The arts in Minnesota are more accessible to people with disabilities today—thanks in part to three individuals and one organization that value the arts. The 14th annual Arts Access Awards are nominated by the public and presented by VSA Minnesota, to recognize outstanding accomplishments by artists, arts organizations, advocates and educators that help create a community where people with disabilities can learn through, participate in and access the arts. This year’s award, created by Brian Jon Foster of Minneapolis, is called the “Jaehny” in honor of Jaehn Clare, a co-founder of VSA Minnesota.
The 2011 awards were presented Sept. 26 at the new Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, 516 Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Attendees also participated in a tour of the new facility.
Most Active & Visible MN Artist with a Disability – Carei Thomas, Minneapolis
It was the mid-20th century in the culturally diverse Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where Carei Thomas took his first piano lessons. After his family moved to Chicago during his teenage years, he formed a doo-wop group and began exploring spontaneous vocal composition. At Chicago’s Roosevelt University and Chicago Musical College, he was introduced to elemental jazz piano voicings and four-part modern vocal harmony as used by the Hi Lo’s and Four Freshmen.
In the late 1960s, Thomas played with Dexter Gordon and Art Taylor in Paris, Ari Brown of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and Archie Shepp in “Old Town” Chicago. He began an alliance with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; and he continued playing piano as a means to realize or hear “outside” the compositions going on “inside” his head, his soul, and his self. Thomas moved to Minneapolis in 1972 and began developing several controlled improvisational concepts he called “Brief Realities”— which were how he wanted to use composition in fresh ways (going back and forth chronologically in pendulum fashion).
In 1993, Thomas became seriously ill with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system. He was hospitalized and in physical rehabilitation for two years. But he continued to create and was able to adapt his hands to produce chords much like the ones he created before he was paralyzed. He has founded and co-founded musical ensembles that play diverse works. He has produced a variety of interdisciplinary events for the community, held residencies from kindergarten through college, and been recognized through awards and commissions.
Outstanding Educator involving Students with Disabilities in the Arts – Linda Guidera, Next Step, North St. Paul
Linda Guidera, of Next Step Transition Program in North St. Paul writes the following: “My mother taught me how to see the world through an artist’s eyes, and it’s added such joy to my entire life. Having received my BA in art at UC Davis, I went on to get my teacher certificates and started teaching in special education. It didn’t take long to discover the many talents in the areas of the arts of those children in special education and how important it is to encourage their areas of strengths while trying to help them with their areas of disability.
“I have taught kindergarten through college level, special ed and regular ed, in the parochial setting as well as public schools. This is my fifth year at Next Step Transition Program working with students who are ages 18-21. They’ve been working on their most difficult areas of learning for over 12 years now, and many are “sick of school.” Helping students, even at this stage in their lives, to see the world through an artist’s eye, to learn the skills needed to enhance their innate talents, as well as investigating careers that could be available to them through the discovery of these skills is not only rewarding to me, but can have a lasting impact on our students’ futures.”
Participating students at Next Step had the opportunity to explore casting methods with Gita Ghei, a public artist. They designed ten different sculptures inspired by their dream careers, then worked collaboratively to cast 60 table centerpieces using wax casts from clay and plaster molds. Some were displayed at the awards ceremony.
Outstanding Producing Group Involving People with Disabilities – Minnesota Fringe Festival, Minneapolis
The Minnesota Fringe Festival is a performing arts “event” that takes over Minneapolis-St. Paul for 11 days every August. More than a thousand artists present works in every discipline and genre—musicals, comedies, dramas, storytelling, dance, opera, multi-media and every kind of experimental show. The 168 productions in the Fringe’s 18th annual Festival in 2011 were selected by lottery from nearly 400 applicants. They performed in 18 venues, all of which were checked for wheelchair accessibility.
The Fringe has continually endeavored to increase accessibility to Fringe events. They select patrons with vision or hearing loss to preview a list of Fringe shows in order to help an audio description coordinator and an ASL interpreting coordinator determine the best shows for those accommodations. Over the years they have increased the number of these shows—this year there were 27 audio described and 16 ASL interpreted. They have occasionally offered captioned shows and a fragrance-free venue.
Performers with disabilities have produced their own Fringe shows: Michael Price, Michael Merriam and Amy Salloway this year, and James Livingston, Tony Wentersdorf, Dan Reiva, Joybubbles, Eric Peterson and Carol Hough in the past. Other artists with disabilities have been involved as performers, artistic staff and volunteers.
By training box office staffs in good customer service, the Fringe has created a culture that is welcoming to all. The increased participation of seniors and people with disabilities, both as patrons and performers, is evidence of their continuing success in that regard. They continue to make efforts to make their website accessible and provide other forms of access when the site is not completely accessible. They continue to provide resources to staff and volunteers on disability and accessibility issues.
Outstanding Advocate for Arts Opportunities for People with Disabilities – Wilbur Neushwander-Frink, Mankato
Wilbur Neushwander-Frink is the Office Manager for ARC Southwest Minnesota in Mankato, where she has worked for six years. She works with many arts groups. One is the Different Drummer Dance Club, which has met twice a month for the past four years in a Mankato pub. It’s a place where people without disabilities can see for themselves that the people with disabilities in the dance club are not scary or someone to shy away from.
She is also an organizer for Self-Advocates of Minnesota (SAM), where she is an advocate and ally for people with disabilities. She has also been the director of The United We Stand Players of New Ulm for more than 17 years. The group performs a full-length show every couple of years, as well as skits on request and being involved in ceremonies for the “Remembering with Dignity” project of Advocating Change Together (ACT), for which she is a grassroots organizer. Years ago many people with disabilities were put into institutions, and when they died, they were buried with a number instead of their name. Wilbur has taken her actors groups to the ACT ceremonies and had them perform and give each person, who was formerly only a number, a name.
In Mankato she has directed the Aktion Club Theater, sponsored by Kiwanis as part of its mission to help people with disabilities experience inclusion in the world of theatre. They have been going strong for four years. Their first full-length play, which she wrote, was performed at Mankato West High School in July for 600 attendees.
2011 Jaehny Award Creator – Brian Jon Foster, Minneapolis
This year’s Jaehny awards were created by Brian Jon Foster, a vinyl inlay artist from Minneapolis who used some of the same materials he uses in his flooring, sculpture and other art projects — vinyl composition tile.
Foster has a colorful website at www.brianjonfoster.com, where he shows a sampling of flooring projects that indeed turn an ordinary space into a show place—as he says, “fully functional works of art that will last for years and years.” Not only are the designs of rooms, tables, lamps and wall-mounted artworks full of intriguing three-dimensional shapes and color combinations, but his titles are spunky – Blue Lozengers, Big Kiss, Dream Stream, Olive Shaker, and Either the Table Is Stacked or the Hand Is. . .
For the past several years, Foster has been a regular attendee at monthly meetings of the Artists With Disabilities Alliance, especially since it meets at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design near his home and studio.