Preparing Art Teachers to Work with Students with Disabilities throughout their Careers

Six adults looking at pieces of wood while they collaborate on an art project.

Educators participate in an art education symposium at Moore College of Art and Design.

At Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, preparing art teachers to work successfully with students with disabilities is at the core of their art education programs. From their undergraduate art education major, to the Master of Arts in Art Education with an Emphasis in Special Populations program, to their art education symposiums, helping current and future educators make art accessible to all students is an institutional priority.

Assistant Professor Amanda Newman-Godfrey says preparing Moore students to serve people with disabilities in the art classroom is a thread that runs through everything they do. That begins with first year undergraduate students in the Art Education program, who get hands-on experience in creating and implementing art curriculum for a diverse aging population thanks to a partnership with the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

From there, Newman-Godfrey says undergraduate students take several different classes that address working with students with disabilities, to include topics such as differentiated assessment and instruction strategies, Universal Design for Learning, and the history and regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The hallmark undergraduate course is a Special Populations class, which offers Moore students the opportunity to teach art to students with disabilities alongside a certified special education teacher. In Special Populations, Moore undergraduates plan lessons and learn how to be observant, reflective, and thoughtful in the classroom so they can be constantly adjusting, modifying, and adapting based on the needs of their young students.

Moore’s Master of Arts in Art Education with an Emphasis in Special Populations graduate program similarly launches students into a hands-on learning experience, through partnerships with the Barnes Foundation and SpArc Philadelphia. Graduate students create and implement lesson plans for the SpArc participants based on artwork from the Barnes Collection. Graduate Program Director Lauren Stichter notes that graduate students often enter the program eager for mentors and peers to connect with, as it can be hard to find others with an interest in art and special education in their home communities.

A woman with blonde hair and a black dress standing in front of an urn with branches

Lauren Stichter

For art educators seeking a continuing education opportunity, Moore offers semi-annual symposia on topics in art and special education. The next symposium, Going Beyond the Art Room: Engaging Diverse Learners in Museum and Community Arts Settings, is on April 1. At that event, attendees will have the opportunity to visit neighboring sites, including the Barnes Foundation and Franklin Institute, to experience hands-on learning with inclusive tools. Stichter says a goal of the symposium is to make teachers more comfortable accessing local museums with all students. The symposia, now in their eighth year, usually attract about 100 educators.

Stichter, Newman-Godfrey, and their students at Moore are eager to share their work in art and special education with others, and are able to do so through partnerships with local arts organizations and colleges. Stichter says sharing promising practices across the field can only increase everyone’s success in the classroom, and ultimately make more art teachers comfortable and ready to work with students with disabilities.

Five Tips for Submitting a Good VSA International Young Soloists Competition Application

Each year, a select number of outstanding young musicians with disabilities, ages 14-25, are recognized by the VSA International Young Soloists Competition. These emerging musicians from around the world receive a $2,000 prize, professional development activities, and the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center. If you or someone you know is interested in applying for the 2017 VSA International Young Soloists Award, check out these application tips before submitting your entry:

  1. Upload high quality, live recordings. Professional recordings are not necessary. Video recordings are recommended but not required. If you are using accompaniment, it should be live and not pre-recorded.
  2. Submit pieces that showcase your proficiency as a musician. Please choose selections focusing on your primary instrument regardless of whether you play multiple instruments.
  3. Variety is encouraged. We encourage you to submit selections by different composers showcasing facility with different styles or eras of music.
  4. This award is for excellence in performance, not songwriting or composition. Original compositions may be submitted, but will not augment your score. Select pieces that showcase your technical skill, artistry, and musicianship as a performer.
  5. Carefully review all elements of your application before submission. Applicants will not be notified if components of their application are missing.

You can find more information about the 2017 VSA International Young Soloists Competition on the Kennedy Center’s website. Application materials should be submitted no later than February 8, 2017. Questions about the VSA International Young Soloists Program can be sent to

Six Tips for Submitting a Winning Playwright Discovery Script

Do you know a budding playwright or screenwriter? The annual VSA Playwright Discovery Program invites young writers with disabilities and collaborative groups that include students with disabilities, in U.S. grades 6-12 (or equivalents) or ages 11-18 for non-U.S. students, are invited to explore the disability experience through the art of  writing for performance: plays, screenplays, spoken word poetry (for single performer or a group), or music theater. Writers are encouraged to craft short works from their own experiences and observations, create fictional characters and settings, or choose to write metaphorically or abstractly about the disability experience.

