December 15, 2011

the power to choose

Martha Curtis and her violin

the power to chooose

At three years old Martha Curtis did not choose to have epilepsy, but you could say that she did choose to be the gifted musician, performer, teacher, advocate, mother and wife that she is today because of choices she made in response to epilepsy – a condition that could have stopped her at many turns in her life.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that manifests in damage to the brain. Its causes may be traced to a traumatic injury, brain infection or may even be inherited. The result of the damage causes neurological disturbances (like an electrical misfiring) that end up in seizures. “For me, the beginning to every seizure took the form of the sensation of an impending doom moving towards me with the intent to kill. It seemed very real and very scary,” shared violinist Martha Curtis. On some occasions seizures would occur while she was on stage. “My left hand would freeze but my right arm would continue moving. As soon as I started playing garbage, my music stand partner in the orchestra would know to take the violin from my hand so that the performance was not ruined. For a while I would partially lose consciousness and when full consciousness returned, I would pick up my violin and continue.”

Practicing for a performance at Interlochen

For Martha Curtis her epilepsy was traced to a virulent case of the measles. By the time she was five her mother, also a musician, was casting about for anything that would spark Martha’s passion and give her something to focus on – she was placed in dancing class and began piano lessons. By age nine Martha switched from the piano to the violin. “My family was very supportive. My parents never stopped me; they just put the world in front of me and got out of my way. They let me go to Interlochen Center for the Arts Summer Music Camp for eight solid weeks when I was 11…that was a brave move for my parents. That was when I fell in love with music,” said Curtis.

By then she was good at coping with seizures. “When I came back to consciousness after a complex partial seizure, I found that people were horrified at what they had witnessed. I learned to coach onlookers, helping them understand that everything was okay – my life always went better when everybody else was okay,” shared Curtis.

Even as a young adult, the violin was a big part of Martha's life

By the time she was a young adult about to graduate from Eastman School of Music, hoping for a professional career as a musician, Martha realized that her chances to play professionally with her medical condition would be limited. “Full time orchestras, understandably, were not going to risk a high-priced performance with a performer likely to have a seizure. However, smaller regional orchestras were willing to take the gamble.”

Martha’s epilepsy was described as ‘intractable epilepsy’ because despite trying many combinations of drugs and medications, nothing ever controlled the seizures completely. A more dramatic treatment solution would be surgery. “Because the epilepsy seemed to be in my way, people had been encouraging me to have brain surgery,” confided Curtis. “In April of 1990, I had four grand mal seizures and three of them were on stage. It was then that I knew I had to consider surgery.”

Performing a solo during an orchestal performance

A specialist was found, Hans Lüders of the Cleveland Clinic. And so, months of testing began to determine Martha’s suitability for a surgical solution. Test results showed that the damage was limited to the right temporal lobe area of the brain; they learned the seizure activity, deep in the lobe, was happening almost constantly. In order to truly understand the consequences of a possible surgery her brain activity needed to be mapped. This included hospitalizing Martha, removing all drugs, wiring her for feedback…and waiting for a seizure. She had nine in 21 hours – without the drugs this meant hard painful seizures, causing a stress fracture in her spine. While waiting, between seizures, driven to hear something beautiful, Martha would play her favorite violin pieces the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Bach d minor Sarabande. Although there was a good indication for a surgical solution, the doctors now knew that she was a gifted musician and were scared that the surgery might cause Martha to lose her musical memory. Not just memorized pieces of music – the memory that there IS music.

“After the tests were completed I remember performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Franco Gulli. I cried all the way through the slow movement thinking I might never hear this again. I thought, if I can’t play I will cry hard, but if I can’t know or understand the concept of music- I can’t guarantee my sanity,” shared Curtis. “What my brain tossed up to me was the thought that perhaps the memory loss of music will be complete and I won’t remember what I lost.”

Relief and happiness at being able to continue playing after brain surgery

Beginning in 1991, there were three surgeries, spaced at 11 month intervals. Half the right temporal lobe was removed as well as the right hippocampus and all but a sliver of the amygdala; a small piece of the brain with epilepsy was left in place because it was dangerously close to the pre-frontal lobe which is responsible for rational decision-making.

