Archive for: October 2014

Don’t Judge a Book Festival By Its Cover

By Daniel Jenkins, Shelby Custer, Jonny Cramer and Helen Fernandez

There’s one weekend in the month of October that brings together all the bookworms in Texas.

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The Texas Book Festival was established in 1995 by a woman named Laura Bush. The former first lady came up with the idea of this festival as a way of honoring Texas authors.

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A festival attendee browses books under a tent at the festival. Photo by Shelby Custer.

This past weekend, from Oct. 25-26, the Texas Book Festival drew many fiction aficionados to the Texas State Capitol grounds.

With almost over 300 featured authors at the festival this year the event proved that people are still interested in the tangible object that is a book. The neat thing about this festival is that all of the books that are presented have been published within the last 18 months. The festival is a way of showcasing new, fresh talent. And that keeps curious book lovers coming back every year.

Steph Opitz, the literary director for the Texas Book Festival is in charge of booking the authors and planning the programs that take place during the festival. She says that this year’s festival was a little larger than last year’s since it included 50 more authors.

The Texas Book Festival isn’t just about books. As made clear by this year’s array of events happening on the festival grounds.

“With any festival in Austin there are going to be food trucks. Cooking is another way to showcase and celebrate the books that are at the Festival (we have a lot of cookbooks every year), and games grab the attention of, possibly, less fervent readers,” said Opitz.

With a staff of four and approximately 800 volunteers, the festival proves that people in Austin are committed to planning an event that unites people from all around the world who share one similar interest.

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People enjoy a discussion panel with Chase Untermeyer, former United States Ambassador to Qatar, on president precedents . Photo by Shelby Custer.

The city of Austin plays a huge part in creating a culture that respects and supports the Texas Book Festival. The festival partners with nonprofits, media outlets, local businesses and schools to plan out a weekend of quality events that are appealing to readers and authors alike. The festival ends up donating money to Texas libraries to “support collection enhancement and to implement or continue innovative literacy and technology programs for our Texas public libraries.”

The Texas Book Festival manages to raise money for libraries through fundraising and working with companies to put on events throughout the year. About $2.6 million has been donated in the past. “These grants greatly benefit the library and enable them to share the importance of literature with a wide variety of people in their community,” as states on the Texas Book Festival website.

Aside from donating money, the festival has started a program called Reading Rock Stars, which brings selected authors from across the country to read their work to students in economically-disadvantaged public schools. At the end of the reading, each child receives an autographed copy of the book and the school library gets to keep a set of books as well.

People browse through books at one of the tents at the Texas Book Festival Photo by Shelby Custer

People browse through books at one of the tents at the Texas Book Festival Photo by Shelby Custer

Already in its 19th year, the festival continues to please kids and parents by providing an event where they can both spend quality time together. Opitz says the festival’s ultimate goal is to “raise money for Texas Libraries and to raise money for our Reading Rock Stars program. We also hope to engage more readers and celebrate new books.”

With such a dedicated audience coming to the book festival every year, it’s hard to believe that books are becoming unpopular. The Austin literary scene keeps growing with small, independent presses popping up left and right. Opitz describes the literary scene as “bustling with lots of writers and readers, literary magazines, small presses, and people who are enthusiastic about their work and the work of their Austin neighbors.”

So although e-book sales are rising, books don’t seem like they’ll be going out of style anytime soon.

 

 

Baking a Difference

By Adam Beard, Melinda Billingsley, Madison Hamilton, Omar Longoria and Landon Pederson

Some people “pay it forward,” but this organization “challahs back.”

It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. A student lugging a heavy backpack pauses for a moment to breathe in the tantalizing scent before crossing the street. There’s something cooking in the building on the corner of 21st and San Antonio St., but he isn’t quite sure what.

Through the doors of Texas Hillel, down a long hallway and past an extensive meeting room lies a kitchen. UT students donning chef hats are scattered throughout as 90’s pop music blares over the clanging of pots and pans.

By 6 p.m. the kitchen will be cleared out and more than 70 loaves of challah bread will be neatly wrapped and ready to sell in West Mall the next day.

This is how the national non-profit organization Challah For Hunger operates.

Cari Cohen serves as president of Challah for Hunger. One of her main jobs is to ensure the group has the right amount of ingredients the recipe calls for. (Photo by Landon Pederson)

“I think Challah For Hunger is a great because it’s both social justice and fun at the same time,” says chapter president, Cari Cohen.

The Texas Hillel is home to one of the many Challah For Hunger chapters across the United States. Founded in 2006, the UT Austin branch has raised thousands of dollars to help fight hunger in both Austin and Africa. By selling challah for $5 in the West Mall, they are able to give upwards of $200 per week to MAZON: a Jewish national non-profit organization, as well as the local food bank.

Members of Challah for Hunger say it only takes two hours to sell all of the bread they make for the week every Wednesday on the West Mall. (Photo by Omar Longoria)

Although challah is a traditional Jewish bread eaten on holidays, both Jewish and students of non-Jewish descent are invited to Texas Hillel to prepare, braid and decorate challah bread to help raise money for humanitarian aid.

“If they’ve never heard of challah before, we explain to them that it’s an egg-based, really sugary, awesome bread that’s based in the Jewish faith,” says Challah for Hunger member, Hillary Haspel.

