We had the good fortune of connecting with Dina Shadwell and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Dina, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I’m not a sky-diving type of risk taker, but I think I’ve had some interesting opportunities arise because I’ve been willing to open myself up to possibilities beyond my own limited vision. What I mean is, I’ve had moments in my life where I feel like my career has hit a wall. Things didn’t turn out as I thought they would. In those moments, I have been willing to say to the Universe—okay, I give up. I am willing to try something entirely new and different. Whatever it is, I just want to use my skills to serve. Show me the way. And that’s when “coincidences” happen that can lead me down a cool new path that I never could have imagined for myself. It doesn’t sound very risky. But in that moment of surrender, it can be pretty scary. It takes a lot of trust. And looking for those signs. And saying yes.

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Well, I guess my vision of myself as an artist has expanded over time. I started as an actor, became a director, became a graphic designer, became a visual artist, and along the way started working in the nonprofit sector. I’ve also worked in restaurants, was the first employee ever hired at Aurora Coffee, was a massage therapist for a while. I guess it’s a pretty typical actor/artist story.

The project I am working on currently is something that I started near the beginning of the pandemic. I had just come off of acting in three plays in a row, and I was ready for a break. Well, I didn’t mean a pandemic-sized break! But that’s what we got. So no theatre for me or anyone, sadly. I decided it would be the perfect time for me to turn my focus to visual art, something I have wanted to do for a long time but never gave myself permission. And, truth be told, my perfectionism has held me back. I’m working on that. In fact, this project is helping me so much with transforming my fears.

I created for myself a 52-week art challenge. Each week I take one New Yorker magazine and create one collage from it. Then I write about the process and life and art and spirit and anti-racism and whatever comes up for me, and share it on my blog, RootPaperLeaf.com.

It’s been a tremendous journey and a great way to spend the pandemic. I don’t know what will come of it, if anything, and it doesn’t really matter. I just wanted to see what would happen if I had a regular practice. So I’m learning a lot about myself and the creative process. It’s pretty cool. Right now I am almost finished with the project. I’d love to have a showing of all 52 collages somewhere. And I’d love to sell prints as well as originals. Dear Google: how does an artist make and sell prints?

That’s pretty much been the story of my career. Decide to do something, figure out how to do it.

That’s kind of how I ended up working with people with disabilities, but not quite. I didn’t set out to do it. I was just rolling along in my theatre/restaurant career, and a friend needed an assistant director for a musical he was directing. I said yes. The show was with Habima Theatre, a program of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. Habima features actors with developmental disabilities, directed, designed, and produced by professionals from the Atlanta theatre community.

I did not have any experience working with people with disabilities. But that was not important. What mattered was that we knew how to put on a show. What I learned was that working with actors with disabilities is a lot like working with actors without. It’s about learning how to communicate with each individual. It’s about building trust, giving them the support and encouragement they need to give it all they’ve got on stage.

I ended up directing 13 productions with Habima. It was the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. Habima touches lives—for actors and audiences alike. It’s still going strong, although the pandemic closed down last year’s production after one performance.

It was my experience with Habima that led to my working with a new program at the MJCCA called Spotlight. I was asked to take the lead, so I was given a lot of creative license. It was a grant-funded program that became, essentially, a three-year master class in film acting for people with developmental disabilities. I had a really great creative team involved, and out of that we created some really fun projects, including a short webseries called “Swampy Meadows.” It’s a comedy featuring the Spotlight company working side by side with actors without disabilities. We wanted to create a story that had nothing to do with disabilities. So we tailored the script for the actors who were involved in creating their own characters. You can check it out on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxE-861uGijz7Xqi1r2jtLA

My current job at the Frazer Center is one of those I-never-could-have-dreamed-this-up-for-myself situations. Somehow the Universe conspired with me to create an opportunity where I get to use my creative skills—writing, graphic design, photography, videography—in support of a mission that I’m passionate about. All in a beautiful forest and garden setting just two miles from my home. I’ve been the Communications & Development Coordinator there for almost four years, and I still have to pinch myself sometimes. Yes, it’s dreamy but it’s real!

At Frazer Center, we foster inclusive communities where children and adults, with and without disabilities, gather, learn, and flourish. I get to tell stories about our participants and team members, about our old-growth forest and our event venue, Cator Woolford Gardens. It’s a great organization and I love working there.

So, I don’t really know what sets me apart other than: these are my own experiences. I do a lot of different things, and I love doing them. Some people have said to me, oh, you’re an angel to work with people with special needs. No. No, I’m not. I just approach people with disabilities as people. Period. I figure out how to connect with whomever I’m talking to, even if it’s non-verbally. I’m not special. I just want to live in a world where “diversity and inclusion” is no longer a buzz phrase but a lived reality.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Well, I might be kind of boring in this respect. I’m not much of a drinker anymore, but I used to work at the Brick Store Pub in Decatur. So I love to take people there or to Leon’s Full Service for a great meal. (The owners, Mike, Tom, and Dave, are three of my favorite people in the world.) For coffee, I love Dancing Goats in Decatur. I’m vegan, so I’d love to take friends to any number of great Indian restaurants, Herban Fix on Peachtree, Mamak Vegan Kitchen off of Buford. I have yet to try Slutty Vegan, but I’d love to. I’m also excited to have a new Hodgepodge location opening in Decatur/Avondale Estates. I love just walking around downtown Decatur, checking out the great shops like SQ/FT, HomeGrown, Wild Oats & Billy Goats, and Little Shop of Stories. If theatre were up and running again, I’d love to hit a show or two. There are tons of small theatre companies doing great work. I’m super proud that Atlanta is home to the Center for Puppetry Arts. I’ve done many shows there, so I love to show it off to friends. The museum there is great, and I love the adult and children’s shows. It’s a pretty magical place. Really, my favorite thing to do is finding the greenspaces around town for walking and hiking. So I hope my friend would want to explore our “City in the Forest” with me. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I have been surrounded by so many people who have encouraged and supported me in so many ways. Kim Goodfriend at the Marcus Jewish Community Center first hired me to work with people with disabilities and then gave me my first nonprofit administration job. My current work place is filled with supportive leadership who uplift and encourage me, especially Development Director Tonja Holder and CEO Paige McKay Kubik. Every restaurant boss I ever had was gracious enough to work around my crazy theatre schedule, including leaving to do summer stock. I have a strong spiritual network through Phoenix Institute based in Kentucky. Gosh, this is a little like giving an Oscar speech! There are so many to name—every friend and colleague who saw more in me than I could see in myself. That includes my beloved husband, actor Frank Roberts.

Website: https://www.rootpaperleaf.com/

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxE-861uGijz7Xqi1r2jtLA

Image Credits

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