Selected winners in the Senior Division (grades 10-12 / ages 15-18) will receive exclusive access to participate in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., and the opportunity to participate in staged readings and workshops alongside the nation’s premier collegiate playwrights as well as participate in the festival’s award ceremony.

Before your students apply online at, encourage them to consider the following tips for creating a winning script.

  1. Address the topic of disability in a meaningful way. Be thoughtful about how you incorporate disability into your script, and try to avoid clichés. Check out the playwriting resources available on the Kennedy Center’s website, including a series of short essays on the disability experience written by theater professionals with disabilities.
  2. Thoroughly develop the plot. Vary the stakes throughout your story to increase the sense of mystery and interest. Incorporate plot twists and subplots, but remember to resolve them.
  3. Pace the action well and sustain interest throughout. Many scripts have promising starts, but convenient or rushed conclusions. If the plot unfolds throughout your script, you will keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
  4. Make your characters believable and compelling. The characters in your play should elicit an emotional or intellectual response from your audience. Work on making them relatable and give them opportunities to learn and grow throughout the story.
  5. Use dialogue effectively. Dialogue is the playwright’s tool to further character development and express a range of human emotions. It should also reflect the writer’s language skills and a sense of natural speech patterns.
  6. Make your script your own. Tell a story that is unique, complex, and surprising, and your script will stand out!

The 2017 VSA Playwright Discovery Program is accepting applications until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, February 1. For more information or to apply, visit

Bringing Spoken Word into Inclusive Science Classrooms

Students study literary arts in many forms throughout their educational careers, from novels to poetry and short stories to plays. But after working with middle and high school girls in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) lessons, Venneasha Davis and Dr. Temple Lovelace had an idea about how to make the content more inclusive and culturally responsive. They incorporated a different literary arts form: spoken word.

A photo of Venneasha Davis

Venneasha Davis

Davis and Lovelace introduced spoken word into their Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. classroom sessions on science topics, and also used spoken word to talk about self-esteem and empowerment. They encouraged students to create pieces of spoken word rooted in both their own experiences and in science.

The Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. program includes students with and without disabilities, and Lovelace says that spoken word is a great equalizer for the participants. “Any time you open arts and academic content to intersect, kids are able to pull from different experiences and kinds of comprehension,” Lovelace says, continuing, “[A student] can be strong in putting spoken word together, but not in science concepts. It levels the playing field and allows students to feel more included.

When starting a spoken word session with the Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. students, the educators set the stage for creation with a foundational idea, like a quote or song of the day, or a trio of facts about the relevant academic content. Lovelace says using a prompt helps so one student does not have more knowledge about the topic than a peer. The educators also allow students to use their phones and tablets to quickly look up information on a topic.

A photo of a woman with a dark blazer and white necklace

Dr. Temple Lovelace

After discussing the foundational idea, students free write about it, then analyze their free writing before creating a spoken word poem. They also sometimes write as a group, depending on the students and time available. The educators explain everything in three ways—verbally, in writing, and with guided notes—to ensure all learners understand the instructions. Lovelace and Davis also provide examples for every part of the literary process, as well as a template to help students get started.

Spoken word is just one of the art forms Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. incorporates into its sessions. Students have also used digital storytelling, photography, dance, filmmaking, visual art, and audio production as tools for science learning. Regardless of the art form being used, Lovelace and Davis always approach the lessons with respect and understanding for the differences the children bring to the classroom.

“Because of my background as a special educator, I always approach learning differences not from a deficit basis, but as understanding who each individual young person is. Then I walk myself and the teaching artists through the content and how to differentiate our instruction, “Lovelace says. She also emphasizes the importance of being ready to differentiate on your feet, while you are in the classroom.

According to Lovelace, incorporating spoken word and other arts components into project-based, small group learning allows students to demonstrate character strengths along with academic strengths. “If I am a good collaborator, communicator, listener, those skills are just as important as mastering software applications,” she says, continuing, “By bringing arts into the school space, we allow everyone to shine.”

5 Tips for Working with Literature Artistically and Inclusively

by Susan Snyder, Ph.D.

Literature, whether a book text, oral story, poem, or script, provides a springboard for work on comprehension. You can explore the text through ears, eyes, bodies, and minds. You can use sound/music, image/visual art, movement/dance, storytelling/theater, and media arts/film. When considering adaptations for students with disabilities, remember that one disability does not impair other abilities.