Incorporating ingredients such as chocolate, cinnamon and their “fun flavor” each week, the bread has become popular among students from all backgrounds – even the ones who pronounce the “c” in challah.

“Not only does it taste amazing, it goes to a really awesome cause,” says Haspel.

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Saying “I Do” and Graduating Too

By Heather Dyer, Olivia Suarez, Juan Cortez, Claire Edwards and Briana Denham

For most people in college, planning a wedding doesn’t go further than making a “dream wedding” board on Pinterest and occasionally tuning in for a Say Yes to the Dress episode on TLC. While most students would scoff at the idea of getting married in college, a select few don’t cringe away from the idea, but rather embrace it.

Cheryl and Ryan were married in January but got engaged while both were in college. Photo by Heather Dyer.

Student Kiera Dieter and her recently graduated fiance,Timothy Wallner, have no hesitations for their December wedding. For Wallner marriage was always the ultimate goal when he first started dating Dieter, even if it meant getting married before Dieter graduated.

 “The people we hang out with aren’t that surprised because a lot of our friends are getting engaged too,” said Dieter. They receive shocked responses from fellow students and coworkers, but neither have been deterred from their decision to get married.

Dieter and Wallner aren’t alone when it comes to getting engaged while still in college. Jordan Acosta, a student from UT’s law school, joins the ranks after getting engaged to her fiance Salina Cram.

Having lived with her fiance for two years, she has no fears of things changing between them. “My mom always told me growing up: ‘Marry someone weird.’” Though her mother’s words come off a little vague, Acosta describes the advice as finding someone who tilts their head to the side and sees the world a little differently. Something she’s confident she’s found in Salina.

 When asked why she wanted to get engaged, Acosta responds with a composed and thought out answer inspired by the movie Up in The Air, starring George Clooney. She realized, “It’s good to be responsible for someone other than yourself. Life is a lonely game if there’s no one to play it with.”

 Though waiting to get married after she and her fiance both graduate, she doesn’t find it odd for students to get married while in college.

 “It’s not uncommon to be engaged at 21, nor is it uncommon to not be married at 28. Everyone has a different timeline,” Acosta responds.

 For Cheryl and Ryan Willett, that timeline occurred during their senior year at UT. After returning back to Austin from their hometown in Kansas City, Ryan Willett proposed to Cheryl McGiffin, at the time, as he came down the escalators at the airport.

 “I knew I wanted to do it in a semi-public place because I knew you would like the crowd,” he jokes while looking at his wife.

 By October they started planning their January wedding in Kansas City all the way from Austin as they finished up their fall semester. Cheryl Willett admits it was crazy juggling both the wedding planning and schoolwork, especially as an architecture major.

 Similar to Dieter and Wallner, neither of the Willet’s friends were shocked by proposal. The most humorous responses came from Cheryl Willett’s architecture friends.

 “The idea of being married or even being engaged in college was so shocking to them. So one of the girls was like ‘wait so are you two going to like, live together once you guys get married’ and I was like ‘um do your parents live together?’”

 From the perspective of both Ryan and Cheryl Willett, there hasn’t been much of a transition into married life.

 “A lot of my single friends think of this huge you got this whole other person now living with you, but they don’t see it from the perspective that you’ve dated and developed a relationship with someone for years,” says Ryan Willett.

 From a professional stand point, Dr. Susan Jennings states that marrying while in college can have positive and negative consequences for many reasons.

 If each person is mature psychologically, marriage can be a great thing between younger individuals. If either one isn’t, it can be disastrous. “Marriage requires attending to the needs of another person as well as oneself. A lot of understanding, generosity of spirit, and compromise will be required. These pressures will expose the character and maturity as well as weaknesses of an individual and will force a person to stand up and grow, or not,” Jennings states.

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If a couple is mature and committed to staying together, they have the opportunity to grow up together and build their futures with the one they love. Most college students who get engaged and married before graduation are aware of these struggles while preparing for not only a wedding, but for a life together.

 “I expect there to be tension at times because this is something new, but I also think that through that tension we’ll get to know each other better. And that’s one of those things we have to remember because if we forget it, it’s going to tear us apart,” says Wallner.

Click photos to hear engagement stories

Celeste Krimsky admires the ring her fiance, Christian Guth, proposed to her with in August. Photo By: Briana Denham

Celeste Krimsky admires the ring her fiance, Christian Guth, proposed to her with this August. Photo by Briana Denham.

Dean Luttrell and Beth Vaca can't help, but moon over each other moments after Dean proposed. Photo By: Beth Vaca

Dean Luttrell and Beth Vaca can’t help but moon over each other moments after Dean proposed. Photo by Beth Vaca.

 

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Even after being married for almost a year, Cheryl and Ryan Willett still can’t get enough of each other. Photo by  Heather Dyer. 

Pumpkin Mania Takes Over Austin and Beyond

By Maria Roque, Jamie Balli, Lingnan Ellen Chen, Sara Cabral

(Credit: Lingnan Ellen Chen)

(Credit: Lingnan Ellen Chen)

October heralds pumpkin mania—a time where one can buy pumpkin-flavored everything, and Austin businesses are cashing in on this trend.

