Forty years ago, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith founded VSA to ensure that people of all ages living with disabilities could learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts. Over the course of those 40 years, countless artists with disabilities have benefitted from the Ambassador’s important vision and work. One exhibition in the 25/40 Celebration, entitled VSA 40th Anniversary: Championing the Arts, features eight such artists on whom the arts, and VSA, have had an enormous impact.
Violinist Niv Ashkenazi first performed at the Kennedy Center in 2007, after winning the VSA International Young Soloists Award. Since then, his exceptional talent and association with VSA have brought him back to Washington, D.C. and the Kennedy Center stage many times. An active performer and soloist, Ashkenazi has made several Carnegie Hall appearances and has performed in Europe, the Middle East, and across the United States. He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra and works as a coach with several local youth ensembles. He has organized concerts for head trauma patients at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and was a founding member of the trio, Ensemble Eclectico, which performs for audiences with limited or no access to live music.
Actor and musician J.P. Illaramendi was accepted into one of the first groups of the Experiential Education Initiative, a selective internship program at the Kennedy Center for people with disabilities. During this six months long, intensive, full time experience, Illaramendi, who has Down syndrome, was highly valued by his fellow workers and showed an advanced understanding of professionalism in the theater. At the end of the internship, Illarramendi was hired by the Kennedy Center as an usher at the Eisenhower Theater. He is also a regular volunteer in the office of the Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA and Accessibility.
As a young woman, Marquetta Johnson explored painting, sewing, and embroidering on fabric, dyed in colors she created herself. After recovery from a spinal injury in 1989 required nearly a year of rehabilitation, Johnson returned to her art with a new vision: to use her skills to bring art into the lives of young people. She soon connected with VSA arts of Georgia where she found exposure and advocacy for her work, professional development for her teaching goals, and “…all the things an artist needs to participate in the profession.”
Born without a left forearm, Nicole Kelly has continually challenged her disability, from childhood to representing Iowa in the 2013 Miss America competition. The self-described Broadway musical geek followed her older siblings into just about every extracurricular activity available to young people in her hometown, including dance and music and drama and sports. The theater world opened to her when she was selected as a VSA Apprentice at the prestigious Williamstown Theater Festival. Kelly calls the apprenticeship an invaluable experience, saying, “It catapulted this small town Midwestern girl into the day-to-day grit, as well as the glamour of major metropolitan theater, and helped me connect with other theater professionals who have helped me in my career.”
Accomplished singer and songwriter Blessing Offor is a 2010 VSA International Young Soloists Award winner. His performance on stage at the Kennedy Center captivated the audience, and in the years since then, his career has blossomed. Offor appeared on season 7 of The Voice, he performs regularly and writes music daily, blogs for The Huffington Post, and was recruited as a speaker by an internationally renowned speakers bureau. According to Offor, the VSA International Young Soloists Competition and performance helped validate the stature of his career and the performance recording was his short-form resume.
Tami Lee Santimyer’s love of performing began when she was a small child, studying dance in her hometown in Pennsylvania. Even though she could not hear music in the conventional sense, she found she had a knack for communicating its rhythms with her tiny body. When, in 2007, VSA and the Kennedy Center co-produced the children’s musical Nobody’s Perfect by Marlee Matlin and Doug Cooney, Santimyer, then a graduate student at Gallaudet, was the obvious choice to play the lead. The play was a landmark in accessible communication, seamlessly weaving American Sign Language, captioning, speech, and music into a funny, compassionate, and thought-provoking adaptation of the children’s book by the same title. In addition to her continuing involvement in theater, film, and television, Santimyer also works at Gallaudet University, encouraging the next generation of great ambassadors.
In 2013, Boise, Idaho native Cal Sheridan was selected as one of the winners of the VSA Playwright Discovery Program. He came to Washington, D.C. for a developmental workshop of his winning play, Cal Sheridan: Not Suffering at the Kennedy Center with theater professionals. Sheridan loves being a part of the theatrical experience, on stage crew as well as acting, but he especially loves telling a story. Right now Sheridan is working on the first season of a sitcom that he hopes to market to the likes of Netflix and Hulu.
A native Hawaiian who grew up the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Colette Young plays flute and piano, has been a church cantor, and studied ballet, modern, Hula, and Tahitian dance. Since her selection as a 2013 VSA International Young Soloists Award winner, Young has remained active in VSA activities, including contributing to the VSA International blog, presenting at conferences, and performing at events. At one event, Young was thrilled at “meeting Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith—where I had the honor of thanking her in person for what she has done for the young disabled artists of the world.” Young, who has dyslexia, has just finished two masters’ degrees from Columbia University’s Teachers College and is formulating a plan to work toward a doctorate that will bring together music, science, and disability issues.
Images of these extraordinary eight artists, along with more of their personal stories, will be on display in the VSA 40th Anniversary: Championing the Arts exhibition in the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States. The exhibition runs Thursday, July 16, 2015 through Sunday, August 2, 2015, and is free of charge.