Creating Change Through Art
September 25, 2012 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09
Ashley Vita Verde loves to make people smile. The 2011 Niagara University graduate had ample opportunities to do just that this summer, as the organization she co-founded, Deep Roots Niagara, elicited laughs, gasps, and yes, plenty of smiles, from tourists and locals alike on Old Falls Street in Niagara Falls.
Ashley and her business partner, Rachel Macklin Olszewski, '12, brought a variety of street performers, including jugglers, fire spinners, aerialists, clowns, and dancers, to downtown Niagara Falls to complement the activities sponsored by Old Falls Street USA and the Hard Rock Café during the main tourist season. One of the highlights of the summer was a side show to celebrate Nik Wallenda's historic tightrope walk over Niagara Falls on June 15. Since then, the two young women have been involved with a number of similar projects in the Western New York area, including organizing a circus for Slyboots School of Art and Music and participating in a “salon series” of Friday night performances for the Alt Theatre in Buffalo. They also plan to develop an afterschool theatre program at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.
Deep Roots originated out of an idea Ashley had to open an arts academy and was officially launched last fall, when she and Rachel worked with the Niagara Falls Aquarium to produce a Halloween-themed show for its annual “Halloween Happening” event. That led to a second collaboration with the aquarium: The Spirit of the Sea, an original production created for the aquarium's “SEAsonings of Niagara” fundraiser. The show featured sea lions, synchronized swimmers, dancers, and marine mammal trainers.
While many of the performances are intended for children, the topics they tackle are anything but lighthearted. The Spirit of the Sea, for example, was intended as “a commentary on pollution of the sea,” says Rachel. The work they performed for Slyboots told the story of a young man who was in search of eternal life. And the activities they hosted for the Old Falls Street Kids Club encouraged participants to become good community citizens.
“The idea is to use the art to inspire people to do something different,” says Ashley, who performs in Deep Roots productions. “I'm trying to create works of art that will inspire people to stop using disposable plastics, or littering, or Styrofoam. I'm trying to draw awareness to these things.”
Deep Roots' mission is no less ambitious ”“ it strives to use art to “achieve spectacular things,” incite “positive social change” and inspire an “artistic renaissance,” with the ultimate goal of transforming Niagara Falls into an “international hub of art and creativity.”
In pursuit of this goal, Ashley and Rachel draw upon the skills they learned in their theatre classes and reach out to Niagara University students and to local performers to get involved with their projects.
“The thing about this area is that there are so many talented people in search of work, so we really strive to hire local people,” says Rachel.
Rachel, who handles Deep Roots' behind-the-scenes administration in addition to performing, also attended an “Entrepreneur Boot Camp” co-sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts and New York University for a crash course in the skills needed to run a successful art organization.
This past summer was an “experimental” one, according to the two women, but it served as an ideal launching pad for what they hope will become a community of people who want to revitalize Niagara Falls. They envision planting gardens, painting murals, and even developing an art district. These things, they believe, will give college graduates, particularly those from Niagara University, “a reason to stay,” says Ashley.
“When we say we want to transform the city,” adds Rachel, “we really mean it.”
To find out more about Deep Roots Niagara, visit its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DeepRootsNiagara.