It all started when coffee conglomerate, Starbucks, introduced their signature fall beverage, the pumpkin spice latte, 10 years ago. Since then, businesses and brands nationwide began offering pumpkin-inspired products. Sales of all pumpkin-flavored foods and beverages increased 14 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to market research firm Nielsen. In the last five years, pumpkin sales have risen 34 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Austin, businesses have contributed to the trend by offering seasonal products from about September to November, all featuring the orange squash.

Amanda Bates is the co-owner of Tiny Pies, a local bakery that specializes in handheld sweet and savory pies. Their seasonal pies include the traditional pumpkin pie, the apple walnut pumpkin, and the ginger bumpkin, a blend of pumpkin pie, chocolate brownie mix, and gingerbread crust — flavors that Bates says keeps them baking all day.

“I think it is both for commerce and kind of the nostalgia, bringing in all of the flavors that you grew up eating at home with your granny,” Bates says. “We will put out a tray of pumpkin, and they sell out immediately.”

In addition to keeping the fall holiday spirit alive, as a Go Texan member, Tiny Pies takes pride in sourcing more than 70 percent of their ingredients locally.

“That’s one of the cornerstones of our business is to actually highlight what is seasonally produced locally,” Bates says. “And so right now pumpkin is one of those things that’s being grown and that we can get.”

While pumpkin pairs well with the ingredients used to make pastries, it is also popular in savory dishes.

Goldis Sausage Company purveys unique sausages out of their food truck located downtown. Owner Keenan Goldis created a seasonal sausage for 512 Brewing Company’s six-year anniversary.

“When I was offered to cater the 512 Brewing Party I was overcome with joy, so I decided to grasp the opportunity to throw in some nice autumn flavors,” Goldis says. “So I think that I did a pretty good job of capturing the very essence of a Brandenburg sunset on a cool autumn night.”

The sausage features 512’s six year anniversary Dubbel beer, pork shoulder, cayenne, garlic, mustard seeds and, of course, pumpkin and pumpkin seeds.

“It sold like crazy. People just wanted that sausage, that sausage, that sausage,” Goldis says. “So yeah, people definitely get excited about it.”

Pumpkin Mania Takes Over Austin and Beyond from Maria T. Roque on Vimeo.

Farms across the United States have expanded to meet the demand for the vegetable.

Acreage dedicated to pumpkin farming has increased by about one third in 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the hot Central Texas weather is unsuitable for pumpkins to grow, farms and other establishments in the area buy pumpkins from the Western United States to sell during the October pumpkin season.

Elgin Christmas Tree Farm has been selling pumpkins since 2002. Their pumpkin patch offers families an opportunity to partake in fall activities such as pumpkin picking and hayrides.

Owner, Twyla Nash, says they do well with the pumpkin sales, and buy about a semi-truck and a half of pumpkins to meet the demand.

“We have not had a great increase, but we feel that the popularity of dealing with pumpkins, selling them, having pumpkin events, has increased,” Nash says. “So there’s more places for people to go to buy their pumpkins and to do different activities involving pumpkins. The wealth is spread out amongst different businesses.”

Within Austin city limits, Tarrytown United Methodist Church has been running a pumpkin patch every October since 1988 to help the church youth fund their summer mission trips.

Heather Heard is a lifelong Tarrytown United member. Heard started working the patch as an eighth grader, the first year it was started. Now, her daughter is in the youth program, and Heard continues to work the patch along with the youth and other parents.

Heard says she has seen an increase in pumpkin sales.

“The weather has been so nice that people tend to come out more as a family and buy more pumpkins,” Heard says. “I definitely think that there has been an increase in sales this year.”

Heard says when the Tarrytown United pumpkin patch started they sold about a truckload of pumpkins. Now the church ships in two semi-trucks of pumpkins to sell—that’s 43,000 pounds of the vegetable.

“I think everyone comes and it has just become a family tradition for them,” Heard says. “They come and they take pictures and they pick out their pumpkins.”

Whether used for decorating and carving or baking and eating, pumpkins have become a staple of the fall season in the United States and in the heart of Texas.

Austin Celebrates Life and Death Through Viva La Vida Fest

A papier-mâché skeleton adorned in paper marigolds looms over festival attendees at the Viva la Vida festival on October 18th. Photo by Olivia Starich.

A papier-mâché skeleton adorned in paper marigolds looms over festival attendees at the Viva la Vida festival on October 18th. Photo by Olivia Starich.

By Jane Claire Hervey, Olivia Starich, Elizabeth Williams and Alex Vickery

In a sea of papier-mâché, face paint and elaborate costumes, Austin’s 31st annual Viva la Vida festival kicked off the city’s series of Dia de los Muertos celebrations.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican holiday during which people remember and honor loved ones who have died. Because of Texas’ close proximity to the Mexican border and the state’s influx of Mexican immigrants, the holiday has grown to reach communities far beyond its origins.

Austin’s Day of the Dead events typically begin in mid-October (to accommodate the city’s hectic event schedule) and extend into November. Sylvia Orozco, the executive director of the Mexic-Arte Museum and one of Viva La Vida Fest’s founders, said that Austin’s Dia de los Muertos events offer a cultural interpretation of the holiday.

“It was actually a very traditional, authentic event, and I kind of just fell in love with it,” Orozco said.“I thought it was beautiful. So when we came back to Austin [from Mexico City], and we wanted to start a cultural organization, that was the first event that we organized to do.”

