Making art while breaking down cultural barriers

May 15, 2016


The arts can be integral to a healthy, vibrant, fulfilling life. And the healing power of the arts can make a positive difference in the lives of society's most vulnerable, including the poor, the sick, the elderly, young children during their early development and individuals whose disabilities and/or special needs make it hard to express emotions in words.

Al Bostick, with Rhythmically Speaking, drums with 5-year-old Dax, as they perform the African folktale "Anansi Does the Impossible" for pre-schoolers and kindergarteners.

So it makes perfect sense, say Diana "Di" Smalley and DWe Williams, that their respective organizations — Mercy in Oklahoma and Rhythmically Speaking, an integrated arts program that serves a diverse group of people throughout the Oklahoma City area — would partner with each other to bring arts experiences to thousands of individuals who might not otherwise have opportunities for artistic enrichment.

"As part of the Catholic healing ministry, we need to feed the mind, body and the soul. And the arts feed the soul," says Smalley, regional president of Mercy in Oklahoma.

Williams, co-founder and director of Rhythmically Speaking, says the group's programs use the arts to help bridge the gaps among people of different cultures, socioeconomic classes and physical and mental abilities.

"Our challenge is figuring what modification we need to make so that an arts experience can be enjoyable to everyone," Williams continues. "We use the arts to support the training or development that is going on with the special populations we work with as well as use theater to present history."

Black history
It is the latter that first brought Mercy and Rhythmically Speaking together. In 2013, Lisa Springer, vice president of community relations for Mercy in Oklahoma, learned of a historic document pertaining to racial integration of the hospital's patients from a colleague who was working with one of the Sisters of Mercy. Around the same time Springer contacted "Miss DWe," as she is affectionately called, to see if she would lead a team-building workshop with Mercy employees using storytelling as a basis.

"Pretty much everyone in Oklahoma City is familiar with Miss DWe and her master storytelling abilities," says Springer. "I have children in their thirties, and she was doing this work when they were in elementary school."

Neither Springer nor Williams remembers the exact details, but during the team-building sessions the integration of Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City was mentioned in passing. Williams' ears perked up, and she soon began doing her own research on the subject.

"A while later, she called and explained that every year during February the Oklahoma City public library system has her do an original play for Black History Month," Springer recalls. "She wondered if it would be OK for Rhythmically Speaking to present the Sisters of Mercy and Mercy Hospital integration story in a short play that she would write and produce."

The result was "Nothing But Mercy — a Private Room Please!" which told of how Mercy Hospital, which is part of Mercy in Oklahoma, became the first hospital in Oklahoma City to become integrated in 1947.

"The document we had on this subject was no longer than one typed page," says Springer. "It's amazing the amount of research Miss DWe does once she selects a topic. She delves in full force."

Staring down bigotry
Williams learned that in 1947, when the wife of a retired black schoolteacher asked for a private room for her husband who had suffered a heart attack, she was turned down by a Mercy Hospital nurse because of the Jim Crow segregation laws. However, protocol at the time called for such a patient to be put in a private room.

Rhythmically Speaking's DWe Williams, center, is surrounded by several of the group's teaching aritists as they perform the "Red, Yellow and Blue Concert" for preschoolers and kindergarteners, many of whom have special needs. The show teaches children about primary colors.

Williams says the play essentially focused on the confrontation between the nurse and Sr. Mary Madeline Feeley, RSM, the hospital administrator at the time, who agreed to the wife's request for a private room. Sr. Feeley then accepted the resignation of the nurse who refused to be a part of the historic changes that were taking place at the hospital. After that, the women religious at the hospital made sure all medical personnel knew that they would be required to treat all people, regardless of race. They soon followed with the integration of the cafeteria and also began offering maternal care to African-American women.

"The play was really a story of the immense strength and courage of these sisters who faced bigotry head-on and did what was right by their patient, nearly two decades before the Jim Crow laws were abolished," says Williams.

"The story was so impressive," adds Trena Brown, a Spanish teacher in Oklahoma City who has been volunteering and performing with Rhythmically Speaking for 16 years. "I hadn't heard of that story until the play. I don't think anyone in Oklahoma City knew about it, but we sure told a whole lot of folks."

Public art
Since then, Mercy has sponsored a variety of Rhythmically Speaking initiatives, including ones at adult day care facilities and senior centers; Head Start programs; elementary, middle and high schools; public libraries; community youth programs and organizations for people with disabilities.

Teaching artists combine storytelling, performance art, music, dance, photography, creative writing, videography, visual art and audience participation to deliver an arts experience geared toward each individual's abilities, recognizing that not everyone learns the same way. About

60 percent of the children and adults Rhythmically Speaking works with have special needs, Williams says, and in many instances the participants' first language is not English.

"We work with infants and toddlers to people who are 100 years old," says Williams. "Our hope is that participants leave with an excitement for the arts and perhaps have learned an academic or developmental objective without even realizing it."

Additionally, Rhythmically Speaking spearheads a community-wide collaborative arts project, done each May. Last year's project featured more than 700 paper hands created by many of the people involved in the organization's programs as well as hands by several of the Sisters of Mercy at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City. "The hands were then connected to a long red ribbon, which was stretched around the Contemporary Arts Center of Oklahoma City, to show how, despite our differences, we are all interconnected," says Williams.

This year, Rhythmically Speaking artists paired kindergarten students with senior citizens for a multigenerational art project at Easter Seals, which serves children and adults with disabilities. Each child and senior pair painted one small canvas, and all of the canvases will be connected into a large artwork.

Smalley says that in 2013, Mercy provided Rhythmically Speaking with $4,200 in funding; it currently provides $17,500 and helps to sponsor 11 of its outreach programs.

"That's a small investment for a very large return," says Smalley, "especially when you consider that last year we reached about 4,000 people of all ages in the Oklahoma City area who otherwise might not have been able to enjoy the arts."


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.