They invite you to step into another’s shoes and imagine yourself in their situation and struggles.

Cynthia Keefe’s art dolls were very … approachable and trustworthy to me, though that may seem odd to say. They felt alive. Many of them have serious or even near faceless expressions and some in contrast are reaching outward, with mouths contorted in anguish or extreme emotion. Still, they seem like beings I would come to for reassurance or counsel in the important act of seeking the perspective of an older and wiser female. They have seen and experienced much, their story woven into their skin and intricate clothing.

For those in the area, we will be having a discussion panel on February 3. Follow the Creative 360 website and get on the mailing list for regular updates :).

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Techniques and Tutorials

Good Omens for 2022 With Pantone’s Very Peri

It’s that time of year again! Yes, a day after New Year’s, but also the time when Pantone assigns the new Color Of The Year ;). I actually found out what the new color was going to be before Christmas, but just got around to doing my annual themed artwork after the holidays. I hope it means something that 2022’s color is one of my favorite hues!

The collage of lovely Very Peri art inspiration above is by myself (including some of my recent Christmas themed ACEOs), Emiliano Vega, Bonne Idee Art, Coral REEFlections, Giacomo Carmagnola, Artologica, and beautyspock.

Happy New Year!

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