  1. Establish routines and patterns for working with literature that provide options for expression, with a goal of comprehension.
  2. Use repetitive structures to provide students many chances to improve and succeed. The brain seeks pattern to learn, and repetition is a characteristic of many literary forms. Think of repetition in songs, visual art images, dances, and stories you know and love. Books have these repetitive patterns as well, whether a picture book or a passage from a chapter book.
  3. Provide choices to address student needs, and to challenge students to perceive the message through different lenses. Have students read or listen to the text four times, isolating the sounds, images, movements, and sequence. You can create a retelling with each student choosing to elaborate with either sound, gesture, or image.
  4. Help students learn writing mechanics with artistry. For example, imagine the shapes of punctuation, and how they might be visually organized on a page to emphasize the purpose of each. Victor Borge was a master of matching punctuation symbols with sounds for emotional effect. Add a movement for each, and you reinforce the concept visually, aurally, and kinesthetically.
  5. Be flexible about whether students write stories first, or read the stories of others. Some students do better when they write first, then read. Others prefer to read first, then pull out key words or phrases to inspire their writing.

For some students, our adaptations allow them to achieve in one modality when they cannot through traditional strategies. For those who succeed in traditional classrooms, they sometimes find that they are lacking the skills to think and learn through music, visual art, dance and theater. For all students, exploring literature through multiple modalities enriches learning and increases understanding.


A photo of a woman in glasses and a pink top.

Susan Snyder, Ph.D.

Susan Snyder, Ph.D. is an arts-integration teacher and consultant, and president of arts education IDEAS: a company supporting the art of exceptional teaching and learning. Susan creates curriculum designs that place the arts and artistic processes at the center of inclusive learning strategies. She has developed Total Learning, an arts-integrated professional development program

VSA Network Celebrates International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Around the world and across the VSA Network, communities will be celebrating International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) on December 3, 2016, with special events, performances, and exhibitions. The following celebrations, planned by members of the VSA Network, offer a glimpse into the diversity and breadth of programming throughout this community.

  • A drawing of a person covering the right half of their face with their hand.

    Featured artwork from VSA Egypt’s upcoming exhibition

    VSA Egypt is organizing a visual arts exhibition featuring the work of six artists with disabilities from all over Egypt. Featured artists include Zaynab Abd Alrahem, Rahma Kaled, Ahmed Nagi, Yahya Adel, Karim Alnagar, and Vivyan Anton. The exhibition will be held in the art gallery of the Cairo Opera House.

  • Kulttuuria kaikille (Culture for All) of Finland is participating in DiDa 2016 – Disability Day Art & Action in Helsinki on IDPD. DiDa offers a wide array of arts and events, including theater, dance, circus, poetry, and creative workshops.
  • VSA Philippines will celebrate with an exhibit bazaar sale at the Asian Development Bank in Pasig City. Items featured in the exhibit include Saori weaving (created through a community-based rehabilitation program), paper folding, rugs, bags, and cards.
  • The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh will host their “Come Say Hi!” program, where children can explore the world of calligraphy and experiment with creating their own lettering style. Attendees will also learn to say “Hi! My name is…” in American Sign Language and Braille to celebrate IDPD.
  • Dancing Wheels Company & School of Ohio will offer a public performance of The Snowman on December 3. Local children of all abilities and ages will participate in the Kids Around the World section of the show onstage with the Dancing Wheels Company
  • VSA Wisconsin is participating in an event hosted by insurance company WPS Health Solutions. They will have a public awareness table with information on their programs and merchandise to sell. VSA Wisconsin President Kathie Wagner says this is the second year they have participated, and they find it to be a good opportunity to get the word out; last year, they gained a volunteer from the event!
  • New Jersey’s Roxey Ballet is offering a sensory-friendly performance of the holiday classic Nutcracker on December 3, 2016. This performance is especially designed for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other sensitivities or special needs. Audience members can find a pre-visit social story and performance picture schedule on the Roxey Ballet website.
  • The River Performing and Visual Arts Center in Houston, Texas, is hosting their fall 2016 recital, Global Bazaar, on December 3. Students with disabilities and their siblings ages 4-19 will sing, dance, and act in musical numbers. The recital is free and open to the public.
  • At the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, the Art Connections educational space will feature an annual Women of Vision show, produced by the museum’s class of women who are blind or have low vision. Art Connections will also have paintings by students at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind on display on December 3.
  • Two women sitting on a stage use ASL to communicate.

