UT Alums Key in Bringing Art to the Disabled

When Michael Burns walks out on stage, the last thing you’d expect the 60-year-old to do is “shake his money maker.”

“I dance bad to the bone,” he laughs.

You’d never guess that Burns, an alumnus and former UT employee, couldn’t walk or talk for almost 32 years of his life. In May 1975, he was broadsided by a drunk driver, causing severe brain damage.

The arts are what brought him back to life after the accident, Burns says. He found solace in Very Special Arts Texas, an Austin-based statewide organization dedicated to connecting those with disabilities to the arts.

Through theater troupes, art exhibitions, and marketing classes, VSA helps the physically and mentally handicapped to express themselves through painting, drawing, singing, and even acting.

“We don’t focus on the disability,” says April Sullivan, BFA ’96, VSA’s director of artwork. “We focus on the art.”

Sullivan, who graduated UT with a degree in art history, became involved with VSA when she spotted a job ad in the paper for an eight-hour-a-week position that dealt with the arts and disability.

“I didn’t understand how those two could go together,” Sullivan says. “So I figured I’d find out.”

And she did. At VSA, Sullivan has worked with people with all sorts of disabilities—deafness, blindness, even full-body paralysis. She strives make them successful, professional artists, like Burns. She sets up exhibitions for VSA’s more than 500 artists, allowing them to profit from their talents.

Though acting on stage may be his first true love, Burns has also found success as a painter. With the help of VSA, his work has been sold to buyers across the nation, from Montana to California, and Tennessee to Texas. He receives 70 percent of the proceeds of each sale.

“Painting expresses ideas that you can’t be judged on,” Burns says.

Next up for the 60-year-old: a comic book featuring a brain-damaged superhero, a concept that is near and dear to his heart. He’s even woven the superhero theme into his stage performances with VSA’s theater troupe, Actual Lives Austin.

“Out of all the therapy I’ve had and psychiatrists I’ve visited,” Burns says, “nothing has made me feel better than performing and painting do.”

To see the artwork of VSA’s artists, visit the organization’s Holiday Show starting this Saturday, Dec. 3, through Jan. 6.

Michael Burns performs a scene with Actual Lives Austin. Photo courtesy VSA.


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