Author, speaker, blogger, mother, ARTism agent. Each of these words describes a different hat that Nashville’s Leisa Hammett wears each day. Her daughter, Grace Goad, was diagnosed with autism in 1997, and the creation of art has been Grace’s joy and therapy. April is Autism Awareness Month, and we are thrilled to connect you today with Leisa, our FACE of Nashville.
What brought you to Nashville?
The first time? Employment. The second time it was an escape from Atlanta to a smaller, kinder and more manageable place to start a family.
When was your daughter diagnosed with autism?
I became pregnant with Grace within less than a year of moving here, and she was diagnosed at just under 3 years of age.
With Grace being a recent high school graduate, what lessons did you learn that all parents can take to heart?
The book I am writing (my second on autism) is tentatively titled Lessons from Grace: Autism as a Spiritual Journey. That says it all: my daughter Grace has been my best teacher. She’s taught me grace, that life delivers the unexpected and that it’s up to me how I choose to unwrap it. For me, it’s about attitude and perseverance. She’s taught me to unearth the beauty, joy and blessings in what our perfection-obsessed culture might label otherwise.
The lady behind you in line at the checkout, who may be staring at you and Grace — what do you wish you could say to her?
Life happens. Divorce. Job loss. Autism. (Been there, done that. All three.) Cancer, death … the list of adversities to turn into opportunities continues. None of us is immune. But can we be open enough to find the joy, beauty and blessings in the messy and even in the heartbreak? Can we let go of our expectations and learn to surrender to what is?
How did Grace discover her love for art, and how did you know to pursue this as a joyous hobby, career and therapy for Grace?
After a year of public preschool, additional educational programs, individual and group speech therapy, occupational therapy — all the necessary and rigorous early interventions needed for autism — I looked around and asked where was the JOY of childhood, the dance, art and music-making? I beat the bushes for art, music and dance/movement therapists. Her art therapist and I immediately saw that Grace had a keen sense of color and composition. My otherwise hyperactive child was and still is suddenly zen when creating art. Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has a lobby gallery space for art by individuals with disAbilities and also hosts the annual Mayor’s Advisory Council on Disabilities art exhibit. I entered Grace at age 6, I think, a year after she began showing her work. She was the youngest-ever entrant. By age 8 she began selling her work. At age 11, she began receiving national media exposure.
What have been some highlights of Grace’s art career thus far?
In 2007, she and I were guests on the autism episode of The View, and we immediately launched her first “GraceArt” card line. This month we launch her third, plus her second line of tiles and her first line of prints. Her art has been on the cover of The American Journal of Psychiatry, as well as the cover of a book and within the pages of three books and a number of magazines and newspapers — locally, nationally and online.
Where can Grace’s art be purchased?
I’ve the best of intentions, but I still haven’t launched an e-commerce arm to her website, www.GraceGoad.com. We’re getting close. Brick-and-mortar locations to buy GraceArt merchandise include: Tennessee Art League and The Arts Company, both in the hub of downtown’s 5th Avenue of the Arts; Headquarters Coffee, Atamology, Serendipity, Shimai Pottery and Gifts, Tennessee Artisan Market at The Renaissance Center and at Salon P’Nash during the holidays. You can also view and purchase her originals at Perl Café, and we are talking to another venue in Bellevue this spring. She also has an original for purchase each month at Tennessee Art League, where she has a show up until April 26 in the Poston Outreach Gallery, with plenty of originals, prints and merchandise options. As of this year, we’re also taking “GraceArt” merchandise to events such as festivals, fairs and disability-themed conferences.
How is the Nashville support network for parents of autistic children?
The Nashville network is pretty good. I’ve been active for 17 years in Autism Tennessee (formerly Autism Society of Middle Tennessee), and for 10 years, I’ve co-led their Autism Orientations, which are free and open the public. The greater Vanderbilt University medical system was our lifeline for private services.
What is a valuable piece of advice you have been given?
One? How ’bout some snippets? When dealing with people in difficult situations, remember honey vs. vinegar. Form relationships. Remember the people on “the other side” are human, too. Treat them as you wish to be treated. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume they mean well, are trying. Don’t rush to judge. When you are dealing with legal rights, medical issues, behavior issues and learning differences, emotions can become messy. Breathe. Pick your battles carefully.
Tell us about what you do, besides being Grace’s biggest cheerleader!
Grace’s autism gave my life focus. She helped me coalesce my interests, my career experience in communications and my own background in art to be her champion. Being her “ARTism agent” came naturally. Ten years ago, I turned the focus of my writing to autism and disAbility, particularly the grief process and the path to acceptance, which also has been a frequent topic of my public speaking to parent groups, autism conferences and university and medical students. I also began blogging in 2008, published one book on autism and, as I said, am finishing another, for which I am seeking an agent and a publisher.
For at least 10 years I’ve been envisioning a disAbility arts center, like those across the nation, but tailor-made to Nashville. We’re in the start-up stages of forming a nonprofit social enterprise where adult artists with and without disabilities create, exhibit and sell their work. It’s a seven-stage “best practices” plan that includes not only an inclusive (versus solely people with disAbilities working in isolation) arts workplace, but, eventually, inclusive living environments.
I’ve recently been hired to consult with Tammy Parmentier of Gallery One and developer Brent Smith for a groundbreaking project. Brent sought “art with a good cause” for his new luxury apartment building, Village Green Hills. We’ve curated a paid-for and permanent collection of 12 artists, most local, all of whom have disAbilities. It’s a stunning installation that we are calling “The ArtAble Collection I of Village Green Hills.” We’ll have a public reception in mid June.
Last, I’m really fortunate to be sharing the TPAC Polk Theater stage with 12 phenomenal women at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 26, for Nashville’s Listen to Your Mother.
Is there a local restaurant that you and Grace like to go to together?
When you are trying to reconnect with friends, where do you like to go in town?
Whole Foods and local coffee shops.
If you could change one thing about Nashville, what would it be?
Our lack of real commitment to and support of public education.
What books are on your bedside table?
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Being in nature, yoga and the consumption of whole foods — true, real-food nourishment for body, spirit and mind.
Thank you, Leisa!
To hear more from Leisa, be sure to buy tickets for Listen to Your Mother: click here.
To read more about Grace’s art, please see: www.gracegoad.com
Special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos today! ashleyhylbert.com