Andres “Jay” Molina is tired of talking about his wheelchair.
As part of the Open Doors program, he and a small group of fellow Coler patients have spent the last few years using poetry, podcasts, video, and art to explore their experiences as men of color now living in wheelchairs and the circumstances that got them there. Now, he says, they are ready to talk about more.
“There is no way I could tell that story any better. I’ll come back to it later,” says Molina. “This is our second album. We are branching out.”
On Tuesday, May 22, Molina and the rest of the Open Doors participants will return to Gallery RIVAA to share their unique perspective through a night of spoken-word poetry, video, and art. The event, which starts at 6:00 p.m., is part of Coler Hospital’s Sights and Sounds show, curated by Jovemay Santos and currently on display at the gallery. The evening will also feature special guest World Slam finalist Joel François. Molina describes François as a “showman” with a style that is “less hiphop, more literature.”
Left to right: Ramon “Tito” Cruz, Dexter Ciprian, LeVar Lawrence, and Andres “Jay” Molina.
A Bit of Everything
This will be the group’s second appearance at Gallery RIVAA. Since last year’s event, the group has grown to eight core members. They’ve expanded thematically as well. For this show, the men have moved away from writing solely about life in a wheelchair.
“You’ll hear some stuff about how we feel about being in the chair, but we will give you a diverse show – a little bit of everything,” says Molina.
For Open Doors program associate Dexter Ciprian, the shift is an important one. “All of the guys shared this experience, but they aren’t confined to it as an identity,” he says. “The first album is an introduction: this is who we are, this is our bond. But there are also other experiences.”
The evening will include a 16-minute movie, Before and After, which offers a personal portrayal of the men’s lives prior to the incidents that landed them in the wheelchairs and at Coler Hospital.
In addition to producing the performance pieces, the men have also taken an active role behind the scenes. LeVar Lawrence, whose artwork is on display at the gallery, designed the event’s flyer and press release while Molina has taken on communications for the group.
“Part of the ethos of the organization,” says Ciprian, “is that the members will start to run it, it’s theirs. The question posed to them is, ‘Where do you want to take this?’”
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.
By all accounts, the group has had a busy year. In addition to last spring’s poetry event at Gallery RIVAA, the men spent the summer working alongside arts ethnographer Alexa Smithwrick to produce a podcast series. The project, a pilot initiative of the Angelica Program, was entirely funded by the Dana and Christopher Reeve foundation.
Later in the year, they performed their poetry at Communitea, a café in Long Island City. At Coler’s Black History Month show, Sights and Sounds of Black History, the men used music and poetry to reflect on a different historical figure or moment, including Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Kalief Browder, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Molina and Lawrence both also had poems published in the New York University Literacy Review, earning two of just 60 spots out of 500 submissions.
“Every event is an opportunity to build a coalition with community partners,” says Ciprian. The men are currently partnering with the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association, and have been meeting with Cornell Tech students and professors for future collaborations.