Artist reborn: Teresa is celebrated by her new community
BC, Community, News
Monday December 19, 2016
When Franke James introduces her sister Teresa as an artist, Teresa will usually jump in to add that she’s also a poet, an author and a self advocate.
Teresa recently published a book of her illustrations and poetry called “Pretty Amazing: How I Found Myself in the Downtown Eastside,” and her work was displayed at an exhibit and book launch at the Gallery Gachet in Vancouver in June. Her book tells visual and written stories of herself as an artist who also happens to have Down syndrome. It also describes the connections she’s made in her neighbourhood and her favourite places to go. In her opening poem, “I am alive,” she says she’s been reborn in Gastown.
Teresa has come a long way and had many adventures before finding herself in the Gastown neighbourhood she now calls home. A few years ago, at the age of 49, Teresa was placed in a seniors’ nursing home in Ontario that specialized in dementia and palliative care, after her 91-year-old father was no longer well enough to support her. Teresa and her father didn’t want her to be there and it wasn’t the right fit. So Franke and her husband, Billiam James, stepped in and invited Teresa to live with them. Soon after, they moved out west and eventually settled in Vancouver.
“The myth is that if you take care of someone with a disability that you’re going to be burdened, but in fact Teresa has opened up the world for us and taken us on all kinds of adventures,” says Franke. When Franke looks back at photos from the past few years, she can’t believe how many fun experiences the three of them have had together. Franke and Billiam both say living with Teresa has opened their eyes to the world of people with disabilities, introduced them to new people and inspired many exciting adventures and experiences as they helped Teresa develop her talents.
After arriving in Vancouver, they worked on a vision and plan for Teresa’s new life together with Community Living BC staff and the Spectrum Society for Community Living.
“Teresa and her family are an example of how we were able to put supports in place to help them succeed on their terms,” says CLBC facilitator Tim Harrison. “They were very clear that they didn’t want her to go to a day program.”
Together they came up with ideas for activities in the community based on Teresa’s interests. Physical fitness and art are priorities for them, so Teresa does activities like yoga three times a week and participates in a weekly expressive arts workshop at Gallery Gachet where she’s met other artists. She also likes other activities like playing card games and Scrabble.
Her book of art and poetry was made possible through a DTES Small Arts Grant from the Vancouver Foundation and Carnegie Community Centre. Franke and Billiam observed that the making of the book became a focus and purpose for Teresa and became like her full-time job.
“When I read her poem, ‘Butterflies,’ I see it as a symbol of her transformation from feeling fearful, with butterflies in her stomach, to feeling free like a butterfly,” says Billiam.
Tim has also noticed the transformation in Teresa since she first arrived in Vancouver. He had the opportunity to see her network of friends and supporters at the gallery opening where they came to see her art.
“It was really impressive to see her as an artist at the centre of the room and see people come in and really connecting with what she was doing,” says Tim.
Franke notes that individualized funding from CBLC has helped them tailor a plan that will help Teresa achieve her goals, and to adapt her plan if her needs change over time.
“We’re able to look at what Teresa’s talents are and create an environment where she can develop her talents,” says Franke. “Her art gives her an avenue to express her ideas and feelings about everything happening in her life.”
Franke is also an artist and author and her work has taken her to New York City and Washington, D.C., where Teresa got to join her to visit the White House. Teresa has spoken at conferences and has a Twitter account where she advocates for human rights and shares her thoughts and ideas through videos and her art.
Teresa, Franke and Billiam’s adventures together have just begun, and they plan to continue to spread the word about Teresa’s stories and ideas as expressed through her book.
Teresa and her family worked with CLBC staff to identify ideas and activities in the community based on Teresa’s interests. If you would like to talk about resources available in your community, contact your local CLBC office here.
Also, check out this pilot project that matches individuals with new community experiences.