BY CHELSIE WYSE
PHOTOS BY BRYAN ESLER
From the moment he was born, Dr. Christopher Smit and his parents knew he was different, but not just because he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Smit is a go-getter, a conversation starter; the person to always ask why. Growing up, Smit’s parents didn’t let having a disability label his gifts and abilities as ‘special’ or ‘extraordinary’ given his condition.
“I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do,” says Smit, who serves as the Director of DisArt Festival and Director of Arts and Access at Kendall College of Art and Design. “Nothing held me back. I was ‘mainstreamed,’ meaning I just went to high school. I was just a typical kid.”
With encouragement and support to press him forward, Smit didn’t realize his physical disability until just 12 years ago.
“When I got married in the 90s to my wife, Lisa, and then went to graduate school, we began to realize that we were, and still are, a different sort of couple because of my wheelchair,” says Smit.
Not letting the heavy judgments of society burden him, Smit says he’s found peace and contentment with his disability.
“I’ve gotten to a point in my own faith life, for example, where I understand God has made me this way for a purpose. I am an intended creation. We’re all intended creations, designed to be exactly the way we are for a purpose,” says Smit.
Another person living purposefully is community organizer and DisArt Festival Developer, Jill Vyn. Vyn accepted the offer, honored that her purpose of bringing communities together would have a unique place to shine. As she began her new journey with the disabled community, Vyn knew there was growth to be done.
“While I came into this knowing about disability, I never thought about it as its own culture,” says Vyn. “So this experience has been really eye-opening because I realized it doesn’t matter if I am connecting with people in the Hispanic community, with an immigrant population or with people with disabilities. It’s a culture. And I wanted to know how can we all feel included so that we learn to take the time to listen to each other’s stories?”
Why DisArt? Grand Rapidians are fortunate enough to live, work and play in a community that celebrates new and progressive thoughts and ideas.
“Grand Rapids needs [DisArt] because it’s the next step in the progression,” says Smit. “We’re in a unique place in the world where people think of ideas, and they get together and grab them. People support them and we send them off and do amazing things. Grand Rapids is a city that always wants to be better. We are not docile.”
DisArt Festival will take place over 15 days, as a celebration seeking to change perceptions about disabilities through art. The festival will begin downtown Grand Rapids on Friday, April 10, and will showcase the work of artists with disabilities through performance pieces, fashion, discussions and art.
“There are over 20,000 disabled individuals in Grand Rapids that want to be a part of what this city does and not just be a patron or a client of it. They want be involved in its space,” says Smit.
DisArt Festival strives to put Grand Rapids on the map in the world of disability arts. The premiere of the international exhibit, “Art of the Lived Experiment,” will mark the first time an international disability art display of this magnitude has traveled anywhere in the United States. Along with the family-friendly activities, free festival attendance, and curated shows in the city’s well-known spaces, DisArt seeks to engage its guests in a deeper conversation.
“Through this work that we’re doing with [DisArt], we’re seeing organizations work together in ways they may not have done in the past, and finding how we can all fit together,” says Vyn.
As Grand Rapids opens its streets and spaces to a new way of coming together, there is just one requirement its asks of its guests: check words like ‘different’ at the door.