Viva La Vida Fest, which began in 1984, begins with a procession through downtown that includes dancers in paper maché masks, 10-foot-tall puppets and parade-goers in full skeletal makeup. The parade honors a special theme or component each year. This year’s theme paid tribute to deceased soccer players in honor of the World Cup. Orozco said the procession themes give the festival a unique Austin flavor.

“Because of the creativeness of the city and people liking parades and processions and kind of dressing up, I think it becomes extra special,” Orozco said. “Each year, we have a special component, so we actually contribute to the creativeness of the Austin celebration with the procession.”

Austin Celebrates Dia de los Muertos from Alex Vickery on Vimeo.

Although the holiday is often mistaken for Halloween by those unfamiliar with its background, the festival is much more than music and skeleton costumes. At Viva La Vida Fest, festival attendees celebrate those who have died and the idea that death is just another phase of life. Lynette Lor, a festival attendee, said she has celebrated Dia de los Muertos in Austin since her childhood.

“Dia de los Muertos means, to me, remembering those who have passed away and keeping their spirit here with us today,” Lor said.

Orozco said that the Mexic-Arte Museum hosted its first Viva la Vida Fest as a way to bring the beauty of Dia de los Muertos to the city. In addition to the festival and the procession, the Mexic-Arte Museum hosted an exhibit of eight altars this year, which were created by different families and organizations in the community.

From the colorful parade to the Mexican food, Viva La Vida Fest pays homage to the original meaning of Dia de los Muertos, but many of the celebration’s events are fundamentally different. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos occurs on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. The first day, Dia de los Angelitos, is for remembering children and infants who have died while the second day is for remembering older loved ones. Families create altars inside the home or in cemeteries and decorate them with photos of the person and offerings, such as the person’s favorite candy, liquor or a package of cigarettes.

Symbols of the holiday include: calaveritas, candied skulls made of either sugar or clay; marigolds, the traditional flower of the dead; and candles, which are both meant to guide spirits back to Earth with their scent and light. In Mexico, these items are used to decorate altars and graves. These symbols are an important part of Austin’s interpretation of Dia de los Muertos and can be found in the festival’s decorations and floats.

Peter Ward, professor of sociology and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said that Dia de Los Muertos is a peaceful, happy time for its participants. Rather than being a mournful reminder of those who have died, the holiday serves as an opportunity to keep their spirits and memories alive.

“One dies three times in Mexico,” Ward said. “The first is when your soul leaves your body—you actually pass away. The second death is when you’re interred in the ground. And then the third death is when no one remembers you anymore. And that’s a very profound thing.”

For Ward, Austin’s celebration of Dia de los Muertos shares an atypical interpretation of death with Americans. The event imparts Mexico’s positive attitude regarding the loss of life.

“I think this is the big difference some societies have over us in the United States,” Ward said. “We’re not terribly good at cultivating this memory. It’s something we find difficult to do.”

While Austin’s Viva La Vida Fest presents a Dia de los Muertos much different from Mexico’s, Orozco said that the celebrations still expose the community to the traditional spirit and attitude of the holiday.

“It’s more about embracing death than being scared of it,” Orozco said. “It’s still feeling that those family members that you honor and remember are still a part of you and your memory.”

Local Businesses Brew Coffee Culture in Austin

By Anna Daugherty, Katherine Recatto, Emma Ledford and Andrew Masi

Coffee is often thought of as just a source of caffeine to help people get through their day. But like craft beer, high-end food trucks, and other trends associated with the surge in craft consumerism, a coffee culture is slowly developing in Austin.

Houndstooth Coffee and Austin Roasting Company are hoping to help build the culture by unleashing the beverage’s full potential as a quality, upscale commodity and appealing to niche markets.

Houndstooth Coffee is located on the first floor of Frost Bank building in downtown Austin, serving coffee connoisseurs in the heart of the city. Photo by Andrew Masi.

Houndstooth Coffee is located on the first floor of Frost Bank building in downtown Austin, serving coffee connoisseurs in the heart of the city. Photo by Andrew Masi.

Paul Henry, Houndstooth Coffee’s Director of Austin Relationships, has worked there since his brother Sean founded it about 4 1/2 years ago. Sean took a trip to Seattle where he experienced an active coffee culture, Henry said, so when he came back to Austin and didn’t find an equivalent, he founded his own shop with the value of “quality above all else.”

“He [Sean] just kind of fell in love with coffee and what it represents as, like, the beverage that ties everybody together, and how you start your day and the different flavors you can tease out of it,” Henry said.

Houndstooth Director of Austin Relationships Paul Henry said he understands that the coffee he makes isn't for everyone, but that it's worth it for those who want a unique coffee experience. Photo by Anna Daugherty.

Houndstooth Director of Austin Relationships Paul Henry said he understands that the coffee he makes isn’t for everyone, but that it’s worth it for those who want a unique coffee experience. Photo by Anna Daugherty.

In an effort to expose more people their products, Houndstooth offers four free tastings every week: two at the Lamar location, and two downtown, Henry said. They are open to the public and meant to be both fun and educational. The main point, he said, is to convince people that it’s worth paying more than the 99 cents they’re used to in exchange for a truly quality beverage. After all, creating coffee is anything but cheap.

