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"Inside each one of us, a warrior waits to be discovered,” says Valparaiso artist Andrea Pepler-Murray. “If you have the courage to let him or her out, you can truly live the life of your dreams.”
Pepler-Murray might never have known she had dreams, but for her artistic expression as a school child and the few teachers who saw in it her potential. “[Art] was the only way I could communicate because I had cerebral palsy and I couldn’t play with the other kids.” She had leg braces and crutches; some people assumed she had a mental disability as well. “When I started grade school the kids stared at me and made fun of me. By the time I got to high school it was more accepted to have disabled people in the school system. Before that it was kind of tough.”
These days, Pepler-Murray is known for her award-winning work as a disability educator and activist, as well as for her art work. In 2007, Pepler-Murray graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Communication and Creative Arts. She earned her reputation as a warrior there, founding Hoosier ADAPT, an empowering student group focusing on disability issues. In March of 2008, the ramp to the stage at a newly remodeled Purdue theater was named in her honor, recognizing her efforts to achieve accessibility for theater students with disabilities. “Before that we had to perform all our plays OFF the stage.”
Raising awareness about the needs and rights of people with disabilities is part of everything she does, including her job with Home Helpers, a Valparaiso-based home care agency. “I’ve always wanted to get involved with [the field of] home health to help people.” Pepler-Murray uses her skills as a writer and artist to produce the agency’s newsletter and her computer skills to put together presentations and graphics. “I’m educating the public about disability awareness.” She tells them there’s an alternative to “warehousing” people in institutions, that we must use peoples abilities in the community instead.
She’s had to put her knowledge to very practical use; Her struggle to attain accessible housing for herself is described in the April 2008 newsletter of the Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities (GCPD). A graduate of Partners in Policymaking, she was recently appointed to the Board of the GCPD, where she has attended to key issues such as in-home services and transportation. She’s been on the board of Vsa arts of Indiana (VSAI) for 8 years.
As a child without friends, drawing and painting became an important communication outlet for her. A male teacher from her elementary school years and then her high school art teacher, Barbara Meeker, were very important in encouraging her art. Her grandparents encouraged her, and her parents “fought for me for my education.”
At Purdue, a counselor and a drama professor were supportive collaborators. Her drama teacher “had never had a disabled person in her class. She designed a whole play around me and now she’s taking disabled students in her class left and right. So you might say I just educated everybody,” says Pepler-Murray with a smile.
Pepler-Murray “gave back” by tutoring and mentoring her fellow college students in English and Communications. She still returns to Purdue for Hoosier ADAPT activities and for Don’t Dis My Art in March. For the past five years, students with and without disabilities have gotten together to put on plays and show their art work for disability awareness month.
Although she’s not earning income from her art at this time, she is avidly pursuing her work in two-dimensional mixed media. Her current project, in watercolor, collage, and fabric paint, is a series of works, each focusing on one animal. The images create a narrative that describes (without words) the spiritual meaning of the animal for Native Americans. The pictures also draw attention to issues of concern to animal activists, which Pepler-Murray considers herself to be. Native American spirituality is a significant point of orientation for Pepler-Murray. She remembers stories told about her great grandmother who was a Pawnee. “I like their concept of living in a peaceful world.”
Although as a student she exhibited her work at Purdue, she’s been less successful in her attempts to get into a gallery in Valparaiso. “It’s hard because they’re so many artists,” she observes. “I’m just going to have to wait my turn.” It’s especially difficult for a person with a disability “because of transportation problems, because they want you to take everything there.”
Right now, “I’m concentrating more on my art work than on really looking for a place to show it,” she says. However, Pepler-Murray is a big fan of online social connections and uses the Web to share her art. “The Internet is a wonderful, wonderful place to communicate.” “I have a website on MySpace where I show my paintings.” She also has a Directory listing on the ArtsWORK website. “ArtsWORK Indiana has been very good to me in helping me get my work out to the public.” She uses Yahoo! Messenger to talk to people with disabilities around the world. Pepler-Murray is a writer as well as visual artist, and hopes to collaborate with an illustrator to create a children’s book.
Pepler-Murray laments that Northwest Indiana doesn’t have the arts opportunities that places such as Indianapolis boast. “They’re really artsy here,” she jokes. She’d like to see in her region a place that has studio and exhibition facilities such as VSAI offers in Indianapolis. “It’s hard up here.” “There are artists here but we’re not known.”
Asked how she might like things to be different for artists with disabilities, she says, “I just want people to look at our work… just don’t pass us by.” To those aspiring to work in the arts she says, “Never give up your dreams.” “If you cannot speak let your art speak for you.”