by Dot Cannon
“Never let your challenge stop you from living your dreams,” said artist Michael Seale, Junior.
Day Two of Aquarium of the Pacific’s “Festival of Human Abilities” had just started, in Long Beach. Michael and his mom, Latanya, were teaching the day’s first class.
And their hat-painting workshop had a capacity crowd.
“We’re all perfect, just as we are,” Latanya said to the group. “We’re here to celebrate the creativity in all of us.”
Latanya told the class that Michael has been painting seriously for the last nineteen years. He’s also a businessman: he uses his abstract art to promote his organic coffee business, “The Bossman Coffee”!
Michael has considerable experience in overcoming obstacles. As the workshop began, Latanya told students that he had weighed just two-and-a-half pounds at birth. He had eleven surgeries, due to cerebral palsy, and spent fifty-three days in the hospital.
Today, with a certificate in art gallery management from El Camino College, Michael’s headed towards living his dream. His goal: to own a luxury art gift shop at the beach, according to his website. Meanwhile, Michael and Latanya teach “Canvas and Coffee” painting parties.
Sunday morning’s class started with affirmations. “We all have magic. We’re all magical,” Latanya said, as volunteers handed out the hats and supplies.
“Say, ‘I am an incredible artist,” she directed the class. They complied.
“Say, ‘I am more powerful than I know’.” The students, starting to paint, responded.
“Say, ‘I am a superstar,” Latanya requested. Silence ensued.
“They’re not affirming, they’re painting,” she said with a laugh.
(And indeed they were! An hour later, everyone had come up with vibrant colors, and eye-catching sticker and decal combinations.)
More choices than time
As always, the Aquarium’s “Festival of Human Abilities” offered more special events than any one visitor could experience.
Workshops continued throughout the day, and included wheelchair painting with artist Tommy Hollenstein (pictured here from last year’s class).
In addition, wheelchair dancers Auti Angel and dance team The Rollettes were teaching hip-hop classes. So was Mike “Ice Man” Rivera. And all of them performed during both days of the Festival. Sign language interpreters were on hand for every performance and workshop we saw.
Sunday morning’s program also included an award ceremony.
Triumph Foundation co-founder Andrew Skinner received the Glenn McIntyre Heritage Award for his work with individuals with spinal cord injury. Andrew, who suffered a spinal-cord injury during a 2004 snowboarding accident, founded the Triumph Foundation with his wife, Kirsten, in 2008.
According to Triumph Foundation’s website, Andrew, a quadriplegic following the accident, continues to recover. Triumph Foundation, meanwhile, provides individuals with SCI with resources and adaptive technology. Their Adapted Sports and Recreation Program includes activities like boating, surfing and snow skiing.
“I didn’t have a rich uncle or a big financial backer,” Andrew said, of establishing his nonprofit. “I’m just a regular guy. So you can do it, too.”
Imagination plus talent equals…limitless
As always, the Aquarium’s Great Hall included an art gallery, as well as exhibits featuring adaptive technology and services. Choosing favorites among these tends to be–well, impossible.
With that said, though, we especially liked “Dani-Mation© Entertainment”. Unfortunately, we missed artist Dani Bowman. But her uncle, Patrick Eidemiller, told us Dani was drawing before she could talk.
Patrick says Dani started her company at the age of eleven. She’s been working as a professional animator since she was fourteen! (Dani’s website tells visitors she was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and that doctors said she “wouldn’t amount to much”. Looking at her 2016 YouTube reel, she appears to be having a lot of fun proving them wrong.)
Adaptive and inclusive
One of the highlights of the Festival of Human Abilities at the Aquarium is always the adaptive scuba-diving demonstration. Sunday was no exception.
Diveheart founder Jim Elliott took to the water several times, both days, to demonstrate his nonprofit’s work with children, adults and veterans of all abilities. The demonstration we saw simulated working with a quadriplegic diver. While new divers are accompanied by more than one staff member, Jim said, each staffer is trained to be fully capable of working alone with a new diver.
Once again, Festival of Human Abilities’ musical performances were top-notch. Sheer space limitations prevent us from including them all.
But Infinite Flow Wheelchair Dance Company Founder Marisa Hamamoto and partner Adelfo Cerame Junior wowed the crowd with their Latin dance. (Adelfo is a competitive natural wheelchair bodybuilder!)
Infinite Flow is both America’s first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company, and a social movement for inclusion in performing arts. Marisa told the audience that she had been paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a rare spinal-cord disease. Doctors predicted that she might never walk–or dance–again.
But Marisa recovered, walking out of the hospital two months later, according to Infinite Flow’s website. Now back on the dance floor, she’s looking to grow Infinite Flow’s outreach–with their children’s dance company, Infinite Flow Kids, as well as adult wheelchair dance classes.
“We’re teaching them beyond dancing. This is about inclusion,” Marisa said.
Star turns–again and again
Throughout the festival, the Great Hall audience whooped, cheered and whipped out phones to capture artist performances. But never more so than when Festival organizer Peter Martineau introduced a participant whom he’s known since the young man was eight: Kodi Lee.
Kodi, mom Tina explained, is a musical prodigious savant. He can play and sing a song after hearing it once!
Tina said Kodi, who’s now in his teens, is both blind and autistic. Despite his challenges, Tina said, she realized Kodi was an entertainer after the family took a trip to a local theme park. During lunch, a men’s a cappella singing group came over–and Kodi sang along with them flawlessly, to the point that other patrons were cheering and screaming, “Kodi! Kodi!”
Tina encouraged the audience to vote for Kodi when he appears on America’s Got Talent in a couple of weeks!
Kodi proceeded to give another Grammy-quality performance, playing and singing. But he wasn’t finished yet.
This year, he also took to the stage to perform a tap dance!
Once again, the Aquarium’s “Festival of Human Abilities” was enough to make any visitor question being told, “You can’t.” But more was coming.
Another of many personal favorites was Mike “Ice Man” Rivera’s HomeLand Crew, who performed in mid-afternoon.
Popping, locking and breaking, the troupe seemed to defy gravity.
One of the high points of the show was an expert performance by two young brothers.
And when their dad took his turn…
…he demonstrated that a good thing can get even better.
Throughout his troupe’s performance, Mike acted as emcee, cheering each member on to the beat.
Then, he demonstrated that his students had learned from the best!
(Homeland Cultural Center, Mike explained, is based in Long Beach and offers arts programs, open to everyone. Their classes which explore and pass on traditional and contemporary cultural traditions.)
But the grand finale of this particular show was really what the “Festival of Human Abilities” is all about: inclusion. and the sheer exhilaration of creativity.
Mike invited students from his earlier workshop, that morning, to take the stage. Each had an opportunity to show the audience some moves!
One small participant, who looked to be about four years old, beamed the entire time he spun his wheelchair through some pretty eye-catching moves.
Wow, Festival of Human Abilities! We think we may well have seen a future Latin dance star in the making.