“There’s farmers, and there’s pickers, and there’s producers, and then there’s somebody who cleans the bean, and then there’s somebody who dries the bean, and then there’s somebody who packages it, and there’s somebody who ships it, and then there’s somebody who receives it, and there’s somebody who buys it, and then sells it, and then buys it, and then the barista gets it and makes it – so yeah, there’s a lot of people relying on this coffee for a job,” Henry said. “I think it’s the right thing to do to pay a reasonable price for it, ask the customer to pay a reasonable price for it and then serve them something that they’ve never tasted before and are completely blown away by.”

Austin Roasting Company was founded in 2006 with the same goal of bringing high-quality coffees to Austin. Their products are fair trade and certified organic, and they do everything they can to “preserve the true nature of each coffee’s unique characteristics.” Each bag of coffee is hand dated and they make sure everything they do is “touched,” said founder and owner Jess Haynie.

Jess Haynie, Austin Roasting Company founder, considers himself an introvert, saying that even though he avoided sales and branding, the company still caught on due simply to the product's quality. Photo by Andrew Masi.

Jess Haynie, Austin Roasting Company founder, considers himself an introvert, saying that even though he avoided sales and branding, the company still caught on due simply to the product’s quality. Photo by Andrew Masi.

“The jump from gas station coffee to a good special coffee is a huge jump. The jump from a good coffee to a great coffee is a small step. The difference from a great to exceptional is a very small step, so you can make a big jump by sourcing good coffee, roasting and delivering faster,” Haynie said.

Austin has a long way to go with regards to coffee culture, he said. He initially intended to be the “guy on the street” local roaster, but it ended up being much easier to sell to people in other parts of the US than locally. People rarely stop by the shop, but he gets calls and website inquiries all day long from everywhere outside of Austin.

“Because I’m from California, I think like a Californian,” Haynie said. “There it’s always, like, ‘What’s next? What’s the thing? I’m gonna try this guy, and that guy and that guy.’ And here it’s kind of like ‘Oh no, this is the way we’ve always done it.’”

While Austin Roasting Company and Houndstooth are striving to refine Austinites’ tastes, they recognize that the high-end coffee that they produce is not for everyone. For those who don’t buy into the idea that coffee should be expensive, or prefer a sugary, blended drink, Henry and other Houndstooth employees are happy to refer them to another shop that can better meet their expectations.

“If a Starbucks opened up across the street I wouldn’t be worried about it at all because it’s two totally different clients, two totally different customers who want very different experiences,” Henry said. “If 10 people walk through the door and three of them never come back, I can live with that. I mean, 70 percent is still pretty good, and I think the hospitality of our staff and the quality of our product bring most people back.”

For Haynie, it’s not as much about appealing to everyone in Austin as it is continuing to make his product the best it can be.

“I really, even now, am still working on the coffee,” Haynie said. “Every day after 7 years I still think it could be better. You never stop working on that. I think it’s definitely better today than it was yesterday.”

Celtic Highland Games: A Community of Strong(wo)men

By Breanna Luna, Larisa Manescu and Jared Wynne

We’ve all heard of weightlifting, bodybuilding and Crossfit. In the past decade, intensive athletic programs such as these have experienced a surge of interest from men and women looking to test the limits of their physical and mental strength.

But how often do you hear of the Highland Games?

Mike Baab participates in the caber toss at the Austin Celtic Festival on Oct 19. In 2005, Baab won the Masters World Championship in the 45-49 age class. Photo by Jared Wynne.

Mike Baab participates in the caber toss at the Austin Celtic Festival on Oct 19. In 2005, Baab won the Masters World Championship in the 45-49 age class.
Photo by Jared Wynne.

Traditionally, Highland Games are events held throughout the year in Scotland and other countries to celebrate Scottish heritage and culture, particularly that of the Scottish Highlands. While other activities are often part of the festivities, the heavy sporting events are the most emblematic.

At the annual Austin Celtic Festival, held on Oct. 18-19 this year, a swelling crowd gathered around the heavy athletics competition to watch male and female athletes grunt and shout in frustration and exhalation as they attempted to best each other and their own personal best records. Although Highland Games can consist of a variety of different heavy sporting events, this particular festival featured the caber toss and the weight over the bar.

The Texas Celtic Athletic Association (TCAA) is demonstrative of the reach of the Highland Games, as they have  made their way from Scotland to the Lone Star State.

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States and provinces in North America hosting Highland Games competitions.

After seeing Highland Games at a Renaissance fair 11 years ago, Brittney Boswell became the first woman to officially compete in Texas. As the current Secretary of TCAA, Boswell said that many women at the time hadn’t yet realized competing was an option for them, as they had no examples to follow.

“Celtic societies and organization like (TCAA) are a big push for family involvement. When these guys come out and they bring their wives and girlfriends and daughters, it’s an opportunity for these girls to get a foot in the door,” Boswell said.

Over the years, this type of foster system within the organization has opened up the opportunity to maintain regular women’s classes and a consistent stream of 10 to 18 female athletes throwing at any given event over the past several years.

Brittney Boswell (right), the first woman to compete in Highland Games in Texas 11 years ago, offers advice to a fellow athlete before the weight over bar event.

Brittney Boswell (right), the first woman to compete in Highland Games in Texas, offers advice to a fellow athlete before the weight over bar event.
Photo by Larisa Manescu.