Martha Curtis has been seizure-free since the summer of 1995, and has complete music memory. Some researchers believe that because of her years of musical training and coping with epilepsy (her conscious choices) she had patterned her brain and moved her music memory to a different part of her brain. Curtis’ experiences and triumphant recovery from surgery captured the attention of brain researchers in the area of neuroplasticity, the science of re-patterning brain functions.

Curtis commented on the lifetime effect of losing consciousness during seizures, and that each incident was like losing a part of her self. “I leaned on the music of Beethoven to get me back to my whole self. Time and again music propelled me back to myself. It reconnected me to myself, to beauty and passion.” Drawing inspiration from Beethoven was a rich choice. His great musical gift was cultivated in spite of a profound hearing loss, and it is believed Beethoven also suffered from epilepsy.

Martha speaks about her experiences to others

After her recovery from surgery, Martha realized that hers was a story that needed to be told. She would subsequently be featured on the CBS television show 60 Minutes. “It became obvious to me that people needed to hear this story,” said Curtis. “I could express some universal truths about the power inherent in a human being, the power of human consciousness, the power of choice. The fact of the matter is, we are born with the ability to observe our surroundings and figure out a way to go, to decide and choose to reach for our goals.”

For a few years Martha Curtis was on a ‘victory tour’ doing a series of engagements combining her musical performance with her story. Her world tour included stops at medical conventions, benefit performances and musical venues, plus several stops in Michigan, her hometown Flint, and the site of her first musical love, Interlochen.

Sharing her story and the love of music with children

Martha continues to perform and speak about her musical journey with epilepsy. She also teaches violin, and is the proud mother of two children. Martha and her husband Walter began the adoption process several years after the surgeries when they were certain that their choice to raise children would not be negatively impacted by her medical condition.

Music will always be a part of Martha Curtis’ life but her experiences overcoming epilepsy have given her a bigger mandate. “I just want people to know that they were born with the incredible power of choice. It was written into our DNA,” emphasized Curtis. “For me, I played the violin and exercised choice. Other people may do it another way - but human beings always have choice.”

DJ Sketch performs for a crowd

making a creative scene, dj olympics in lansing

The CCDJO Logo displays on a wall at an event

There are those who dream about creating a way to profoundly impact others, and then there are those who DO profoundly impact others. Marcus Mckissic belongs in the latter group. Whether he’s taking time to be a dedicated father and husband, performing as a spoken word poet or prepping and pumping people up for the Capital City DJ Olympics (an event he co-founded), Marcus is a gifted artistic and societal force in the city of Lansing.

Born and raised in Lansing, Marcus McKissic has literally lived his whole life in the shadows of a General Motors factory; never more than a mile away. His passion for his city and state are deeply rooted in him and part of his identity. “This is home,” he says, and he is clearly committed to being here.

Duke (left) and McKissic (right)

In June of last year, McKissic and his longtime friend, Patrick Duke, felt the need to assemble a platform for local deejays to showcase their talents – and what better way to do that than with an inclusive competition – no matter what genre they specialized in, what their equipment looked like or how skilled they were. And so, the Capital City DJ Olympics (CCDJO) was born.

Not to be confused with radio disc jockeys, “deejays” are individuals with the ability to seamlessly mix, spin, scratch, and incorporate a flair of their own to existing music, using turntables and other equipment.

“It really was going to be a one-time thing,” McKissic admits. “But soon after we completed the first CCDJO, the deejays themselves were asking when we planned on doing it again because they loved it so much. They loved the atmosphere, the event, the networking, the way it pushed them to take their craft to a new level. Between the two of us [McKissic and Duke] we started to craft and mold an event that we felt could change the music culture in Lansing.”

This is exactly what CCDJO is accomplishing. Not only has it provided exposure for the abilities of local deejays, but residents of Lansing have come to expect a barrage of exceptional musical entertainment from the competition’s annual “Trials” (October), “Showcase” (January-April) and “Finals” (April).

