On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the Coler Hospital Canteen – adorned with paintings, crochet displays, and beautiful multi-colored lighting – boasted a crowd to match. The guests extended in both directions, through and down the long, wide hallways, in celebration of the hospital’s annual art show.
In the center of all this, sat a single, stripped-down wheelchair painted entirely red. Around it, stood seven life-sized black-and-white portraits, each armed with a pair of headphones waiting to be put on. “Sit in it,” encouraged Andres “Jay” Molina, indicating the empty wheelchair. “Try to understand our stories from our point of view.”
Those “stories” are the source of a new podcast series, The Voice of Art, which aims to share the experiences and frustrations of seven long-term Coler Hospital residents, each of whom relies on a wheelchair as a result of gun violence.
Working through the nonprofit Open Doors program – and alongside arts ethnographer Alexa Smithwrick and sound engineer Ray Wise – the men work to rebuild their own lives and educate others about violence.
Cornell Tech student Kenneth Chan engineered the podcasts and created the 10-minute sound collage of snippets from the seven stories, which played on the iPod attached to the wheelchair in the gallery.
“There is a struggle in living this life,” says Molina, one of the seven podcast artists featured in the exhibit. “A lot of people think there are two things that happen when you live a street life: jail or dying. I am here to tell you, there is an in-between – that’s life in this wheelchair.”
Listen to sample of from each participant's story
Open Doors, headed by its founder and director, Islander Jennilie Brewster, works to improve the lives of hospital residents through creativity workshops, leadership training, and educational grants. The goal is to support members in moving toward greater independence and an expanded vision of what’s possible. With spoken-word performances, gun-violence awareness panels, and personal narrative podcasts, Open Doors encourages members to use their voices to contribute to the national dialogue around racism, poverty, incarceration, and disability.
Brewster says that the program’s mission grew out of a need she saw when volunteering at the hospital’s children’s unit.
“During that time,” she recalls, “coming and going from the hospital, I would see a group of guys hanging outside of the hospital, smoking. I started talking to these guys. I learned that, in many cases, they had spinal cord injuries from gunshot wounds.”
Brewster saw that the traditional nursing home curriculum offered at Coler, a crochet group and the annual Sweetheart Ball, for example, wasn’t reaching these men.
“There was this group of people, all men of color, that seem to be stuck in this limbo situation. They have physical disabilities but no medical cognitive disabilities, and they’re living in a nursing home where the programming is focused toward an older population. For various reasons, this group of guys didn’t have anything happening for them.”
The following fall, Brewster started a writing workshop for the men. She says at first she only had one member, then it was two. The group’s turning point came when author D. [Dwight] Watkins came to speak to them.
“That was very helpful in terms of inspiring some guys,”she recalls. “It inspired one of the guys to say, ‘I want to go to college, I want to go do what D does.’”
After helping one member get into college and another to take GED classes, she realized that the writing program could enable its members to move on in their lives. She started Open Doors with funding from the Angelica Patient Assistance Program, as well as others. Since then, says Brewster, one Open Doors member was published in NYU’s literary magazine; another is studying Arabic.
One member has a stipended position at Open Doors and serves as a program coordinator in training. “We would like to move to a model where each person’s leadership role becomes a stipended position and they are able to work independently. We want them to be able to make money living at Coler.”
The men also do community outreach. “They want to use their stories to help young people in difficult circumstances,” says Brewster.
The Voice of Art
In June, ethnographer Alexa Smithwrick, who describes herself as “a black woman of small stature, economically disadvantaged, and academically privileged,” entered the picture. Her goal was to record and edit the life stories of seven of the men living at Coler. The project, a pilot initiative of the Angelica Program, was entirely funded by the Dana and Christopher Reeve foundation.
“I knew I wanted to challenge the guys to realize and share the arcs of their lives in new ways, and to extract meaning and poetry from the parts of themselves they had never been encouraged to value,” she says.
LeVar Lawrence performs a poem for exhibit guests.
One of those men was LeVar Lawrence, who says he was a writer back in public school. He got shot on August 6, 2005, when he was 28 years old.
“This is the second time I’ve been shot. To not be able to bounce back this time has been hard,” he says.
Originally a patient at Goldwater Hospital, he was moved to Coler when Goldwater closed. At last week’s exhibit, he performed some of his poetry for the crowd. “There are days I wish I got shot in the head. Instead I am stuck in this f**king hospital bed. Could’ve left me in a pool that was all red. Instead I’m stuck in a body that’s half dead.”
Lawrence says that, while he’s participated in the program since last year, he didn’t take it seriously at first. “I’d come for a bit. One day, I came and stayed the entire time. I liked it, and the group grew. [Jennilie] does a great job.”
Lawrence’s goal is to reach children and teens and try to prevent gun violence. The father of six says his own children keep him going and inspire him.
Another podcast artist, Ramon King Love Cruz, performed a rap song to the crowd, half in English and half in Spanish. He is currently recording an album. He calls his time in the wheelchair a life sentence. “But sharing your story with people helps you heal,” he