TCAA holds weekly practices in both North and Central Texas. Those looking to go the extra mile practice multiple times each week, in addition to spending plenty of time in the weight room to increase their strength.

Some athletes, like TCAA’s founder and president Duncan McCallum, have garnered a long list of achievements and titles as amateurs. McCallum has competed in Norway, Canada and each American state with the excepting Hawaii and Alaska.

Despite the competitive nature of the sport, the success of the organization depends on a tight-knit community and system of mentoring. Five years ago, McCallum was trained by Athletic Director Mike Baab, a University of Texas at Austin alumnus and former professional football player who turned to Highland Games after an 11-year NFL career.

“If there’s a Highland Games Hall of Fame, (Mike Babb) is going to end up in it. He taught me, and I taught some of these folks and they taught some of the other folks,” McCallum said. “So any chance to get out here and have time with Mike and these other cats is just a lot of fun.”

It was Baab who, along with other veterans of the Highland Games events, initially encouraged Boswell to attend games and compete as the only woman in the field.

A week before games, Baab generally runs a clinic so that those new to the sport can get their competitive jitters out of the way and begin to understand how to go about conquering each event. Additionally, events like the Austin Celtic Festival have an open-door policy when it comes to Highland Games so that anyone with the will can try their hand at competing.

A web developer by trade, Mike Beech first discovered the games in 2011 while looking for new and different experiences. Drawn to the idea of doing charitable work in Texan communities while promoting the competitions  he’d grown to love, he joined TCAA three years ago. As a member, he has helped to advance the organization’s web presence and promote the sport in the state of Texas and beyond. Beech is now the president and executive director of TCAA, no small feat for a father of two young boys.

Beech said he’s always amazed at the commitment put into the organization by both the athletes and their supportive families.

“I often find myself in awe of some of our athletes who persevere and succeed in Highland Games in spite of their demanding lives and schedules,” Beech said.

Unlike Boswell, who discovered her love for the sport without any previous athletic experience, Beech was a baseball player in high school and a nationally-ranked fencer during and after college.

He insists that he can’t overstate the value of community that TCAA brings to his life and the sense of reward he feels from doing charitable work with fellow members.

“When you grow up playing team sports, there is a point at which most of us have to stop. The lucky few can continue on and make a career out of it, but most of us grow up and miss the sense of camaraderie that comes with playing on a team,” Beech said.While Highland Games is an individual sport, TCAA has given me the chance to be on a team again.”

The involvement of the Celtic community, like the support of local business Things Celtic, allows TCAA to grow. In turn, the organization puts on a good show, and the athletes, their families and the general public bring money to Celtic festivals and events. But while the sport provides entertainment for festival visitors, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a significant presence in the athletic arena. Some of the best athletes in the world get paid to travel and compete in Highland Games.

I’m sure a lot of sports on the fringe feel this way, but I believe Highland Games is ready for the big stage. We have the athletic feats and personalities to entertain millions,” Beech said.

                                           Higland Games at Austin Celtic Festival from Breanna on Vimeo.

Art studio hosts gala to inspire artists with disabilities

 

Stephen S. proudly displays his bedazzled masterpiece, "Sparkle Chicken" at the Arc of the Arts studio in Austin, Texas. One of Stephen's jeweled sculptures was sold instantly at the Building Bridges silent auction on Oct. 22.

Stephen R. proudly displays his bedazzled masterpiece, “Sparkle Chicken” at the Arc of the Arts studio in Austin, Texas. One of Stephen’s jeweled sculptures was sold instantly at the Building Bridges silent auction on Oct. 22. (Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna)

By Silvana Di Ravenna, Joe McMahon and Alice Kozdemba

In celebration of creativity and talent, the Arc of the Arts Studio and Gallery  hosted its 15th annual Building Bridges art gala and auction at the Hyatt Regency on Barton Springs Rd. on Oct. 22. The gala is one of several annual events that the organization hosts to showcase the work of the studio’s 65 artists.  Arc of the Arts  is part of the Arc of the Capital Area, a nonprofit organization that provides support to intellectually or developmentally challenged teens and adults.

The night featured dozens of art displays, from jewelry and paintings, to drawings and sculptures. Dressed in cocktail attire, artists, donors and volunteers gathered around the displays to marvel at the vibrant colors and creations that were being proudly showcased by the artists of the Arc. Guests were served dinner, and had the chance to participate in art auctions and raffles. Building Bridges is a chance for Arc students to display their best pieces, and all proceeds made at the gala go back into the program.

Ann Wieding, Arc program manager, said students work on skills all year and instructors go through a critique process with each artist to determine which pieces will be displayed at Building Bridges.

“We take pictures and we talk about it, and the really nice pieces start to float to the top,” Wieding said. “Bridges is where everybody puts in 110 percent, and picks out their best piece.”

Tala S. a fifth year student with the program, was dressed to her best for the gala in a leopard printed dress , black jeweled necklace and a matching hat. She stood by her canvas painting of the Austin skyline and smiled for pictures and visitors. Tala has spent her time at the Arc mastering landscape and architecture painting styles.

“I find inspiration in Austin. I’m a big people person and I enjoy this place,” Tala said.

