Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier


Maija DeRoche

Maija Lahti DeRoche comes from Rauma, Finland and makes traditional bobbin lace.  Her father, Paavo Lahti, was instrumental in reviving lace making traditions in Finland during the late 1950s.  Maija came to the United States in 1967.  She has a BA in German Literature from SUNY Oswego and a Masters in Speech Pathology from SUNY Geneseo.  She recently retired from her position as a Treatment Team Leader for Finger Lakes DDSO.  Currently, Maija owns and operates Stage Right, a  home staging and decorating business. She lives with her husband in Montour Falls, New York.

“Avenues of Expression” is an initiative of the Chemung County Advocacy, Resource, and Care (ARC) that encourages individuals with developmental disabilities to engage in the arts.  Don Curtis, the Family Support Director of the Chemung ARC, is the “Avenues of Expression” Arts Committee Chair.  Along with John Domanski, the Recreation Team leader of the Chemung ARC, he will assist individuals involved with the ARC as they post entries exploring their work.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native, Todd Bailey has always had a passion for movies. Since a young age he has been making home movies of himself and his friends. Todd chose to attend Mansfield University and graduated in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcast Communications and immediately joined the workforce.

While still in college, Todd created Tizodd Productions as a small film production company in which he used to produce many short films and a feature-length film. Since then, Tizodd Productions has been officially formed as an L.L.C. The company has evolved and now does production of weddings, music videos, commercials, and documentaries in addition to feature films.

Todd has written, directed, and edited the award-winning docudrama, “Bigfoot Lives” which is now in distribution. It is being hailed as “…the best bigfoot movie of all time.” (Reviewer; “Bigfoot Lives” earned Todd the Kamila Nurideen/Best Documentary award from the 2007 Pocono Mountains Film Festival. Todd was also nominated for Best Director for “Bigfoot Lives.” In 2008, Todd released a suspense/thriller titled, “The Moretti House” which won Best Producer at the 2008 Pocono Mountains Film Festival. It was also nominated for Best Feature. Todd also co-directed and edited a television pilot for Animal Planet entitled, “The Ultimutt Makeover” in 2004.

When Todd is not producing films, he is employed at WENY-TV ABC/CBS/CW2 as a commercial producer.  The local news business has offered many different experiences and learning opportunities for Todd since he began working there in November of 2003 as a news photographer. Todd has had the opportunity to film, edit, and floor direct for the 6pm and 11pm newscasts. He has even had some on-air opportunities and produced local promos and commercial spots as well.

Gretchen Kai Halpert earned a BA in Botany from Connecticut College, studied biological illustration at the University of New Haven Graduate School and received a certificate in Scientific and Technical Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)/CE in 1986. Halpert taught medical and natural science illustration for RISD/CE, Brown University, Wheaton College and a variety of botanical and nature organizations locally, nationally and abroad since 1994. Her drawings have appeared in books, journals and scientific publications, at zoos and nature preserves. Halpert is past president of The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI, Inc.), is on the advisory board of the Guild of Asian Botanical Artists (GABA) and is a member of the ASBA, the Sci-Art network of Thailand and the GNSI-Fingerlakes, where she now resides.

Mary Lu Walker

Mary Lu Walker describes herself this way:  “40 years ago I bought an old  guitar at Happy Howard’s junk shop   here in Corning New York.   It had no strings, was black with an Hawaiian girl painted on the side and I paid Happy $2, plus a little violin that one of my  8 kids rejected.Best bargain I ever made!

I figured  how to string and play it, learned 3 chords and sang to my kids at bedtime. I began to write songs although I could not read music and knew no theory.  I loved making something that didn’t get eaten, spilled or mud-tracked, and was MINE.  Never considered myself ‘creative’  but suddenly found there was  wonderful stuff in my brain…raw material for little songs that children liked.

An editor at Paulist Press in New York City heard my songs, liked them, encouraged me and  brought me to the city to record my first album “Songs For Young Children.” Eight more albums of my music followed over the years.

My musical journey has taken me around the world to Russia, Australia,  Japan, Ukraine, Fiji, Zambia, Great Britain, Zimbabwe, Pakistan , Canada and almost every American state.    I wrote my songs for all children regardless of religion or belief system. I’m  happy to know that they’re being used as I intended.