    Workshop leaders Kim Weild and Alexandria Wailes of IRT

    IRT of New York City is offering Space, Time, and the Body, a free introductory Viewpoints-based workshop for deaf and hearing artists presented by Kim Weild and Alexandria Wailes, on December 2.

  • First Stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will deliver a special curtain speech during performances of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on December 3, making sure audiences are aware of the day and the many ways First Stage is inclusive to all people.
  • VSA Massachusetts is participating in a December 3 event in the Atrium of Boston’s Prudential Center. Artist Jon Sarkin will display his work and give a spoken work performance about living with an acquired brain injury.

Belfast’s Replay Theatre Company Makes a Splash with Students with Disabilities

A female actor in a blue costume holds a boy audience member in a pool.At Replay Theatre Company in Belfast, Northern Ireland, part of the organization’s mission is to provide meaningful arts experiences to children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties and those who live and work with them. Their current production for students with disabilities is Into the Blue, a show in a pool featuring actors who sing an original score.

We had a chance to speak with Janice Kernoghan, Replay’s artistic director, and Anna Newell, director of Into the Blue and former artistic director at Replay, about the show and the company’s other work with students for disabilities.


VSA: Tell us about what happens at a performance of Into the Blue.

Janice Kernoghan: Three pupils attend each show, each with an adult companion (who could be a teacher, teaching assistant, parent, etc.). We tour the show to special school hydropools across Northern Ireland, so our audiences are pupils from each school we visit. This increases accessibility as it means no travel for children for whom travel can be disruptive and/or difficult. Into the Blue is currently on its second tour, and on both tours we have also performed it in the hydropool of the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice.

We send schools a social story for the show in advance so that students can get an idea of exactly what happens at a performance. Three performers sing the entire 20-minute show in three-part harmony. The performances always have a ratio of one actor to one child. This means that the actors can be completely attuned to the reactions and preferences of the child they are working with.  This intensive interaction is central to all of Replay’s work with children with disabilities.  Each different song in Into the Blue represents a different feeling of being in water—gentle waves, bubbling whirlpool, open seas.  To accompany these changes in mood there are different props used, including colanders and reflective mirrored globes. You’ll find video footage of the show on our website.


Three actors in blue costumes perform for three children and their caregivers in a pool.VSA: What was the inspiration for creating the piece?

Anna Newell: I’d always had the plan to make a show in a pool for children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties, inspired by our contact with [UK children’s theater company] Oily Cart who had made a very different piece in the same unusual environment. Much of my work for both the very young and children with disabilities involves substantial use of harmony singing. There is something ultimately, beautifully, and viscerally connective about human voices singing in harmony. And the pool is one of the few environments where children and young people who are anxious find calm […and] have a (literally) more fluid kinaesthetic experience. So it made sense to me to put these two things together.


VSA: What was the development process like?

Anna Newell: Practically, we would spend the mornings learning the sung score and the afternoons taking the singing into the pool with audience members. This show is incredibly responsive to each audience member and is a totally different bespoke experience each time, with the performers nuancing the show in tacit dialogue with the audience both as individuals and as a group.  And whilst there are initial conversational openers—gentle droplets of water dripped on hands, floating reflective globes, cascading colanders—during the development process, the children and young people in all their extraordinary diversity are training the performers to be able to create a blissful watery adventure that is developed/devised in the moment substantially led by the audience. Some shows are very, very splashy and energized, others are very, very gentle, some are cheeky and playful, and others are intensely intimate; some are all of these at the same time in different corners of the pool with different audience members.

When I was creating the first ever show I made as Replay’s artistic director for this audience, I had a massive personal revelation about what theatre meant to me. These children and young people revealed to me that what I think theatre is, is very simply one human being communicating with and connecting with another human being. And my job as director is to create the optimum conditions for this communication, for this connection. Into the Blue does this, I think, really uniquely, with its combination of a blissful environment, David Goodall’s exquisite vocal score, and performers who have been trained through the development process (and trained by their audience as much as by myself) to listen intently with all their senses and to find the connection, to find the conversation, and to travel on the adventure together with their audience.


An actor in a blue costume holds a colander draining water up in the air for a child in a pool.VSA: Does Replay have any other productions or programs happening this year for students with disabilities?

Janice Kernoghan: Replay always has a production for young audiences with disabilities in development. Into the Blue is the last project for audiences with disabilities during 2016; however, in February we will be continuing development work on our brand-new show Yes Sir, I Can Boogie. The show is designed for children ages 3-7 with physical disabilities who may not always be able to get on the dance floor. Yes Sir, I Can Boogie is a party of a show where everyone gets to get on down, and is an upbeat celebration around the joy of dance and movement.

