September sunshine streamed through the Atrium windows at the Mississippi Arts Center as the small crowd waited. In truth, on that Friday, Sept. 26, the crowd looked like one anywhere; some members of the crowd are always seen as different, though. Why? They are disabled—some so that anyone can readily see it, with canine assistants or wheel chairs—some not so easily seen, with hearing aids or mental illnesses that have no outward physical manifestations. That day, though, they were the artists-in-residence. "The Mississippi Forum for Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities" was planned with them in mind.
The mission of the Mississippi Arts Commission, established in 1968 by the state Legislature, is to be a catalyst for the arts in Mississippi and to help include all citizens in diverse artistic experiences. The day-long event, planned and executed splendidly by the Arts Commission, purported to "bring together art administrators and organizations that work with people with disabilities; and to develop and implement strategies to overcome barriers and advance careers."
Toward achieving these goals, inspirational and informational speakers made presentations throughout the day. First was Jaehn Clare, arts coordinator for VSA Arts of Georgia, who rolled her wheelchair just into view, then draped and wrapped her lower extremities in a turquoise and purple tie-dyed wrap and lowered herself onto the floor. Music and sounds resembling ocean waves played in the background as she moved across the floor, her long, thick wavy brown hair flowing across her shoulders as she rolled gently toward us. Clare had us in the palm of her hand by the time she had finished telling us that she experienced magic when she realized that "I'm different; I will never be the same again" and that mystical mermaid skin had grafted itself permanently to her own skin. As a mermaid, she no longer felt invisible in the eyes of those who can stand on their own two feet.
Each informational session was facilitated by an artist with a disability: Ballet dancer Margaret McCarty, stained glass designer Jerry Hymel, visual artist Max Biedenharn and musican Melvin Hendrex. At the session "Twelve Steps for Making a Living as an Artist," Rene' Paul Barilleaux of the Mississippi Museum of Art invited input from attendees as he outlined the steps, ranging from "Set your goals," to "Be a professional" to "Don't' give up." After several pointed out how difficult it is to be to be taken seriously as artists because they were disabled, Charlotte Myers, the parent of a 17-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy, pointed out that disabilities could be a positive as well. Each day they were forced to overcome the obstacle of being seen as different. Why not use that to their advantage as they pursued their love of the arts?
The day's last inspiration came from the Mississippi Society for Disabilities' Papillon Dancers together with the Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet, Ballet Magnificant, and Peter Mertz, artistic director of USA International Ballet, as they performed a ballet choreographed by Mertz. He and Carla Thompson, executive director of the Mississippi Society for Disabilities, worked together on the ballet, which was underwritten by a grant from the Christopher Reeve Foundation. The crowd ringed the room, backs to the white concrete block walls, in order to give the troupe, including men and women in wheelchairs and oneyoung lady with a prosthetic leg, to perform. Flowing chiffon contrasted with wheelchairs, as each dancer, young or old, male or female, gave a performance representing hours of practice and concentration.