SALT LAKE CITY — While Aaron Webb, co-director of Tanner Dance’s disabled adult acting troop Elevate Theater Company, loves his job, he has down days like everyone else. But all he needs to improve a bad mood is a few minutes with the students.
It’s hard to stay down when he’s greeted with calls of, “Hey, Aaron. How you doing?” or, “Aaron, I really like your personality. You’re so funny. Thank you for being here,” he said.
“I’m just so incredibly charmed by those little things and just the amount of love I get back,” Webb said. “So far, I feel like it exceeds what I put out tenfold.”
In this final part of our three-story series “Ability Through the Arts,” we explore how the impact of local arts programs like Elevate Theater Company extends beyond disabled adults to the community that surrounds them.
Down the hill from Elevate Theater Company’s University of Utah location, TURN City Center for the Arts, another local arts program for disabled adults, is turning out gallery-ready works of art at their downtown studio.
Each month, the students’ work is showcased and sold at gallery strolls, and each year, they show their work at the Utah State Fair. Seventy percent of the commission from these sales goes back to the students and 30 percent funds more supplies for the center.
Laura Pham, a volunteer at TURN City Center for the Arts, said although she wishes more people knew about arts programs like TURN, these gallery strolls have a big impact on the community.
“It just raises a lot more awareness of the potential and the programming in an art school like this,” Pham said. “I think that the initial response is just how surprisingly awesome their art really is. There’s a lot of talent.”
Lisa Eckersley, whose daughter Annie participates in Tanner Dance’s programs for disabled adults, said the students’ performances at the end of each season is similarly impactful for those who watch.
“Their showcase was fabulous,” Lisa Eckersley said. “It was just the most beautiful thing, and they look professional.”
Seeing students’ artwork at gallery strolls and the Utah State Fair changes the community’s opinions about disabled adults and their capabilities, according to Pham.
“I think (the community) just underestimate the potential that these people have, and they’re surprised to see how amazing (the artists) are and how much they can improve through a school like this,” Pham said.
TURN City Center for the Arts program coordinator Katie Johnson said the students also take pride in having their work displayed and sold at these events.
“They really love not only the creation process but knowing that other people are going to see it and appreciate it,” Johnson said.
Webb said he has enjoyed watching many of the students “come out of their shell” through performance opportunities.
“It’s just been one of the great joys of my life to see them grow up and to see their personalities evolve and to see them develop confidence and develop their own personal artistry,” Webb said.
Effect on teachers
Like Webb, Pham said volunteering with disabled adults puts her in a better mood.
“It has impacted me in only strictly a positive way,” Pham said. “They’re hilarious, and all the clients there have really, really awesome art skills, and watching them learn more and improve has given me a lot more hope.”
Pham said it's good to know that there are places like TURN City Center for the Arts in the community.
“It’s made me feel good about the movement in the disability culture,” Pham said. “Unfortunately, I wish that there was more awareness and that more people knew about it, but I think it’s going in a really good direction.”
The programs also inspire instructors to create art of their own. Staff member Cesar Hernandez didn’t consider himself much of a visual artist before he started working at TURN City Center for the Arts, but now he paints and draws.
“Just being around so much creativity, it’s kind of infectious,” program assistant Natasha Hoffman said. “We want to paint now, and we want to see what we can do.”
Working in these programs for adults with disabilities also allows instructors to share their passion for the arts. Johnson, who loves both performing and working with the disabled, said she jokes with people that she has “the dream job I didn’t know existed.”
“It’s just fun being able to recruit others to our way of thinking, that the arts are important and that they do make a difference,” Johnson said. “It’s great to be able to provide that for others and help them to realize what it does for their lives.”
Hoffman, who also has an arts background, said she danced with excitement when she heard TURN City Center for the Arts was hiring.
“This job keeps me creative,” Hoffman said. “It keeps me engaged in something that I’m working on, which is helpful for me too, whether it’s a film or what are we going to do for next week’s dance class.”
Positive response to coaching
The instructors aren't the only ones who benefit from these creative interactions. The students also respond positively to the mentoring they receive from their instructors.
“We have great coaches and great teachers,” said Lauri Anderson, a member of Elevate Theater Company. “I just love this whole program. … We’re enjoying every minute of it, and we just love it here and the people we work with.”
Webb said the teachers at Tanner Dance set the bar high for participants, but the students are up to the challenge.
“Not only do they appreciate that, they rise to the occasion,” Webb said.
The teaching model in Tanner Dance’s arts programming for disabled adults is inclusive, meaning instructors perform side by side with the participants.
Mary-Martha Ostler, Tanner Dance adults with disabilities director, said this model is the most successful in her experience because everyone is equal in creating and supporting each other.
“Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m their teacher; I just feel like we’re creating art together, really,” Ostler said.
Lisa Thornton, Tanner Dance advisory board member and parent of a disabled child, said it makes a big difference when art instructors in programs like this believe in the students and their ability to progress.Comment on this story
“For our children, it makes all the difference to have someone have faith in them and to realize their potential, that they can still grow and learn and develop and that it’s worth doing,” Thornton said.
Ostler said when participants know their teachers, fellow students, family members and others are rooting for them, they are more willing and ready to go the extra mile.
“It’s organizations (like these) that provide (the) opportunity … these people are craving. (These students want) to have opportunity for people to see who they are and focus on their ability, not their disability,” Ostler said.