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Inside Looking Out

State of the Arts


Published October 26, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Larry Bissonnette is an unexpected film star. But the 48-year-old autistic Vermonter is indeed front-and-center in My Classic Life as an Artist: A Portrait of Larry Bissonnette. In fact, earlier this month the 21-minute movie won Best Short Film at the Vermont International Film Festival in Burlington. Next week, it will be shown in Munich, Germany, at an international disability film fest called "The Way We Live." Festival officials are flying Bissonnette and his sister Sally VerWey over, all expenses paid.

Many Vermonters know Bissonnette to be an industrious artist with a highly distinctive style; growing up in the Brandon Training School, he found artmaking his primary outlet for communication, and pleasure. But the film is not a comprehensive biopic, so viewers who don't know anything about its leading man may find themselves with questions at the end. My Classic Life was produced and directed by Dr. Doug Biklin and grad student Zach Rossetti of the Center on Disability Studies, Law and Human Policy at Syracuse University. The two had met Bissonnette when he'd presented at a conference at the school on facilitated communication. And when they had the idea to make this film, it was decided that Bissonnette himself should write it, using that very technique.

Simply put, facilitated communication is a means by which a non-verbal individual types what he has to say into a computer, in the presence of a companion who helps keep him focused. Amazingly, it was only about 10 years ago that Bissonnette began doing this. And as he says in the film, facilitated communication finally offered a way to let people know he was intelligent. His idiosyncratic text appears as subtitles, unedited, throughout the film and is heard voiceover-style by a reader.

The film also reveals his often-charming way with words. In one scene, Bissonnette sits before his keyboard with Pascal Cheng, an educational communications specialist at Burlington's Howard Center, and Michael Gray, head of the GRACE program and Bissonnette's artistic mentor. "Michael is Larrys persuasder to do great art," Bissonnette writes, "even when creativity is clashing with serious autistic stubbornness." About facilitated communication itself Bissonnette says, "Ladle of doing language meaningfully is lost in soup of disabled map of autism, so I need a potholder of touch to grab it."

"He plays with words like he plays with paint," suggests Cheng, adding that Bissonnette learned to read from looking at magazines and watching TV when he was institutionalized. "He's a very visual person and remembers exactly what things look like. That strength allowed him to pick up on the printed word."

Facilitated communication is the anchor of My Classic Life, and Bissonnette's treasury of language skills is remarkable. But his anchor is art. In the film we see him busily painting and drawing, and constructing his own wood frames. We see stacks of completed paintings and piles of his beloved Polaroids, which he often tapes to his works. What we don't see is anyone seriously promoting Bissonnette's art career, and this viewer was left wishing he had a dedicated rep in the wider world of "outsider" art. Though that was not the motivation for making My Classic Life, it would be a happy outcome. That and, of course, giving Larry Bissonnette star treatment.

For Vermonters, the next chance to view the film is November 6 at the White River Indie Films Festival in White River Junction. Check for more info.

For fans of Cuban culture, admiration has always had a bitter overlay: the U.S. government's stubborn hostility toward the country -- or, more to the point, toward Fidel Castro. But while the Bush administration has further tightened restrictions on U.S.-Cuba contact, many thousands of Americans would prefer to drop the cold-war attitude, and the cold shoulder. Marisha Kazeniac is one of them. The Burlington resident has traveled to Cuba numerous times, including for the Cuba Project, which she established in 1999 for the University of Vermont.

Last year Kazeniac founded the Vermont Institute on Cuba (VIC), a nonpolitical nonprofit dedicated to the exchange of information, resources and cultural understanding, as well as facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid. In the Green Mountain State, even Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie has established links with Cuba, under the aegis of agricultural exchange. And the Vermont-based Caribbean Medical Transport, for which Kazeniac volunteers, regularly delivers much-needed medical supplies to the nation.

But for those of us who can't get Cuban visas, VIC is happy to provide some island warmth up north. This Sunday, October 30, Kazeniac will host an evening of Cuban art and music at Burlington's Firehouse Center. Pianist Irina Escalante-Chernova, who now teaches at Dartmouth College, will perform classic Cuban tunes. Artist Pedro Perea, a former medical doctor who now lives in Chicago, will show -- and sell -- his bold, colorful paintings. One hundred percent of the proceeds, Kazeniac says, will go to benefit the Caribbean Medical Transport.

On November 12, again at the Firehouse, VIC will present "Cuba Up Close," a kind of cultural coffeehouse-style gathering, says Kazeniac, who also plans an issue-oriented speaker series. To all this, Vermont's Latin lovers will surely say, muchos gracias. VIC's website is currently under construction; for more info, call 864-4334.