“Most people don’t know that the Lansing area has been filled with deejays that have gone on to make an impact nationwide for years. People like Deejay Butcher, Crazy Caz, Ruckus, Kalendar, DJ Rock City and Beltran are all from this area. Once we noticed that most of the festivals around town were featuring talent from other places, we realized that there was a need to be filled that spotlighted local talent.”

2010 CCDJO Champion: DJ Space

While CCDJO isn’t a cutthroat competition, the deejays do have to prove their abilities during a series of trials hosted each Sunday in October, months prior to the finals in April. Only 12 deejays go on to the finals, plus three winners from the previous year. As for the finals – they’re held on the famed Michigan Princess; Michigan’s only triple decker river boat that cruises the Grand River.

Using funds raised at CCDJO events, McKissic and Duke give back to the community. “It is also very important to us as a company to support local charities,” says McKissic. “We have raised money for Cuts for a Cure, the Lansing Derby Vixens and sponsored the STOP The VIOLENCE Rally as well. Our mission goes beyond just a competition, it allows us to help the community in ways that we wouldn't have been able to otherwise.”

Even though Marcus McKissic has put a sizeable artistic and economic dent in his community through CCDJO, his personal life is no exception. McKissic is on the Board of Directors for REACH Studio Art Center – a local nonprofit offering art programs to under-served youth in the community. He is also an established spoken word poet. “I have performed for different schools, from Pleasant View Magnet School to Shabazz [Public School Academy],” says McKissic. “I now coach debate at a local school because I thought it was cool, and they were losing their coach to a different school.”

DJ Rachael P and fans

When asked why he’s so vested in inspiring creativity and action in youth, “I can relate because I went to the high schools here and I look like them, but more importantly … it’s showing them that someone cares about them. That someone makes a commitment to them. That pushes them to be smarter, think for themselves, to use their speech as a weapon.”

Aside from all this … McKissic is most vested in his family. They are his inspiration, his lifeline and his cheerleaders. “My family is everything. I met my wife at the Creole Gallery doing poetry. She was amazing and we have been inseparable ever since,” says McKissic. “As a unit, we support each other in whatever we do. Our extended family is amazing so we are blessed to have parents and siblings that take the kids when we have an evening event or something. Since having children, I really want them to be proud of their father so I can’t stop doing these things. Sometimes they come along. We always talk to them about what we are doing, and why, so they understand the impact.”

Marcus McKissic is passionate about the future of creativity in Michigan. His dream: to make more clear the transposable connection between the arts and economy; along with increasing inclusivity among artists and businesses in a city. “We have to document the future of arts as an economic force. Building the creative culture will support the [Richard] “Florida" model that cities are using to get the creative class to foster change. In this case, we want to [include] poets and emcees, and graffiti artists and deejays … as part of the creative class too.”

helcopter view, final scene, calls for viewers to come experience grand rapids

grand rapids' rob bliss and his crazy (smart) ideas

So I was watching Disney’s Enchanted not long ago (don’t judge me), and I came to the part where the entire population of New York City’s Central Park joins the cartoon-Princess-come-to-life in a huge flash mob sort of scene, all singing an inspiring song about love. It was beautifully choreographed and performed. As I blotted my red, swollen eyes (again, with the judging?), I thought how cool it would be for something like this to happen in real life. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the world record-setting Grand Rapids LipDub.

Well, I don’t give it to you. Technically it comes from the mind of Rob Bliss. I just pass it along. If it was up to me to create this thing, you’d see me and two buddies, using a VHS camcorder, singing the shortest Monty Python song we could find. But Bliss got 5,000 of his “buddies” together, along with a Steadicam and a John Deere Gator, and created this video, making it the largest LipDub video to date. As of this writing, the video has had almost 4.5 million views on YouTube. In addition, film critic Roger Ebert has declared it “The best music video ever made.”