Next year we will also be retouring Snoozle & The Lullabugs, a rockabilly-rockabye show for children under age 5 with profound and multiple learning difficulties or severe learning difficulties, which can also be enjoyed by under 5s without disabilities. In the show, Snoozle wants to stay up and rock, but his band, The Lullabugs, just want to go to sleep. Using everything at their disposal, including chilled-out doo-wop harmonies and calming sensory activities, The Lullabugs try every trick in the book…but Snoozle will not be easily swayed. The audience decide for themselves and vote with their eyelids who wins this battle of the band.


For more information about Replay Theatre Company and Into the Blue, visit their website, There is also an article about Into the Blue on the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s website.

October 2016 VSA Webinar: “The Teacher and the Teaching Artist: Collaboration and Community Building in the Classroom”

In “The Teacher and the Teaching Artist: Collaboration and Community Building in the Classroom”, teaching artist Nancy Volante and special education teacher Chad Hamilton discuss how the classroom is a community where learning, communication and socialization take place everyday. Building a strong foundation and relationship between classroom teachers and teaching artists creates an environment where the classroom community can engage in the intellectual and creative process. In this one-hour webinar, we examine and discuss the necessary components of a strong collaborative relationship that sustains learning, communicating and socialization in the classroom—for both students and professionals.

Click on the play button below to watch a free recording of the Webinar. (You will be prompted to enter your email address and contact information prior to viewing the Webinar.)



Nancy Volante received her Master’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College in Vermont. She teaches theatre and dance residencies and professional development workshops throughout the country. Nancy’s particular interest is integrating arts education in the classroom. She is co-creator and former lead teaching artist/coach for Everyday Arts for Special Education (EASE). Her community based art practice addresses place, identity and memory through movement, text and image.

Chad Hamilton is a Special Education Teacher and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) based in Brooklyn, NY. This is his 11th year teaching within District 75 of the New York City Department of Education. District 75 is an all-borough special education district within New York City, serving students with a range of disabilities. As a classroom teacher, Chad works with students classified with Autism, Intellectual Disability, and/or Emotional Disturbance, in Grades K-5.

Summary of Discussion Topics:

  • Six Characteristics Defined
    • Trust
    • Diversity
    • Mindfulness
    • Interrelatedness
    • Respect
    • Effective Communications
  • How to Build and Sustain the Six Characteristics
    • Professionalism
    • Pedagogy
    • Collaboration
    • Flexibility
    • Creativity
    • Trust
    • Alturism
  • Outcomes when the Six Characteristics are Present

Links and Resources:

We want to know-what did you learn from this webinar?

(Re) Invention Exhibition Features 15 Outstanding Young Artists with Disabilities

Since 2002, the Kennedy Center and Volkswagen Group of America have teamed up for the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program, to recognize and showcase the work of emerging young artists living with disabilities, ages 16-25, who are currently residing in the United States. (Re)Invention gives fifteen young artists the opportunity to display their work in venues across the nation.

(Re)Invention presents artists whose work exemplifies themes of renewal and self-discovery. From the unexpected whimsy of an animation, to a bold series of self-portraits, this work engages, challenges, and delights us. Collectively, these works of art captivate us on many levels: we are asked to explore ideas of self, community, legacy, and collective memory.

With this traveling exhibition, we aim to give visibility to the work of artists with disabilities throughout the United States, positioning them to broaden our understanding of disability and the arts and to create new contexts.  These fifteen artists give us examples of how art can be used to rewrite a personal narrative.  They are present in their community and in the world, and are motivated to use their creativity to send a strong message of inclusion and unity in the arts.

Monica Chulewicz, Grand Prize
I’m Not Here For You To Taunt, 2016
Cyanotype prints on vintage dress (90 in x 35 in)

Monica Chulewicz is a Polish-American artist who was born and raised in New York. A printmaker and collagist, she uses vintage found materials in both digital and traditional hand-printing processes. Chulewicz was born with a progressive disease that has caused several secondary illnesses, and uses her chronic health issues as a means of inspiration for her work.

The cast of anonymous women depicted in I’m Not Here For You To Taunt represent collected memories from un-known histories, and evoke a continuum of loss and renewal throughout the generations. Chulewicz experiments with fiction of the past, using vintage photographs to create dialogues between memory and time, and address themes of existence, fragility, and mortality.

