The Art of Listening

Featured Article on SRVS Disability News Blog – Published May 5, 2014

Elaine Blanchard, Memphis-based artist and storyteller, believes every person has value and a significant story to share.

“I have faith in the redemptive and transformative power of a story well told,” Blanchard said.

As the professor of Memphis College of Art’s new Art of Storytelling class, Blanchard is taking her eleven students across the city of Memphis to meet people from all walks of life, to learn the art of listening, observing and telling others’ stories. Places they’ve visited include a women’s prison, a nursing home and Shelby Residential Vocational Services, SRVS.

On March 26, Blanchard’s class mingles with people supported by SRVS during a circle dialogue at the organization’s career center. After listening to various stories of the individuals, MCA students, Robby McElhaney and Déjà Anderson, chose Jakhari and Cadaryl as their storytelling subjects. A third student, Maxwell Haron, selected SRVS as a place to tell its story through a mural.

Due to his prior experience working with special needs students in high school, McElhaney, an illustration major, was drawn to the individuals at SRVS and chose Jakhari as his subject.

“I wanted to do something on Jakhari to capture his talkativeness and happiness,” said McElhaney.

On April 14, McElhaney returned to SRVS to visit with Jakhari, who was joined by his lifelong friend Cadaryl. Meeting at the SRVS learning center, the three men talked and joked with one another as McElhaney listened and snapped photos, looking to capture one of Jakhari’s signature smiles for an illustration.

Time with Jakhari taught McElhaney to appreciate the value of learning different ways of hearing stories in order to turn them into art.

Muralist Maxwell Haron chose SRVS as his project because he wanted to visually represent the community of SRVS. “I was very impressed with the community. I hope everyone can look at the mural and find something in it they enjoy, that represents them and they are proud of having here,” said Haron.

Artist Déjà Anderson chose Cadaryl because of his smile and how it made her want to get to know him better.

Anderson creates a mixed media piece featuring a smiling, blue Cadaryl with an orange background on wood. “I painted Cadaryl blue because that’s what he said when I asked him what he wanted to be if he could be anything in the world. ‘I want to be blue like a smurf,’ he said. I could make that happen. I could make Cadaryl blue,” Anderson said.

Anderson adds a crown to Cadaryl’s head to signify how special he is. “Everyone says people with disabilities are special, but Cadaryl really is,” she said. “He lights up the world and that’s why I gave him the crown with radiating lines.”

Anderson walks away from her time listening to Cadaryl’s story with a new commitment to not judge someone by their outward appearance and mannerisms.

“All of us have learned everyone shares some kind of common ground experience,” she said. “Cadaryl and I share the same birth month. We like the same colors and TV shows. You will always have a common ground with someone.”

“These students have been challenged with loss and pain in their lives,” said Blanchard. “They have been touched by the people they have met and have been very compassionate describing their interactions. I hope they make connections between their own challenges with those of the people they met.”

The class culminated with a presentation of the students’ stories and works of art at Theater South on April 26th. McElhaney and Anderson will donate their artwork as gifts to Jakhari and Cadaryl.

Founded in 1962, SRVS, Shelby Residential Vocational Services, is the largest provider of comprehensive services to people with disabilities in Tennessee. SRVS offers comprehensive care through a supportive environment that strengthens both families and communities. SRVS offers an array of services that include a learning center, community employment, a residential program, family support, elder care, children’s services and clinical supports. We support people with a wide range of disabilities, no matter how severe, and provide assistance to families enabling them to be productive members of the community.