record setting zombie walk even includes Waldo

While the LipDub was the debut project of Bliss’ new company Status Creative, a brand awareness firm, he has been previously responsible for quite a few notable events in the Grand Rapids area. There was the world’s largest water slide (500 feet long) which was set up on Lyon Street in Grand Rapids. And the time where he orchestrated 100,000 paper airplanes to be thrown off the roof of a Grand Rapids building, as a 2009 ArtPrize exhibit. There was a record setting zombie walk, drawing several thousand participants. Then there was the time he gave away 30,000 pieces of sidewalk chalk, and encouraged locals to release their inner artist. And, of course, the legendary Grand Rapids Pillow Fight, which drew over a thousand people. All of it done just because Rob Bliss wanted to see it.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell joins in the LipDub

As for the LipDub, the video depicts what seems like the entire population of Grand Rapids, coming together to lip sync a live version of Don McLean’s classic song, “American Pie.” The viewer is transported through downtown Grand Rapids for the duration of this almost ten minute song. Participants follow the camera, singing and playing guitar, while passing marching bands, a wedding, emergency vehicles, TV production vehicles, and all sorts of other groups representing their pride in the Grand Rapids area. It features local notables, such as Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, and WOOD-TV’s Chief Meteorologist Bill Steffen. It even has huge pyrotechnics and a helicopter shot! Add Bruce Willis and you’ve got Die Hard 5.

When asked why he wanted to create this video in the first place, Bliss said simply, “I just wanted to see something like this happen in Grand Rapids.” The idea had been percolating for a short while. But in January of 2011, Newsweek posted an article on its website declaring Grand Rapids one of America’s top ten “dying cities” due to the city’s drop in population over the past decade. “That really lit a fire under us,” said Bliss, which led to the video being produced the following May. “We disagreed strongly,” he said, “and wanted to create a video that encompassed the passion and energy we all feel is growing exponentially, in this great city.”

Pyrotechnic display for the LipDub Music Video

One of the most impressive feats about this video is that, unlike the aforementioned Disney’s Enchanted, Bliss’ video was all done in one continuous take. No edits, all of it flowing smoothly and easily transforming between performers, and from one site to the next. The shoot shut down major streets in the downtown area for part of the day. But no one seemed to complain, as they were united in proving Newsweek wrong. It would seem they made their point. Only about a week after this video was up on YouTube, Newsweek reportedly posted a Memo to Grand Rapids on their Facebook page, saying:

First off, we LOVE your YouTube LipDub. We’re big fans, and are inspired by your love of the city you call home.
But so you know what was up with the list you’re responding to, we want you to know it was done by a website called–not by Newsweek (it was unfortunately picked up on the Newsweek web site as part of a content sharing deal)–and it uses a methodology that our current editorial team doesn’t endorse and wouldn’t have employed. It certainly doesn’t reflect our view of Grand Rapids.

Bliss gave out 30,000 pieces of sidewalk chalk to encourage residents to express their inner artist

The point wasn’t lost locally, either. According to a report from WOOD-TV, Brian DiVita, Director of Graduate Management Programs at Aquinas College, was asked to estimate what sort of impact this type of public relations would have upon Grand Rapids. "It's clearly very challenging, I think, on several levels," he said, but added, “Clearly in the millions.”

All of Rob Bliss’ crazy (smart) ideas have certainly brought an enormous amount of positive attention to the city of Grand Rapids. And I can’t wait to see what might be next from Rob Bliss, an obviously insightful and creatively talented young man. Rob, if you’re reading this, may I suggest the world’s largest donut giveaway? Just the idea of it brings a tear to my eye. (Judge away.)

the old detroit bell tower building

$50m 'bell tower' project a lesson in the power of architecture

By winter 2012, the $50 million rehabilitation of a vacant, iconic Detroit building will be complete and a project — unique in scope and mission — will demonstrate how architecture can positively impact a turnaround city.

an aerial view of the tower under construction

The rehabilitation will transform the former Michigan Bell Telephone Company building, located at 882 Oakman Blvd. in downtown Detroit, into a mixed-use space that will provide permanent housing for 155 homeless men and women.

The project is the brainchild of the Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO), a Detroit-based nonprofit designed to empower vulnerable individuals, the homeless, young people and those with mental illness. In 2008, NSO approached architecture firm Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas about the project, which was developed to assist the neighborhood homeless population and provide a headquarters for NSO.