Chulewicz earned a BFA from Adelphi University in 2013. She currently lives and works in New York.

Victoria Dugger, First Prize
Soft Machine 1, 2015
Encaustic, nylon, brick (12 in x 18 in x 32 in)

Unflinching and direct, Victoria Dugger’s work confronts us with a duality of beauty and the grotesque through sculpture that heavily distorts the human body. Soft Machine 1 is part of a series exploring tropes of disability, sexuality, and fear of the unknown through figurative shapes that are unsettling recognizable, yet still very foreign.

Through this series, Dugger, who uses a wheelchair, aims to reinvent and restructure the body as seen by common societal perceptions and expectations. Her art at once questions the imagery and stereotypes associated with beauty and disability, and pushes us to rethink our own projected narratives of the disadvantaged.

Dugger earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Sculpture from Columbus State University in 2016, and continues to create art from her hometown of Columbus, Georgia.

Kate Pincus-Whitney, Second Prize
Getting Ready, 2015
Acrylic, woodcut, ink and gesso, on canvas (36 in x 48 in)

Born and raised in southern California, Kate Pincus-Whitney celebrates portraiture and the theater of the dinner table in her narrative paintings and multi-media installations. Her art is informed by her experience of navigating the world with dyslexia and stereo-blindness: female forms, table scenes, food, patterns, color, and abstracted and misspelled words are recurring motifs woven into her work. Pincus-Whitney aims to synthesize social and political themes of identity with visual memory and personal histories. She sees herself as an “artist anthropologist,” following and celebrating the thread of women in her family history, depicting female strength, resilience, and creativity.

Pincus-Whitney is a 2016 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she focused on visual and performance art. She is currently working as an artist, and divides her time between New York and California.

Mara Clawson, Award of Excellence
To Survive, 2016
Digital video

The vibrant strokes of color in Mara Clawson’s To Survive waver separately, before coming together to form the whimsical and thoughtful imagery that accompanies her narrative. As the video unfolds, we see that the growth of images mirrors the artist’s own progression toward greater self-sufficiency. Clawson has familial dysautonomia, a neurogenetic disorder that affects her autonomic and sensory nervous systems. Through creating art, she has found a profound sense of self, stating, “Making art makes me who I am.”

Clawson attended the Ivymount School in Potomac, Maryland and the Katherine Thomas School in Rockville, Maryland. She currently produces her artworks at Art Enables in Washington, D.C., and in her home studio.

Courtney Wynn Cooper, Award of Excellence
Slip, 2016
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas (50 in x 36 in)

Born and raised in Mountain View, California, Courtney Cooper’s work is subtly complicated by texture, and typically focuses on one or two central shapes. While the images themselves come across as minimal and uncomplicated, the process of creating them is not. Cooper treats each painting as an equation in need of a solution. As she begins her first sketches, patterns and rules of perspective begin to emerge that she gradually builds upon to create the finished piece. In a response to finding herself anxious and overstimulated, Cooper often imagines stepping into her canvasses, escaping into a somewhat disorienting world of non-conformity. She is interested in the space between what is wrong and right, saying, “You can stay longer with something in a state of perplexity than in a state of total clarity.”

Cooper currently studies Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.

Christine Driscoll, Award of Excellence
Pup Art, 2015
2D animation

Christine Driscoll, who is on the autism spectrum, was born in Yokohama, Japan and grew up in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. In 2015 she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation from Savannah College of Art and Design, where she wrote, directed, and animated Pup Art, leading a team of 17 students to create the final product. The short film was inspired by the antics of Driscoll’s own dog, Rocky, and gives a playful look into the creative process. Her style is loose, gestural, and inspired by the work of classic animators such as Glen Keane and Carlos Grangel.

When she is not collaborating on projects as a 2D animator and storyboard artist, Driscoll creates 3D found-object sculptures, and is an active contributor to online art communities. Her goal is to make film adaptations of her written stories using different techniques, including CGI and Stop-Motion, as well as 2D animation.

Nicholas Fagan, Award of Excellence
Same Shame Smell, 2016
House paint, spray paint on canvas (36 in x 24 in)

Nicholas Fagan creates abstract imagery that deals with symbolism, disability, and language. His experience with dyslexia and dysgraphia has led him to devise a unique system for understanding the written word. Fagan ascribes meaning to the shape of the word itself, rather than its individual letters, and has trained himself to recognize these symbols as stand-ins for objects or concepts. He uses this technique in Same Shame Smell, saying, “I lay words on top of each other and allow their shapes, not the actual words, to convey the visual message.”