 

Students like Tala attend daily art classes at the Arc of the Arts Studio on Grover Ave. The classes are offered to students 14 and up, and most of the artists have common developmental disabilities, like autism, down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Classes take place Tuesday-Saturday and cost $25 a day per student.

Tala met her best friend Stephen at the Arc, who has been with the program since 2011. Stephen specializes in animal sculptures and jewelry. He has recently created several rooter sculptures that are intricately bedazzled with exuberant jewels. One of his roosters was showcased at the gala, and was sold almost immediately in the silent auction.

“My mind picks the colors. My mind tells me what to do,” he said.

 Arc classes provide students with basic art instruction from teachers who come from art education backgrounds. They work with students to develop individual skills and interests, as well as providing them with practical skills to help professionalize their artistic careers.

"Sparkly Cupcake" is one of three Arc of the Arts Studio paintings currently being displayed at Hey Cupcake. Ali H., the artists of the paintings helped set up the display, and makes a 20 percent commission on any of the pieces sold. (Photo by Alice Kozdemba)

“Sparkly Cupcake” is one of three Arc of the Arts Studio paintings currently being displayed at Hey Cupcake. Ali H., the artist of the paintings, helped set up the display, and makes a 20 percent commission on any of the pieces sold. (Photo by Alice Kozdemba)

 “Every week they learn a new skill, and when they start focusing on what they want to do as artists, we start taking them through the steps to become a professional artist,” Wieding said.

 In addition to classes and showcases hosted by the Arc, the student artwork has been displayed at local businesses in Austin, such as Hey Cupcake, Quacks Bakery and Kerbey Lane. Ali. H, a current art student , did the series of paintings that are currently displayed at the Hey Cupcake on Burnet Road. Wieding said part of the organization’s mission is to teach the students how to market themselves as working artists.

 “Ali went there and helped hang the show, and she was interviewed by  Community Impact,”Wieding said. “They pretty much follow the procedures that any artist would follow. They have to make the contacts, and do the PR, even if they’re not going to be the world’s most recognized artists.”

 The Arc of the Capital Area was founded in 1949, and was originally called The Association of Retarded Children. Organizers changed the name to Arc, and the arts program was added in 2010. Susan Eason, executive director of the Arc initially came to the organization as a client with her daughter , who was born with a developmental disability. Eason enjoyed the program so much that she began volunteering, and eventually became the director.

A teacher at the Arc of the Arts studio discusses a painting with artist and student Jared S. Teachers collaborate with the artists to develop create and professional skill sets. (Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna)

A teacher at the Arc of the Arts studio discusses a painting with artist and student Jared S. Teachers collaborate with the artists to develop create and professional skill sets. (Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna)

 “It’s really hard when you have a child with disabilities to find child care,” said Eason. “I wanted to meet other families and I was so impressed with the help they gave me that I became a volunteer.”

 Eason has been the Arc director for 23 years, and she said the program is currently waitlisted. Their youngest students are 14-years-old and the oldest is 60-years-old.

 “We serve people from the minute they’re diagnosed until the end of their life. Most students learn how to socialize here. Before this they had no peers or friends. “

In addition to classes, the Arc helps families deal with caring for developmentally challenged loved ones, especially as they approach adulthood. Amiee Chonoski, Arc marketing and volunteer coordinator,  said that the most rewarding part of the job is knowing that they are helping students and their families connect and learn from each other.

“I love working with the Arc because we have an amazing staff, and they love what they do and that’s a beautiful thing to be around every day,” Chonoski said.  “The artists are incredible, they are heroes.”

A Budding Artist

By: Claire Edwards, Madison Hamilton, Helen Fernandez, Melinda Billingsley and Jonny Cramer

Michelangelo used a 50-foot ladder to reach the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Picasso required a vast color palette to coat his geometric shapes. Banksy operates through complete secrecy. Shannon Donaldson needs a little water and a well-lit room to keep her art alive.

Shannon Donaldson, founder of Flowers on the Fly, prepares succulents on her ice cream bike. Photo by Helen Fernandez

Shannon Donaldson, founder of Flowers on the Fly, prepares succulents on her ice cream bike. Photo by Helen Fernandez

After graduating in 2006 with a degree in sculpting from Stephen F. Austin University, Donaldson didn’t know in what direction to take her artistic abilities.

“I never knew where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to do,” she says. “Finally I found this little niche of succulent plants.”

Donaldson says she sees each succulent as a sculpture in itself. She creates arrangements by focusing on different textures and colors. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

Donaldson says she sees each succulent as a sculpture in itself. She creates arrangements by focusing on different textures and colors. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

In 2012 she founded Flowers on the Fly with an ice cream bike and a few dozen succulent plants. Her business flourished – no pun intended – when she started pairing the cactus-like plants with funky vases, pots and sculptures that she purchased from local shops.

After securing her three spots: South Congress, The Drag, and downtown Austin – Donaldson became the go-to succulent vendor around town.

University of Texas at Austin student, Leigh Brown has started working with Donaldson to personalize her purchases.

“I buy succulents from here every three or four months,” says Brown. “I design a setup with her and she’ll go and get the plants for me.”

