Julia Vering

Monday, October 25, 2021

Kansas City native Julia Vering blends her unique creative work as an artist and a musician with her professional career in social work to make a profound impact on the lives of her patients and clients. Enjoy our interview with this fascinating and inspiring multidisciplinary artist. 

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Please introduce yourself and describe your music for new listeners.  

I am a multidisciplinary artist, hospice expressive arts therapist and clinical social worker.  I write and record my own music in my basement studio in Northern Overland Park under the name Unicorns in the Snow.  I primarily use accordion, synthesizer, voice and drum machines to make music.  Most of my albums are soundtracks to multimedia performance pieces, and recently  include collaborations with older adults and people with dementia.  My sound is minimal and dark,  and sometimes incorporates spoken word.  My favorite Unicorns in the Snow music description is that it “sounds like girls who have been locked in their room for a long time.”  

Unicorns in the Snow performs at Stray Cat Film Center's Ascension 8/7/2021.

Can you tell us more about your creative process? What are your main sources of inspiration?  

My creative process is always experimental and morphs with each piece I make.  My psychedelic musical, Re-enactments, was inspired by “The Thin Blue Line”, the Errol Morris documentary that elevates the crime reenactment genre.   I sought to draw out everyday memories from the participants of Jeanne’s Place, a day program for people with early stage dementia.  Participants played tv-style hosts and actors.  We met twice a month for 1.5 hour green screen drama sessions in which we slowly co-created the piece.  Through improvisation, such as impressions of their mothers and reminiscences, I incorporated participants' real life stories.  One participant’s spouse shared a story of how he danced to “Footloose” on his daughter’s bed to cheer her up when she was depressed, which was then re-enacted by several different participants.   Sadly, Covid-19 shut down the group prematurely. 

Visually, I started the project experimenting by modifying puppets and making a paper mache mannequin.  Both ideas failed, and I ended up collaborating with local artist Kimmon Smutz, who made a diorama of the fictional character's bedroom.   I used simple stop-motion and digital animation techniques within this world that became projected sets.  The music was inspired by 80s pop and a pawn shop sourced vintage drum machine.  I got to perform the piece in 2020 at two nursing facilities for residents and in a parking lot for participants and their families.         

I am fascinated with aging, memory, meaning-making and fantasy.  I often incorporate autobiographical elements with the idiosyncratic narratives of people I work with. I am inspired by found objects, older adults, illusions, and the absurdities of our healthcare system.   

You've said that "the social work strengths perspective, emphasizing clients’ talents and skills" informs your process. Can you share more about that? How do you highlight the strengths of your clients in your music and performances?  

The social work strengths perspective developed in reaction to the medical model in which people are reduced to a list of “problems” aka diagnoses.  The strengths perspective looks at resiliency and protective factors that clients possess in the face of enormous challenges.  For instance, although someone with dementia may not be able to recall what they did earlier that day or balance their checkbook, they may be able to dance, improvise and make a room of people laugh intentionally.  Digital video is a great tool for highlighting strengths in its ability to edit out mistakes and allow participants to re-experience the joy of creating the work, through watching edited video after the memory has faded.  Participants are shown in their greatest light, which can wow family members.  After Re-Enactments was performed for family members, a spouse sent me a still and asked, “Who is that?”  I explained it was his wife.  He said, “I thought so, but I hadn’t heard her say that many words together in a long time.”  I explained it took his wife a few takes, but she was determined to say her lines correctly and appears masterful in her delivery.  

Re-Enactments by Unicorns in the Snow (Julia Vering), live at "Our Home Senior Care" 10/2020

The drama therapy work you've done with patients with dementia has decreased agitation and increased spontaneous communication. Do you have any stories you'd like to share about the impact your work has had on your patients with dementia?  

