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Inclusive Arts summit centers the importance of rest in fostering creativity

A long row of yellow sticky notes with writing on them is part of an art piece titled, "Births" from a past exhibit at FlynnDog, by Vermont artist Winnie Looby.
Winnie Looby
Winnie Looby is one of the guest panelists at this year's virtual arts summit presented by Inclusive Arts Vermont, a nonprofit that centers the work and lived experiences of Vermont artists with disabilities.

Inclusive Arts Vermont offers art exhibitions and events that center the work and lived experiences of Vermonters with disabilities.

On Wednesday, May 15, the nonprofit will hold its second annual virtual Arts Access Summit. Disabled artists and accessibility experts will present a day of learning and conversation about access to the arts in the state.

The event includes a panel discussion, lectures and training sessions orbiting around this year’s theme of “Resilience and Rest.”

Winnie Looby is the disability studies project coordinator for the University of Vermont’s Center on Disability and Community Inclusion. She’ll present an interactive workshop at the summit about the restorative power of creativity.

Looby recently spoke with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch about her session, titled, "Works in Progress: the Restorative Power of Creativity with Dr. Winnie Looby." This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

A person with light brown skin and locs in their hair smiles at the camera, while wearing a white blouse with small flowers.
Dr. Winnie Looby

Mary Williams Engisch: Rest and resilience. What does that mean and why is that an important topic to talk about?

Winnie Looby: Yeah, the way I interpreted it — I got so excited when I saw that title — because as you know, I have disabilities myself. One of them's a chronic health condition that kind of really wears me down. And it got me thinking about how, you know, when you have a disability — especially when it's like, quote, unquote, hidden — you're kind of expected to push through. Or to hide that when you don't feel well, like you're expected to fake that you feel well.

And so I thought it'd be a really great opportunity to talk about, you know, just taking back a power over that decision, you know, that folks can kind of live the lives they want to live at their own pace.

And there's this writer and performer named Petra Kuppers, who writes extensively about this concept called "crip time," where she questions like, you know, there's this rat race, right? We're expected to just run from here to there and be productive all the time. Why? And if what if, you know, you want to work, you want to study, you want to be social, all those things. If you can't hurry along like that, then that means you're left out.

Mary Williams Engisch: Your workshop is about the restorative power of creativity. And like you're saying, it's sort of in opposition to that idea that a lot of us feel pressured to be busy, be productive in waking moments, which can feel ableist to someone with a disability. Can you tease that apart for us, like how creativity can help knock down that wall?

Winnie Looby: Well, I think for me, I associate creativity with kind of knowledge of my inner self, not so much spiritually, but just on a physiological level. Like when I'm aware of how I'm feeling inside, and really honest with myself, I get to those places by being creative.

So you know, along with being in school for what I did, I've studied all different kinds of art, like sculpture. I just really love the field altogether. And so the flexibility of that position I have now is that I get to collaborate with folks like Inclusive Arts, and talk about things that I love, and about, you know, lived experience that kind of connects with that really deeply for me.

Mary Williams Engisch: Can rest make you more creative? Like can the best ideas come while a person with a disability is honoring their brain and their body's need to work at their own pace?

Winnie Looby: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think so. I'm remembering the first time I did kind of a large-scale group show with other folks. I think it was at FlynnDog. And I was really intimidated, because the theme was like, "words and pictures." I thought, "Well, I don't really write poetry, like what do I do?"

And I had this job at the time that was really, really demanding, physically and emotionally. And the only time I could squeak out to do art was you know, after the kids went to bed, like 10 o'clock at night till like midnight. And then I found, as I was kind of forcing myself through this worry about if it was going to be good enough, it just helped me relax. It helped me kind of connect more to why I wanted to do art in the first place. That connected me to why I wanted the job that I had at the time, which was working with kids. You know, it's hard work, but it was really enjoyable. On a really deep level, I felt like I was doing good work.

So yeah, I kind of I learned a lot of lessons in that time period, really about honoring my emotional states and my physical, you know, how I was feeling physically.

And so the way that the show came out was — I also felt much more open to talking with folks about my inner life a little bit. I hadn't been that open before.

Mary Williams Engisch: What's the experience like for an artist in Vermont who has a disability and needs to prioritize rest in order to create?

Winnie Looby: Well, I'll say that I don't know a ton of folks in person. But from what I've heard and what I've read, in general, for folks, you know, there's quite a large population of folks with disabilities who live at the poverty level and below. And for a whole lot of complicated, you know, bureaucratic reasons, it's very hard to make a lot of money.

And so if you really want to explore art, and you're in that position, I think it means even more to you, you know, like, if you're spending all day at Social Security, and then you gotta go to the doctor's office, and then you got to deal with, you know, some jerk on the bus because they're getting mad that you have to use the lift thing. I think art has to — as I've read about folks and their personal narratives, art is that way to stay open to the world and stay optimistic about what's going to happen next, to find a community of people who feel a lot of the same things.

Mary Williams Engisch: You mentioned that you had several different kinds of art disciplines. How does rest and resilience show up in your own artwork?

Winnie Looby: I think when I've rested a lot, or maybe even, you know, my brain is going but my body's tired, I think most of my stuff is the most surreal and weird things that I've made come out of those times, where they just helped me to process.

And I might paint something and not think about it again for a couple years, and then look at it and go, "Oh, yeah, that thing that I was thinking about at the time, now I see it," right? But at the time, if somebody asked me what I was doing — I'm just painting, I don't know.

Mary Williams Engisch: Oh, that's so intriguing. Maybe it doesn't need defining in the moment.

Winnie Looby: Right, yeah. It just needs to kind of get out.

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