I haven’t hung up my guitar yet and still get my greatest pleasure singing and playing….for little children, old people, retired teachers, nursing homes, libraries, and scouts etc.  I’m the quintessential late bloomer, maybe one of the oldest living folk singers in outstate New York,  with a  stack of  ‘works in progress’ yet to be accomplished.


Mackenzie Bristow is currently the Director of the ESL Program at Elmira College, NY. Her interest in the relationship between language and culture have inspired her to spend time with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, join an all-Spanish speaking dance troupe, spend a year in Finland, three years in South Korea, Wwoof in Australia, learn Laban Dance Notation, and ultimately pursue a career in Applied Linguistics. Her research interests include cooperative education, instructional technology, and micro-language planning.

IMG_1901Kirsten VanAtta

I became interested in photography in high school, 25 years ago. I loved the idea of recording a small moment in time. No matter how fleeting it was, it became history with the click of a camera. I followed that interest into college where, at Alfred University, I earned a BFA in 1989. I have shown my work at several local venues, and I am published in Photographer’s Forum “Best of College Photography Annual, 1988” and Photographer’s Forum “Best of Photography Annual, 1989.”

After college, I worked many an odd job, including various retail positions, manager of a portrait studio, and as an E-911 dispatcher for 12 years. I didn’t actively pursue a career in the arts, but remained dedicated to photography and the creative process, producing many photographs for friends, family, and myself.

In the past 5 years I have become more aggressive in making my work public, including self promoted shows, membership with Community Arts of Elmira and The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes, as well as a grant project with the Rockwell.

I have “retired” from the conventional workforce, and now stay at home with my two daughters, ages 8 and 4 years. I also operate my own photo business from my home,, shooting weddings, events, and family portraits to pay the bills, while still promoting the fine art aspect of my work.

The ever-changing moments in time and the emotion they evoke are the foundation for most of my photographs. I am inspired by those fleeting moments in life that, were it not for a camera, would be lost forever or left to the fallibility of the human memory. To me, photography is a synthesis of interesting imagery, and the subsequent feelings about what one sees. My primary goal is seizing the moment, and making it memorable.

I work, primarily, with a digital camera. Not only does it afford me more expedient results, but the ability to preview each shot and re-shoot if necessary, is a luxury not available with traditional 35mm equipment. My images range in size from 8×10 to 16×20. They are color, b/w, or artistically manipulated with editing software. Portraits have been my main focus, but I have been venturing into other arenas, including, still life, nature and wildlife, and abstract imagery.

CaseygibsonCasey Mallow

Glenn Mallow III (better known in his hometown as “Casey”), graduated from Berklee in 1979 with a Professional Music Diploma. He returned to Berklee in 1993 after transferring Liberal Arts credits from Corning Community College and received a Bachelor of Music Degree in Professional Music. Casey later received Music Therapy credits from Mansfield University and a Gerontology Certificate from Joint Education and Training. He is currently employed as Recreation Manager for The Arc of Schuyler, an organization that assists adults and adolescents with developmental disabilities in the Finger Lakes area of New York State. In 2007, Casey formed “The Twelfth Street Players”, a music and theatrical group of developmentally disabled and non-developementally disabled adults who perform at charitable functions and for charitable organizations in the Watkins Glen-Schuyler County New York area. In 2008, he received a Berklee Alumni Grant to assist with further development of “The Twelfth Street Players” at The Arc of Schuyler. Casey performs on a regular basis as a solo jazz guitarist, function band musician and pit musician at area college, high school and community theater productions. He has taught private music lessons in his home for many years. Past gigs have been with Jazz, General Business and Rock/Top 40 bands including work with former Art Blakey bassist Austin Wallace. Casey has been employed in the past as a Recreation Leader (Music) at a state prison and applied his music skills as an Activities Leader and Activities Coordinator at long term care facilities. He has also worked in music sales and instrument sales and repair at Hamlin’s Music Store. Casey lives in Elmira Heights, NY with his wife Carol. They have two adult children, Jason and Jessica.


