DisArt Festival opens in downtown Grand Rapids

The first weekend of the two-week DisArt festival drew disabled and able bodied individuals alike to downtown Grand Rapids to interact with art and discuss issues associated with disability.

The opening weekend’s events struck a chord with many festival attendants and encouraged expression by disabled artists who are often overlooked.

Sophomore Katie Salyer, who is interning at DisArt, was struck by the opening program and the exhibition at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA).

At the opening program,  crowds listened to Chris Smit, a professor in Calvin’s CAS department, and Ruth Gould, the founder of Dada Fest, introduce the event alongside artists and collaborators.

“This weekend’s event started a discussion about what accessibility looks like in Grand Rapids and that can apply to everybody,” Salyer said. “Art is a really good way to start that discussion. It hammers home the whole idea that no matter who you are or what you look like or what your capabilities are, you are a person.”

Morgan Hayden, a sophomore art major, said, “DisArt did a great job of synthesizing education with a beautiful visual experience. DisArt could have become a voyeuristic show, but it avoids this and instead does something wonderful. It makes a particular experience accessible to all and brings the viewers to a new understanding of the world.”

Diverse events are on the schedule every day of this coming week, including a breakdancing workshop, independent film festival, artist talks and performance art.

On four consecutive nights starting Sunday, April 19, the UICA will host the DisArt Independent Film Festival, featuring short films focused on issues of disability. The opening night will feature a presentation by Mat Fraser, who appeared in season four of “American Horror Story.”

Each night of the film festival has a distinct organizing theme: Disability in Motion, Desiring Disability and Screening Disability.

The DisArt Fashion Show will be held at Kendall College on Friday, April 17 at 7 p.m., with a conversation occurring earlier in the day from 9:30 to 11 a.m.

The show will bring together three design teams promoting accessible, aesthetically pleasing clothing.

The Rayn jacket, a rain jacket specialized for wheelchair users, is one garment developed by the Open Style Lab, a group of designers, engineers and occupational and physical therapists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fashion Has Heart, a local organization that brings veterans and designers together to create clothing designs, will also be a part of the fashion show.

Kendall College’s fashion studies program will exhibit designs as well, partnering with Spectrum Health to develop clothing for children with disabilities that is both easy to put on and take off, as well as attractive.

Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell has declared 2015 “A Year of Arts and Access,” an initiative intended to make Grand Rapids more accessible for everyone, no matter their physical, mental or emotional ability.

In order to achieve a year of increased awareness and accessibility, DisArt is partnering with local organizations throughout the year to raise awareness for events that align with its mission and will share them with their network of participants and attendees.

Salyer acknowledged that some of the art featured in DisArt can be confusing or striking, especially to someone without a disability. “A lot of people at the event were able-bodied and were asking questions, saying, ‘This is weird. Why is this weird to me? What do I do with this?’” she said.

“So many people interact with art in a way they hadn’t before.” In response to the art, she recommends viewers to ask themselves questions about the piece.

“Ask yourself, why would you put all of that together it doesn’t make sense?” she said. “Maybe this is what it feels like to be disabled, like my body doesn’t want to do what I want it to do and I feel out of sync with the world. The art reflects that.”

All DisArt events and information can be found at the festival’s website.