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DisArt presents The Shift: Letters to Chris. Originally created for My Dearest Friends Project, the Demand Access app has been redesigned so you can send best wishes and share memories of DisArt co-founder, Chris Smit!

Stories shared here will be public. If you would prefer for your message to stay private, please mail it to P.O. Box 3467 Grand Rapids, MI 49501, or email

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Cheri Cornell Chris, whenever I have closed my eyes and pictured you this image from the early 90s is what I see, except your face in the photo is replaced by your present day face. It’s always green grass, autumn leaves, a warming sun. Probably some excellent shoes that I’m not equipped to appreciate. I love that the photo is blurry because it imparts a sense of dynamism that is so you. Love you.
Punky Edison Dear Chris, I wish I had a photo or a particular special story, but I have neither. While I’d “heard” of you in the community……we didn’t meet in person until early 2019. And then your voice became invaluable to Arts Working Group……not only on the DEI subgroup, but just in general….always a better meeting with your humor, sass and thoughtful analysis of and contribution to the conversation. You have taught me so many things through your DisArt journey with Jill that I have observed: persistence, language of authenticity and power, awareness, and caring. I think of you everyday with hope that your days are progressing as you want. I am sure that your legacy will be beyond your wildest hopes…..lasting and powerful. With hugs and love, Punky
Photo of Chris and Joan
Joan Van Dessel In 2008 Lisa traveled to Europe for a few weeks. In her absence we made our way through an extended care adventure together –
which, if I recall, included getting tattoos with Phil, co-hosting my 30th birthday party, and eating some rather questionable Mexican food.

The other day I found an email you sent to me and my family right after Lisa returned.

You wrote: “The idea of hospitality is an old Jewish tradition of opening your home to the other, the stranger, the vagabond. In the most theological sense, this hospitality, this opening, was never intended by God to be one-sided. Certainly, this is the American tradition, this one-sided hospitality, where we feel better about ourselves because of what we offer. Theologically this is all wrong. Hospitality is meant to be a dialogue, a conversation of care wherein we are all changed by the interaction we have with one another. To welcome in the stranger is to welcome in a new life to your own. The vagabond is offered shelter and love, and the one who opens his or her house is offered a new vision of God\'s creation, a new presence of the Lord himself. I don\'t think it\'s hyperbole to say that we have had this hospitality experience together.”

I agree - though I’m not sure I could say which of us has more often been the “vagabond” and who has been the “host” in our years-long conversation of care.
I suspect that’s part of what\'s made our dialogue so beautiful. It\'s certainly been one of the most important and sacred conversations of my life.

So, thank you for welcoming me. And thank you for receiving my welcome.

And thanks for your help figuring out which voice sings the intro on \"Myriad Harbor.\" And for a good laugh every time I hear the name Herbie Hancock.

Love you, friend.
Ayla Schwartz I cannot express the impact that Chris and DisArt have had on my life. Chris has been a relentlessly positive, encouraging, and willful force in my life for the last year and a half. He has pushed me to get involved in disability culture, learn more about disability studies, and I would not be the person I am today without his help. DisArt will forever be my best work experience and this is in no small part due to his influence. Nowhere else have I found an environment as supportive, as understanding, or as powerfully radical as the one DisArt has created.

Chris, you will forever be in my heart and memory, an uplifting presence and the voice in the back of my head urging me to think critically about the world around me, the way it is built and accommodated disabled people, and how I can tangibly make a difference. I want you to know that my master's thesis - which I have finally decided on a topic for - will be dedicated to you.

זכרונו לברכה - your memory will be a blessing.
David Covey -I remember sitting in the backseat with Moses while Lisa drove us to FMG. We had a function there, and Moses was wearing his bow tie-like his Dad was. He was quiet, yet respectful. What a great kid, and I am confident that he will continue to be nurtured and blessed with artistic exposure and consistently powerful love.

-I remember passing you and Jill while we were enjoying our lunches. We were downtown setting up for a function. I could feel the love coming from such a beautifully expressed moment of practicality. We had shit to do, Bro! Busy day!

-I remember racing you in your white chair-you won-repeatedly!

-I remember your presentation skills @ every interaction. You are confident in your skill set and always set the tone for quality engagement. Lisa presented that day, and you were there supporting your brilliant Wife.

-I remember sitting on your deck that always tried to trip me and kill me! I hate that little, wooden, shifting step/ramp! 😉 We sat in your lovely garden and chain-smoked. You always checked in on our Moses with balanced parental presence while still letting him play. You always skillfully diverted from speaking of our physical labels and tried to break my depression and anxiety when I visited.
David Covey I was the DisArt Concierge. I respect your vision so much and always tried to greet with knowledge and sense. Serving as a pseudo Docent during SiteLab Elevate was wonderful! I appreciate that you trusted me to give accurate and powerful information about the Pieces.
Image Description: Four 2016 Elevate fashion show models in a line on the ramped runway. A videographer walks along side the models holding a camera by his face. Photo credit: Eric Bouwens
David Covey Thank you, thank you for educating me about our ill-acknowledged history.
Image Description: Photo of the My Dearest Friends Project Learn Our History. Know Our Culture black and white poster. Illustrations of Judy Heumann, Alice Wong, Ed Roberts, and Haben Girma fill the center of the poster with the words "2021 and disability history still isn't taught in schools" with the DisArt logo + Oaklee underneath.
Katie Zychowski When Chris visited The Grand Rapids Public Library to present to our staff on the topic of accessibility and disability, he recognized me in the audience and mentioned me by name. At that moment I felt like a celebrity. I was so moved that Chris, after a few years of not being in touch, remembered me at that moment and was so proud to be in his company. Chris, always impressive and kind, has helped me better understand disability through his teachings and our work together on the inaugural DisArt festival. I think of his teaching often and feel grateful for his lessons and the genuine care he expresses to everyone he comes into contact with.
Image Description: Chris is giving a presentation to a room filled with Grand Rapids Public Library staff. A large screen on the left has artwork and quote by disabled artist and playwright Neil Marcus. Chris and Jill frequently referred to Neil's quote "Disability is not a brave struggle or courage in the face of adversity. Disability is an art. It's an ingenious way to live" as a starting point in presentations.
Emily Loeks I can't remember when I first encountered [you] Chris Smit. It was likely through a Calvin College or Church of the Servant, but the connection was strengthened around 2015, when we first began to partner on co-hosting DisArt movie and conversation nights at Celebration Cinema.