Debra Chesman

Debra Chesman grew up in Troy, NY singing folk music during the great folk revival of the 1960’s and has never really stopped, although she also added classical, madrigals, sweet Adeline’s and a`capella close harmony along the way while she studied Social Work and Social Welfare Management, receiving a BS from Cornell and an MSW from SUNY Albany. She became a Residence Hall Director on three different college campuses and started a residential living program at Cornell called JAM (Just About Music). After marrying a Brit she met at an Ithaca party, they moved to Southampton, England, where she continued to work with college students, became a social worker in foster care and adoptions as well as other work with children, including something a gypsy camp. She embraced the folk scene in England where she became a folk club organizer of a long-standing weekly club.  As an ex-pat mother in England, she managed to re-discover bluegrass for herself in a way that captured her heart with all those lonesome-for-home lyrics. She studied bluegrass singing with Kate Brislin and joined her first band in England but her husband’s career brought them to Corning where she taught her self to play the home-made washtub bass and she performs, off and on, with various other local musicians.

Since autumn 2004, Debra has injected new life into Valley Folk Music, a concert series formerly in Elmira/Horseheads. She has moved the series to Corning where concerts are being held at 171 Cedar Arts. She remembers that even as a social work student, one of her first internships was at an Arts Council.  It seems her life’s work, which was perhaps (not?) intended to be in social work, counseling and management always finds a way back to the music. She says that when the refrain comes along after every verse, one will eventually learn it….

Lopez_M_2Maritza Lopez

Maritza Lopez was born in Mexico in a city right at the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, she has lived in several cities within Mexico and the US. She came to Corning, NY three years ago because of her husband’s job. She has learned to ski (only green paths!), shovel snow and stay at home during snow storms!  Still her favorite season is summer.  Maritza likes living in Corning and believes this area has given her many opportunities; she and her husband own a business on Market Street and recently became parents for the first time.


Louise Sullivan-Blum

Louise Sullivan-Blum publishes under the name Louise A. Blum.  She has published two books, You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?  A Lesbian in Small-town America (University of Wisconsin Press, 2001) and Amnesty (Alyson Publications, 1995) and has just completed another novel, The Communion of Saints, which she recently discussed with Tish Perlman on her radio program, Out of Bounds.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Louise has also published numerous short stories, essays, and poems, and has given talks and readings from San Francisco to Provincetown to Montreal.

She is an Associate Professor of English at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches a host of classes in the creative writing minor.  She teaches creative writing, fiction writing, novel writing, as well as classes like Graphic Novel, Lesbian and Gay Literature, Political Literature, and Protest Lit.  A former community organizer, she is deeply interested in political issues.  She periodically gives readings & talks about being a lesbian, a writer, a teacher, and a parent.

She enjoys writing, reading, kayaking, walking, and the occasional foray into white water rafting and downhill skiing.  She is working hard at playing jazz on the piano, and loves to spend time with her daughter Zoe, 13, and her partner, Connie.  She loves good coffee, intense conversation, and intelligent films.

nancy_sm_flipRev. Nancy Lane, Ph.D.

The Rev. Nancy Lane received a Ph.D. in Religion and Psychology from the Union Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio, and was a Visiting Scholar at Oxford University, England, where she studied the meaning of suffering and healing. Dr. Lane received a B.A. in Religion from Wells College and the Master of Divinity from Bexley Hall at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1983, she served as a diocesan staff officer for several years. Dr. Lane is known as a national and international speaker and has lectured at numerous colleges, seminaries and conferences. She is retreat and workshop leader and author of a number of articles on spirituality and healing.  Her website URL is


Jason Whong

Jason Whong is a photojournalist and a magazine writer living in Elmira. Most of the art he creates belongs to various corporations, but now and then he writes and takes pictures for himself, or plays saxophone or sings for whomever will listen. He occasionally blogs at


Adrian McGrady

Adrian McGrady is a 21 year old music student at Mansfield University, studying music performance and music business.

He plays flute/piccolo and is trained in classical, jazz and contemporary music.

He is also working with the Corning East and West High School Color Guards and preparing to become a member of the Empire Statesmen Color Guard.


Paul Solyn

Paul Solyn is Executive Director of the Jewish Center and Federation of the Twin Tiers. In that capacity he manages the JCF’s educational, community service, and cultural programs. In 2008 these included concerts by Joe Crookston (February), Rabbi Larry Milder (April), and the Guy Mendilow Band (September); a film series at the Steele Memorial Library; and a lecture series.

He was a participant in the creation of community arts councils in the 1970s, and as a volunteer directed arts festivals, exhibitions, and artist residencies. He is a published writer and has taught creative writing
courses and workshops at Indiana  University and for the Oregon State Poetry Association.