A native of Herndon, Virginia, Fagan is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at The Ohio State University. He lives and works in Columbus, Ohio.


Benjamin Gibbs, Award of Excellence
The Feet 1996, 2016
Inkjet print (14 in x 11 in)

Introspective yet quietly objective, Gibbs’ work places at its center his experience living with cerebral palsy through self-portraiture. The Feet 1996 is one of those rare examples of the genre where the body itself is absent, yet what we see is just as intimate, if not more, than if the artist were depicted. This work is part of a series called Three Point Perspective that explores perceived perspectives on disabilities from the people Gibbs interacts with on a daily basis—strangers, close friends, and family—before ultimately giving us insight into how the artist sees himself. The Feet 1996 is the first in the series, and is meant to convey the isolation Gibbs feels when people define him by the objects he uses in daily life.

Benjamin Gibbs was born and raised in northern Virginia, and recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in photography from Longwood University.

Harrison Halker Heinks, Award of Excellence
Vanity, 2016
Inkjet print (24 in x 18 in)

Harrison Halker Heinks uses photography as a means to establish himself in the world. He states, “People have a tendency to ignore me because I have a disability. One way I see myself existing in this world is by capturing my reflection in everyday scenarios.”

Reminiscent of twentieth-century street photographers like Lee Friedlander and Vivian Maier, Heinks inserts himself subtly yet deliberately in his images through shadow and reflection. He explains that this type of self-representation illustrates his life with autism, in that he feels caught in another plane that runs parallel to the world in which everyone else lives. As he looks at the images he creates, Heinks places himself in a new, shared, context beyond the window, saying, “By looking at my work, I am present in their world. Being present is what motivates me to create.”

Heinks attends Edina High School in Edina, Minnesota, and creates his art at Upside Right Studios.

Zàira Lee, Award of Excellence
Still from HOMELAND, 2016
Inkjet print (36 in x 24 in)

A trained pole dancer and poet from Oakland, California, Zàira Lee’s art interweaves ancestral stories of oppression through video and performance art. Her current work explores ideas of ceremony and social justice, and seeks to honor past, present, and future histories of gender and sexual violence through ritual pole dance. The pole is a conduit to these experiences, and acts as a source of empowerment for Lee, who lives with anxiety and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The photograph seen here is a still from HOMELAND, a collaborative video piece in which a blindfolded Lee leaves a violent past and returns to a decolonized home.

Lee graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies and a focus on carceral geographies and human rights. She lives and works in Oakland, California.

Jeremie Austin Miller, Award of Excellence
Primary Bowls, 2016
Ceramic, fiber (approx. 4 in x 4.5 in x 4 in each)

Created using both hand building and wheel throwing techniques, Jeremie Austin Miller’s work often challenges the viewer with provocative statements. For example, his vibrantly colored Japanese-style tea bowls are at odds with the fiber bowls, which are made from over $500 in shredded US currency. Through contrasting the traditional with the unexpected, Miller’s work starts a conversation about usefulness, intent, context, and privilege. The process of creating art allows Miller to better understand himself and others with mental illness, and to communicate to the broader community his often complex and abstract ideas.

Miller studies at the University of Kansas, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in art with a concentration in ceramics.

Abigail Nash, Award of Excellence
Clean Break, 2016
Oil on canvas (44 in x 35 in)

The sensitive and intimate rendering of detail is something Abigal Nash takes very seriously. As an artist with low vision, objects even at a short distance are indistinct and become difficult to translate into paintings. By bringing the animal bone within her range of vision and using a brush the size of the tip of a pen, Nash created the detailed and intimate still life seen here; the colors and textures in Clean Break invoke the many-colored Texas Hill Country landscape from which the bone came.

Nash is passionate about bringing accessibility to the arts. A native of Mason, Texas, she studies both studio art and political science at Southwestern University.

Alexandra Novess, Award of Excellence
Heart Strings, 2015
Acrylic, granite, violin strings on canvas (28 in x 18 in)

Alexandra Novess’ abstract mixed-media paintings are meant to make the viewer feel a subtle intrusion. In Heart Strings, she uses violin strings to illustrate the fluid and unpredictable motion of many mental and neurological conditions; the rough granite pieces are reminders to stay grounded during times of unease.