The 273,000 square foot building was built in 1929 for Western Electric, which had its headquarters in the building until 1958. Yellow Pages used the building until 1999. Focus: Hope, another Detroit nonprofit, sold the building to NSO for an undisclosed amount.

As a former warehouse, the building proved to be a design challenge for Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas, but the firm also knew the impact transforming such an iconic building could have on the neighborhood. Cleaning up and repurposing buildings that were once a bastion of commerce in a city suffering from a steep economic decline, can dramatically impact neighborhood morale, giving residents a sense of hope and prosperity.

“It was difficult because of the building’s footprint,” said Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas President Jim Pappas. “It doesn’t lend itself to housing the way long narrow buildings might where you can put units on both sides of the corridor.”

concept model for some of the new bell tower interior

Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas revisited its 2008 design, turning awkward spaces without natural light into an exercise facility, activity area, computer lab and a small chapel.

Along with housing and NSO offices, the building includes resident support programs for mental illness and addiction.

“This population often times deals with mental illness and addiction and it was established that in order to provide appropriate housing for many of these individuals, you’d need support functions right there for them,” Pappas said.

concept design for the one bedroom living spaces

Each apartment is approximately 450 square feet.

“They’re not huge but they’re very nice,” Pappas said. “Our goal was that when this was done there would be no difference in looking at a market-rate one-bedroom apartment in an urban setting and these units.””

Residents are expected to move in by the winter of 2012. Pappas said their rent will be subsidized through various grants and funding obtained for the project.

“It’s surprising to some people how many organizations there are that are making a difference in this city be it one program at a time or one project at a time,” Pappas said. “It’s kind of a cliché, but that’s how you change a city -one little building at a time.”

Pappas grew up in Detroit and although the original mission of Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas wasn’t nonprofit related, half of the firm’s work is with the nonprofit sector, a steep commitment for a for-profit business competing in a tough economy.

“The real satisfaction comes with these projects, where the real satisfaction isn’t that it’s just a building but that it’s making a difference in the community and hopefully making a difference in someone’s life,” Pappas said.

Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas President Jim Pappas

Pappas believes architects have a social responsibility to improve communities. Because architecture is a very visible profession, it can literally change the look of a city. By taking on nonprofit projects that help those in the city who are struggling financially or emotionally, Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas creates beautiful spaces for community-oriented organizations that might otherwise be confined to restrictive design.

In Detroit where abandoned buildings seem to dominate the skyline, the aesthetic of redevelopment is incredibly important. Plain, careless design will do nothing to improve the look of the city but the careful, meticulous redesign of buildings that once represented robust commerce, are symbolic of where the city and its residents are going.

Though the 50-50 split between nonprofit and private sector clients wasn’t in the firm’s original plan, the firm has gradually expanded its nonprofit portfolio.

Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas designed the expansion of Angela Hospice in Livonia; a renovation of Mary Wood Nursing Care Center in Livonia; and Oakland Place, a project funded by the Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.

concept design of bell tower exterior canopies

Though Pappas said the ‘Bell Tower’ is a dream project, nonprofit work can take more time and more financial wrangling than for-profit endeavors. The ‘Bell Tower’ project has been in the works since 2008 and includes 10 different funding sources.

Commenting on the challenges of launching an initiative of this scope and importance to the city, Pappas said… “At the end of the day you have 15 people here that have to get a paycheck every two weeks and you can’t lose sight of that. If you do, you’re not going to be a help to anyone.”

The firm is further using its position as a Detroit change agent to beautify the streetscape. Streetscape improvements statewide have achieved boosts in both the visibility and attractiveness of many Michigan cities. By cleaning up trash, engaging formally-absent property owners, putting up public art projects and painting and redesigning abandoned buildings, these projects entice visitors to the city.

The firm is working with NSO, the City of Detroit, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, local artists and other area architects and builders to design the Oakman Boulevard streetscape, a project that will enhance the redevelopment work that’s been done in that region.

It is clear that Pappas has a dream for Detroit and his position as a successful architect offers an opportunity to respond to a bigger need. “I love it here,” Pappas said. “There has been so many changes to the city. It’s slowed because of the economy but it’s still happening. There are so many people making a difference.”