Paul holds an M.J.Ed. degree from Hebrew College, Boston; an M.A. from Indiana University, Bloomington, and an A.B. from Oberlin College. Before working professionally in the Jewish community he was a teacher and administrator at the college level.

Jerry Fong

Jerry Fong began his first attempt at writing poetry in 1984 when he hesitantly attended a local poetry workshop at the Corning Library and found to his great consternation that he loved the game. He has since published a chapbook of poems with Mary Ginn (“All I’ve Known of Wanting,” H & H Press 1999) and has had poems published in a variety of magazines (Anderie, Wolf’s Head, Burning Cloud Review, Paumanok Review). Jerry has won or placed in several local and state poetry contests (Penn Writer’s Contest, Paumanok Poetry Contest, Steele Memorial Library Poetry Contest, Syracuse Herald Graqnd Prize for poetry). He has won the Catherine Connelly Creative Writing Award 5 times.

Jerry’s day job involves teaching general, organic and instrumentation chemistry at SUNY Alfred State, where he masquerades as a full professor of chemistry.

vaniphotoVani Akula

Vani Akula has worked very successfully as a software engineer for many years in Maryland, Virginia and Corning.  Having moved to the beautiful upstate New York area she succumbed to her heart’s beckoning and against all odds switched careers to art.  However, having been trained in the arts since she was a little kid the transition was smooth.  She paints oils and on silk and works out of her home studio.  She also  performs classical and folk Indian dance.

Connie Sullivan-Blum

Connie Sullivan-Blum holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Binghamton University and currently serves as Folk Arts Coordinator for The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes.  She has been doing research and teaching on the college level in the southern Finger Lakes region for nearly a decade.  Her folk arts interests include making links between the folk arts of Europe and those of other cultures around the world, and expanding the visibility of multi-cultural folk arts in our community.

Akua Lezli Hope

A third generation New Yorker, firstborn, Akua Lezli Hope has won two Artists Fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Ragdale U.S.-Africa Fellowship, and a Creative Writing Fellowship from The National Endowment for The Arts. She received an Artists Crossroads Grant (2003) from The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes for her project “Words in Motion,” which placed poetry on the buses of New York’s Chemung and Steuben counties. She was the guest poet at the Steele Memorial Library’s 2003 Festival.  UNPACKING, her collaboration with dancer choreographer, Lois Welk, was presented in 2003 at 171 Cedar Arts Center.

In 2001, she was an artist-in-residence at Women’s Studio Workshop. Earlier that year, she held her first solo exhibition, SHIELD at the Miles Aduwaa Gallery in Chicago.  In 1997, she was poet-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institute where she read her poetry, lectured on jazz poetry, and conducted a workshop entitled “Writing Poetry as Mythmaking.”  Her first collection, EMBOUCHURE, Poems on Jazz and Other Musics, won  the Writer’s Digest  book award for poetry in 1996.  She is published in numerous literary magazines and national anthologies including: The Year’s Best Writing, Writer’s Digest Guides, 2003; and DARK MATTER, (the first!) anthology of African American Science Fiction, Time Warner Books, 2000.

She holds a B.A. in psychology from Williams College, a M.B.A. in marketing from Columbia University Graduate School of Business, and a M.S.J. in broadcast journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

She is a founding section leader in the Poetry Forum on Compuserve.  She served as a founding section leader of African American Resource Forum and in the Books and Writers section of the African American Culture Forum (American Visions) on Compuserve.   She also served as the area coordinator and group founder for Amnesty International, U.S.A., in the southern tier of New York.  She co-authored a biweekly column on social, political, and cultural issues for the Star Gazette in 1995.

She is a founding member of the Black Writers Union and the New Renaissance Writers Guild whose alumni include Baron James Ashanti and Terri McMillan.

She led the Voices of Fire Reading Choir from 1987 to 1999, performing her work and that of other African American poets.  Akua has given hundreds of  readings  to audiences in colleges, prisons, parks, museums, and bars.  Akua bears an exile’s desire for work close to home, and a writer’s yearning for a galvanizing mythos.  She also creates sculpture, ornaments,objects, and jewelry using glass, paper, metla and fiber. plays with her cats and the saxophone, sings,and makes good manifest.

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