Novess’ own experience with a sleep disorder surfaces in the sinuous structure of her work. Her paintings, with their organic materials and multiple layers, function as a timeline, and give structure to the places where her memory is affected by sleep deprivation. She believes that the more we acknowledge and try to understand the prevalence of hidden disabilities, the better equipped we are to address something that so deeply affects our modern society.

Novess lives in Austin, Texas, and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in psychology and statistics.

Alice Shockey, Award of Excellence
Spaces in NYC, Crown Heights, Kingston Avenue Station, 2015
Lithographic prints (8.5 in x 12 in each)

Alice Shockey uses photography and multimedia installations to study different iterations of demarcated space, both within communities and within the body. Her work looks at the personal and minute, as well as the interpersonal and broad-reaching. For example,

Shockey uses her art to reclaim her relationship with her body in the context of her experience with chronic Lyme disease, as it displaces her sense of self and normalcy. In other instances, such as in Spaces in NYC, Crown Heights, Kingston Avenue Station, she comments on issues of boundaries, displacement, and community geography. Some of her broadest-reaching work looks at the visible and invisible forces that shape a community as seen through the lens of her family’s history as survivors of the Holocaust.

Shockey is a 2016 graduate from Oberlin College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art. She plans to continue a process of artistic advocacy and self-discovery.

Darryl Terrell, Award of Excellence
I Wish I Was Perfectly Happy, 2015
Inkjet print (triptych, 36 in x 24 in)

I Wish I Was Perfectly Happy is a very personal exploration of body image, black masculinity, queer identity, and disability. Pulling from influences he observed growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Darryl Terrell’s art is a reflection of black family structure and popular culture, asking “What is American blackness? How does it look?” Terrell’s triptych examines the black, femme, and queer bodies as separate categories living within the same identity, and how they occupy space in the American landscape. Terrell’s mission is to educate; he states, “I want my art to build dialogue. I want people to look at [my work] and really think and question.”

Terrell is a Queer African-American artist whose primary practice is photography. Currently based in Chicago, Illinois, he is a pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Five Tips for Teaching Creative Movement and Dance to Students with Disabilities

By Silva Laukkanen

These tips are inspired by my three years of teaching creative movement and dance in a school in Austin, Texas, that serves students who have significant disabilities, including children who are medically fragile or who need intensive behavioral support.

  1. Create a fun routine. It is important for sessions to have a clear beginning and end that stays the same. I begin and end in a circle with a song that includes the same movements every time. I alternate between exercises that are high energy and calming, which gives students and teachers time to refocus. In cases when a class comes in and is very upset or has a high energy level, I start with calming exercises and continue with more rigorous dancing and movement, but always end with calm and quiet.
  1. Engage with visuals. I try to give visual cues for every aspect of the class. I clearly mark where all dancing will happen with two long lines of painter’s tape on either side of the space. It is good for students who are blind or have low vision because they can feel the tape. I also use “spots,” which are colored, rubbery circles. One of the many ways that I use them is to give students their own “lane” when I want to have everyone do locomotive movements in a straight line. This allows me to provide an adequate amount of personal space between the students who need it and to give visual cues for where to stop and begin. The class schedule is also visual. I take pictures of the actual props we will use in the exercises and arrange them in a timeline that students can see at all times. As we complete each section, the visual cue is removed. This lets students see when their favorite part is coming up and also how much is left in the class.
  1. Use a variety of music. There is music that will draw out the creative mover in each one of us and it is good to ask your paraprofessionals about the students’ favorite music genre or artist as it can change the mood of the student and the whole class instantly. It is also good to know if you have students that are sensitive to certain sounds. In my class we explore all different styles, traditions, and tempos of music.
  1. Dance through transitions. In order to keep everyone engaged the entire time, I have created a way to have transitions as their own dance. For example, I play calm music and we do a balancing dance and balance the rubber spots on our bodies as we return them to me, and that balancing dance marks the transition to the next activity.
  1. Honor the students’ movements. Pick up the smallest movements that you see and amplify them; notice even the tics that someone has and use those in your lesson. This will make the students feel valued. If someone walks only on their tiptoes, have everyone do a transition dance between two activities on tiptoe. When you play someone’s favorite song and they can’t help but dance, follow their movements and see their face light up with pride. Become a student yourself and see everything as a possibility. Be open and ask questions from the people who know the students best, and have lots of fun dancing!


A photo of the author, a woman with short red hair wearing a blue and white scarf

Silva Laukkanen

Silva Laukkanen is a teaching artist who focuses on community dance and bringing dance to non-traditional places for everyone to experience. She has been with VSA Texas since 2012.