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Creating art and community

In Cary, an unusual conference on arts for all starts knocking down the walls between the able-bodied and people with disabilities



It's a narrow, rented space, a partitioned segment of a hotel ballroom at the southern edge of Research Triangle Park. Plush yet anonymous, and designed so that the detritus of business meetings can be efficiently swept and wiped away without a trace, it's hard to imagine anything ever taking root here.

Still, something is beginning in this room. You can see it in what we'll call a circle of equals in its center. A group of people is treating one another with equal dignity, respect and consideration, although some of their voices, some of their bodies differ significantly from what society considers normal.

A young woman whose facial features suggest Down Syndrome makes a series of cogent, intelligent observations about a creative project all are involved in. Another woman's deliberate speech patterns gradually reveal a literary sensibility. A third woman's wheelchair becomes the site of choreography.

Surprise, of course, is one of the essential traits of the fine arts. But more surprising than any of these individual contributions is the leveling of relationships around the room--among artists, caregivers, administrators and people with developmental disabilities. As you watch, people begin to drop old power structures, becoming one community.

It's the somehow still radical notion that everyone has a voice, and that all can contribute to a culture. The belief formed the core of the Arts for All Conference, an unconventional two-day symposium in Cary Thursday and Friday, Dec. 4-5, sponsored by the Developmental Disabilities Training Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The goal of the conference was to explore the ways in which art can help people of all abilities create and enhance community. But instead of a dry series of academic panels, the Cary symposium was "hands-on"--putting process into action.

In addition to the sketch pads and markers ubiquitous at such conferences, the rooms at Arts for All were equipped with African drums and other musical instruments, scarves and fabric, colored paper and the raw material for visual art.

"In this field there are quite a few conferences every year," says Gail Dupre, project director for Shifting the Power, a UNC program devoted to self-advocacy and self-determination for people with developmental disabilities. "People get overloaded with information, and they stay 'in their heads.' This helps take us out of a purely intellectual realm and bring it into a whole different arena."

Artist facilitators worked with various groups as they explored the themes of initiation, transformation, advocacy, partnership and collaboration. Each group's assignment was to co-create a multi-media performance or other work of art, one which expressed the participants' thoughts and feelings on the subject.

But in the rooms something happens as people talk, listen and interact. When space is made available for all to share and create in, the groups--perhaps inevitably--begin to undergo the processes they're examining. They learn about how to collaborate and partner with one another, and among people with differing abilities. Through theater and role play, they find out something about becoming an advocate for themselves and one another.

Members of a group experience change in perception; people who never believed they were creative--both able-bodied and those with disabilities--find they can actually create. Perhaps that shared sense of exploration is what brings down walls the most. The process itself becomes initiation. Its inner workings are those of transformation.

"It's one of the things that often happens," notes music therapist Laura DeLoye. "People learn they can express and communicate in ways they never thought they could. It can be a really freeing thing."

Wheelchair choreographer Julia Leggett likens artistic training to giving people a new language, a new voice.

"All of us need to be more self-determined," says Richard Reho, the conference's creative director, and a planner with the N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities. "We become such spectators, so passive, it's a desperate situation. We need to take ownership of our culture, our lives, our creativity, our communities. Otherwise we're in danger of being held hostage by corporate influences."

Reho is a director, playwright and poet who founded the Monadnock Theatre and Arts Cooperative in Keene, New Hampshire, a ground-breaking collective devoted to inclusive arts and communities.

"We believed that through art there was the opportunity to create a more dynamic and diverse community, and in creating that community there was the opportunity to create more universal, more authentic art."

Reho cites not only a series of theatrical productions, but an organic, community-based process that gave people with disabilities the ability to be proactive: "initiators, creators creating something in common. It helped people with disabilities find their place in the community and become more viable in our community.

"People with disabilities want community," Reho notes. "We helped them establish more of a viable and independent life through the quality of their relationships, through being recognized for the gifts they have. Where the system sees people in terms of their deficits, this sees people in terms of their gifts, and where those gifts can be expressed."

Through the room's kindred spirits, West African storyteller Braima Moiwai, Raleigh's Even Exchange Dance Theater, writer Maggi Grace and visual artist Martha Dyer, see and sense the changes they're participating in. Their communities expand, their views on collaborative art are informed. All are learning. Something clearly is beginning. EndBlock

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