Not only do UT Austin students enjoy sprucing up their dorm with stylish succulents, the local art community has praised Donaldson for her innovation. RAW, “the natural born” art show hosted at The Belmont in downtown Austin, invited Donaldson to showcase her work. Her setup ranged from succulents sprouting out of glimmering black skulls with lit up eyes to blue dinosaurs with plants growing out of their back. The creativity and attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed – her cart was placed on the first floor, directly across from the main stage, where RAW attendees crowded around in admiration.

“My favorite thing is the succulent gasp – it’s the moment when people see my cart and they’re like ‘Ah that is so cute!’”

Donaldson had to create a job to use her art degree, she says she wasn't able to go out and find one. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

Donaldson had to create a job to use her art degree. She says she wasn’t able to go out and find one. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

Even though her succulents have been in high demand among the art community and UT students alike, Donaldson doesn’t have any desire to raise prices. Ranging from $4 to $25, her succulents are cheaper than most art – and plants in the area. An appreciation for high-quality, reasonably priced art was a key component when creating Flowers on the Fly.

Starting a business was a big risk for Donaldson but it paid off – proving to her family and self that unconventional paths can be successful.

A Budding Artist from Claire Edwards on Vimeo.

Blackout Comedy

By Shelby Custer, Daniel Jenkins, Olivia Suarez, Omar Longoria, and Briana Denham

Blackout sad. Definition: Similar to anterograde amnesia, in which the subject cannot recall any events after the event that caused amnesia. Much like an alcohol-related blackout.

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Aaron Brooks further describes the intricacies of being blackout sad from a stage in a dimly lit room. Meanwhile, his audience roars with laughter while they drink cocktails and cheer on each performer. Brooks is an up-and-coming comedian in Austin, Texas, who transforms his life and its misfortunes into enjoyment for others.

“I don’t love when bad things to happen to me, but I look at it as an opportunity to talk about something on stage,” said Brooks.

On stage at Kebabalicious, Aaron tries to connect with the audience through questions and conversations about his personal life  jokes. Photo By: Shelby Custer

On stage at Kebabalicious, Aaron interacts with the audience by asking personal questions and talking about his own in a comedic way. Photo By: Shelby Custer

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Comedians mingle before the show with the audience at the Lucky Lounge. Photo By: Shelby Custer

Brooks’ stand-up includes jokes about his “estranged” father who may have his legs amputated due to diabetes.

“I don’t know if it’s me trying to deal with the reality that he’s going to die a slow, painful death, or if this is just the grieving process for me,” said Brooks.

His life experiences not only provide content for jokes but they also inspire his pursuit of a career in comedy.

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Aaron chats with fellow comedians before the show. Photo By: Shelby Custer

For a year, Brooks forewent job opportunities in his accredited degree field of radio broadcasting to take care of his ailing grandmother.

“In October of 2009 she moved into our house on hospice care, and she died,” Brooks said. “She died after I held her hand. She squeezed back, and she died.”

His grandmother’s death urged him back into his long-awaited role in stand-up comedy.

“I realized shortly after that happened that I wanted to make people laugh again,” Brooks says.

Aaron gives the audience a taste of his darker comedy by sharing personal stories from his life and using them to make people laugh. Photo By: Shelby Custer

Aaron gives the audience a taste of his darker comedy by sharing personal stories from his life and using them to make people laugh. Photo By: Shelby Custer

Brooks discovered his passion for making people laugh at a young age.

“I realized you had to earn people’s friendship in other ways,” Brooks says. “So I would literally just bang my head against a wall and people would respond to it and thought it was the funniest thing, and that’s when I really got bit with the, ‘Oh, man I really like making people laugh.’”

The Lucky Lounge sign lures fans in for the comedy show with the bright Frost Bank Tower hovering in the background. Photo By: Briana Denham

The Lucky Lounge sign lures fans in for the comedy show with the bright Frost Bank Tower hovering in the background. Photo By: Briana Denham

He also says, throughout his childhood, his mother, Barb Brooks, was a comedian in her own right. She filled their household with laughter and continually encouraged her son’s quest for a career in comedy.

Jon Stinger acts out encounters with women on stage at the Lucky Lounge.

Jon Stinger acts out encounters with women on stage at the Lucky Lounge. Photo By: Briana Denham

 To her delight, Brooks routinely books shows in Austin, Texas and throughout the country. He’s scheduled to perform at Fun Fun Fun Fest this year; he’s previously done routines at Cap City Comedy here in Austin and Comedy Etcetera 2 in St. Louis, Missouri; and recently entertained audiences at Lucky Lounge and headlined at Kebabalicious. He also hosts a podcast, Stay Wonderful, through Cap City comedy, where he interviews other successful comedians.

Despite his success, he has another job to pay the bills, which he jokes about in his stand-up. He asks from the stage, “Does anybody here have to wear a hairnet? No? Didn’t think so.”

 Brooks’ comedy tends to be dark and self-deprecating, but according to his friend, roommate and fellow comedian, Brian Kinsella, it’s not applicable to his off-stage personality. Kinsella mentions that people often perceive comedians as depressed in their day-to-day lives; however, the assumption is untrue for Brooks.

Brooks’ comedy turns life’s iniquities into humor and entertainment for others, and he claims that he “can’t imagine doing anything else.” Brooks procures just as much enjoyment out of his craft as his audience.

“People will latch on to you if you’re doing something honest, real, entertaining and funny. That’s the best feeling,” said Brooks.

Famous comedian and actor Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”