The variety of films and stories was significant, ranging from heavier content like GLEASON to movies like DINA, KUSAMA, WONDER, UNREST and my favorite... LIFE ANIMATED. For each, Chris (and sometimes Chris & Jill) helped facilitate conversation following the presentation. There is always a moment of quiet after a movie - as one is full to brimming with a 'new story.' Not quite having processed it. Oftentimes... with a return to one's silo of space and thought. Chris is a master of 'holding space' for people. As the lights go up, there is always a fraught moment - and Chris knew the right, most generous, most inviting 'word'. The result was something I can only describe as a 'turning towards,' in which people in the still dimly lit auditorium opened up and turned towards each other, and exercised courage in sharing both questions and parts of their own story.

I don't have dramatic stories of personal encounters, but perhaps a small one will do. I keenly remember visits to Chris’s office, and a 'commons' area, in which we'd hatch ideas and most often enjoy a beverage and snack. Chris has such a direct and easy manner of both extending knowledge and strengths, as well as asking for support - from adjusting a cup/straw, to movement of a chair, to the 'workings' of a partnership that honored participants, to access to a theatre space. He is so (seemingly) at peace in his own skin, that he’s made me feel strangely easier in my own.
My favorite Irish Catholic theologian, John O Donohue, says that the "great desire of the human heart is to be seen." Chris increases people's capacity for that. Both to see, and to feel seen. I remember a note of appreciation that he wrote to our team at Rivertown, after viewing Star Wars... about tiny, but significant details - in which he felt noticed, honored and cared for as a guest. Such notes are like a 'balm' after busy weekends and seasons… and in turn made our team feel noticed, honored and cared for.
Feeling such love for Chris and family, and the ongoing work of DisArt. I imagine it is a sign of life being lived well when one aches for more time. May grace and peace and even joy be with you, in the time you have. With much gratitude, Emily
Image Description: Chris, Emily, and Christian posing after an interview with Shelley Irwin in her WGVU Morning Show recording studio.
Debra Keenahan My Dearest Chris,

JulieMc forwarded the letter you wrote telling people of your illness and that you are in the final stages of your life. The letter you wrote was a reflection of you Chris - full of grace, humility and dignity.

I want to take this moment to say that although we were in each other’s company for just a few days in 2017, what those days have given me in friendship, opportunities, support, motivation and ideas is immeasurable!!!! And that is due to your (and Jill’s) foresight, generosity, talent, skill and drive that is DisArts.

I want to give you A Forever Thankyou.

My time in Grand Rapids put me on a trajectory I could not have imagined and I knew I could always rely on you, Jill and DisArts whenever needed to provide guidance, support or opportunities to make connections.

From those beginnings, I continue to work with JulieMc (DisArts is fully responsible for that!), I have work appearing in the Sydney Festival 2023, I have had a short film in the Cannes Short Film Festival 2022, I am a consultant with the National Gallery of Australia on Disability in the Arts, the National Association of Visual Artists (NAVA) and I also teach on the representation of Disability at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).

There are no words to adequately communicate my feelings at this moment. But for me, right now is about you and the journey you are taking with your family and those around you.

Thankyou Forever My Friend - for who you are, what you have done, and what you have encouraged and helped others to do.

You are a magnificent person and my life has been immensely enriched having met you.

All my love, respect and admiration forever,
Image Description: Debra on stage giving a presentation during the DisArt 2017 Symposium in Grand Rapids, MI. Debra is centered in the photo with a large screen and ASL interpreter on the left.
Jill Vyn
Video Description: Hi it's Jill. I am wearing a burgundy sweater today with my hair pulled back in a ponytail and I am standing in my kitchen in front of a painting that was done by a beautiful friend Debra Dieppa. Chris, I just want to say thank you for building to start with me and with the team and how many times did we text each other just randomly saying, "Can you believe this is the work we get to do every day?" and it's true. We have built this with love and passion and excitement and sweat and tears and and you know whatever all sorts of things but at the core of it was our friendship and I think that's why we've been able to create something so beautiful. Love you. Bye
Michael Gilpin Having the distinct honor of working with Chris and the DisArt team there is some things I quickly learned about Chris. First, anything is possible. Anything. Secondly, as a partner it is not that we can make a change together... we WILL make a change together. Chris has such a calm confidence that exudes through the entire team. I remember the initial talks of partnering to help display the great works of the My Dearest Friends project, and there was a moment when I paused to question if the project might be a little too ambitious. After a few moments with Chris positive outlook and enthusiasm, my doubts were forever buried and onward we went.

The best part of working with Chris on a project is it is not just a vendor/supplier relationship. I am not sure Chris would know how to operate in that fashion. Every call, every step of the way I got to know him and the team better and better, but he also has a magical way of making me feel valued, important and loved.
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