I think one of the greatest indicators of drama therapy’s success has been when staff at Jeanne’s Place comment, “We never hear them laugh as much as they do when they are in a drama session.”  Earlier in my career, I received a Charlotte Street Foundation/Andy Warhol grant to produce “You Live Here Too” a multimedia performance featuring older adults as actors and oral historians.  I played a mannequin who was receiving VHS-based fashion therapy provided by older adults playing “paraprofessional personal shoppers.”  The script was fill-in-the blank, such as “One thing I'll never forget is ___.”  One of the participants with dementia answered by telling the story of being notified of her boyfriend’s death.  I was nervous when I performed the piece in front of her at the nursing facility she lived at. I wondered if she would recognize herself and worried about possible re-traumatization.  After the performance, she ran up to me and said, “That was me! That was really me! You made me feel like a real person!”  For me, this was validation of how powerful video based drama therapy can be for people with dementia.   

You've said your more recent performances have helped you cope with the challenges of working in hospice during the pandemic. In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your creative work?  

COVID-19 shut down Jeanne’s Place day program for people with dementia.  Unfortunately, it has yet to re-open.  The national nursing home shut-downs of 2020 prevented too many nursing facility residents, including those on hospice, from seeing family and receiving mental health care for nearly a year.  The grief I felt from witnessing this and feeling ineffective as an advocate  inspired me to pursue becoming a Registered Expressive Arts Therapist, after ten years of being a hospice social worker.  I am currently taking classes through Center for Creative Arts therapy in Downers Grove, IL ,and will be the first in Kansas or Missouri to earn this international certification.  In a positive way, Covid-19 has allowed me to study with people across the county and the world virtually, opening up opportunities that would not have existed otherwise. I work as an expressive arts therapist for Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, and have just been able to offer some drama therapy group programming to nursing facility residents.  Covid-19 grief also inspired my last performance, performed inside a projection of my grandfather’s doll house, performed at Stray Cat Film Center’s Ascension benefit.  I believe expressing grief through performance, which externalizes painful feelings, has been healing. 

Is there anything I didn't ask that you'd like to share about?  

I encourage other Kansans interested in social justice for people in long-term care facilities to support the work of Kansas Advocates for Better Care, a non-profit that does legislative advocacy for quality long-term-care in Kansas.  https://www.kabc.org/ 

You can follow my work on my website https://unicornsinthesnow.com/ and instagram https://www.instagram.com/unicorns_inthesnow/?hl=en 

 

Julia Vering's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:

  • Veronica - Mary Gaitskill. I discovered this novel on an endcap at the KCK public library.  I was touched by the protagonist’s journey into her youth featuring an unlikely friendship with a dying woman.  I was also inspired by the backstory that Gaitskill was urged to rewrite the book from the vantage point of an aging, chronically ill ex-model, looking back on her fallacies.       

  • No One Belongs Here More Than You: stories by Miranda July.  Miranda July’s early performance work, which I thankfully got to see in person, has been my biggest artistic influence.  These are stories that make me excited to write.  July’s penchant for humanistic inclusion through the oddest paths is something I admire. 

  • Synecdoche, New York. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman.  I could probably watch this movie 20 more times.  It is the funniest and most absurd movie I have seen.  I love how the fictional play being staged and reality become completely enmeshed.  As I start to learn psychodrama, this movie takes on more meaning. 

  • Einstein on the Beach, an opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.  I was introduced to this opera my freshman year of college, and was inspired to change my focus from photography and social work to performance, music and social work.  Part of the libretto is written by Christopher Knowles, a young man with autism.  Both the story of how the collaboration between Wilson and Knowles came about, and the words themselves inspired me to utilize drama with adults with dementia.  I felt intimidated by making music, even as a fan of 3 chord punk songs, until I heard this opera by Julliard trained Glass. 

  • Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair.  This monumental feminist album was on repeat when I was 12 until my dad confiscated after hearing some of the lyrics.  This was the first of many albums I was “grounded from” spurning me to buy 2nd secret copies of vital albums, such as this one.  It still holds up. 

Written by Bryan V.