Coffee, Art, and Mental Health Interview with Robert Avila

I walked into AHH, Coffee! for the first time and was immediately taken back by the art on the walls. I would come back every week at the same time for a cold brew and some art. There was one in piece in particular that really caught my eye. I had to meet the artist who created it. I reached out to Robert Avila, the artist, and was fortunate enough to schedule some time with him.


Crystal Method by Robert Avila


I’m sitting in the shop when the door opens and in walks in a tall gentleman. He’s wearing a checkered button-down shirt with an exuberant tie. Robert had just come from his full-time job. A corporate man with an artistic edge, he manages both elegantly. Pushing the boundaries at work and pushing his boundaries in his art. He takes a drink of his coffee and we begin. 



Robert Avila


Q: Let’s start with the background. How did you get started? How long have you been working? Who inspires you? 

A: “I’ve done everything backwards,” he laughs. Robert went to school for art history and during a break he got a job in web design. What began as a job blossomed into a career. A few years ago, he was gifted a trust for school after his grandfather’s unfortunate passing. Robert attended the art institute. He started from scratch. 

He tried to color white paper black. Then he learned he could just use black paper. He likes strong colors and pastels, as they really pop on the black. 

His inspirations are pop culture, television, movies, and life. He has a great appreciation for French impressionism. 


Q: Have you had any rough patches, or difficulty with your work?

A: All of my friends and family are supportive. They’re the ones populating the shows! It’s been great. 


Q: What’s your take on mental health?

A: Everyone struggles with something. I have anxiety. A lot of family members and friends have anxiety, depression, etc. So, I always try to check in. I can sense when something’s off, and I try to be supportive.

Robert mentioned Warriors in Art, a nonprofit who helps veterans transition back to the civilian life. I look forward to learning more about the organization. 


Q: Is there anything in particular you advocate for?

A: I was planning a show in 2017 and Harvey happened two weeks before the show. I donated half of the proceeds to a family affected by the storm. The other half went to Friends for Life.  

He loves animals. He is owned by two cats, one male and one female. 


Q: Last question. Any advice for new artists?

A: Keep at it. Getting started and starting to paint scared the crap out of me. I didn’t think I could do it…All that was keeping me back was getting started. If it scares you, do it. You never know what you’re capable of until you get started.




VOX Blog: "Mental Health is Health" - Victoria Hernandez

I have been racking my brain trying to figure out how to start this blog, and this series. I was so overwhelmed; I didn’t know where to begin! See, mental health isn’t easy. It’s not nicely wrapped in a little bow ready to go like other things. Take cancer, for instance, everyone hates cancer. You’re either trying to cure it or beat it. There’s not much more to it than that. Mental health is a lot more nuanced.
I’m about to make some wild, sweeping generalizations: If you’re Generation Y or Z, you’re probably a huge proponent for addressing mental health. You want the people to get the right care they need. If you’re Generation X, probably a little less so. And if you’re a Baby Boomer or a Traditionalist, you probably think we’re too sensitive and need to just “suck it up.”
Well...not exactly. 
Image: "Thinking Tree" - Pixabay
Mental health is such a vague term, and it encompasses so much. Mental health is your emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It’s the intangible. Just because you can’t be diagnosed with something in the DSM doesn’t mean you’re mentally healthy. Life leads to stress and anxiety, and that can lead to other problems with your body. We need to take care of our minds and ourselves as much as we need to take care of our bodies as a whole and their parts. 
It’s always been hushed or taboo to talk about mental health. We’re told to keep it to ourselves. Not to talk about it. But why not? We talk if we are going through chemo. We talk about how we had to get a filling or getting Lasik like it’s no big deal. Why can’t we talk about our seasonal affective disorder openly?
We go to the doctor if we’re sick. We go to the orthodontist if we have a cavity. We go to the optometrist if we have trouble seeing. Why don’t we all go to the psychologist or psychiatrist if we’re not feeling well upstairs? Some people do. Plenty don’t. There is a stigma of seeing a doctor for our brains and it’s time for it to end.
We go get check-ups and cancer screenings. We go get our teeth cleaned before we get a cavity, and to prevent gingivitis. We see to the optometrist to prevent glaucoma, or to catch it early. Preventative medicine is just as important for our brains as it is for our bodies. Just because we’re feeling good doesn’t mean it wouldn’t do us well to talk to someone.
This year at Vox we are focusing on mental health. And I have one goal for this year. I know we can’t completely change everyone’s mindset, but if we destigmatize mental health, generally speaking, that would be fantastic. A huge win, or at least a nice little step forward. Let it be okay for someone to say they aren’t okay. Let it be no big deal for someone to say they’re going to the psychologist. Let it be okay for someone to say they’re depressed and need some time away. And let the kid in the grocery store have a meltdown because he has autism and it’s a sensory overload...And let it be okay for someone with anorexia talk about how they’re feeling. Mental health is health.  



Introducing "Rise Above" - Vox Culture's 2019 initiative on Mental Health!

We are pleased to announce that for 2019, Vox Culture is introducing a new advocacy subject matter into its periphery, Mental Health! Via our 2019 partnership with Mental Health America of Greater Houston, Comcare, and the Houston Grand Opera, we aim to educate, fundraise, and develop creative awareness campaigns and community service projects that tackle mental health stigmas associated with varying social issues that Vox Culture has previously focused on. As such, and with our primary goal of empowering all Houstonians who are facing mental health stigmas, we have titled pur 2019 initiative as "Rise Above".
Vox Culture's goal for 2019 is to showcase mental health in different perspectives of causes that Vox has focused on in the past years, and develop creative programming that empowers and encourages the rethinking of how we view and treat those with varying mental health challenges/stigmas.
With our partners help, Vox Culture will aim to focus on mental health, the cultural stigmas that surround it, and how it impacts survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, immigrants, refugees, race relations (racism), the education field, those who have previously abused substances, the homeless, those impacted by various environmental issues, and individuals who have struggled with hunger/thirst issues - highlighting mental health issues that exist within each group.



Interview with Thomas Garcia-Prats, Co-founder of Small Places

For Thomas Garcia-Prats, founder and general manager of Small Places, urban farming represents an opportunity to work towards social justice, bring communities closer together, and provide nutritious and locally sourced produce to people in need - but the path to becoming a farmer was not a straight shot. I got the chance to speak with Thomas about his interest in urban agriculture and how he got to his current position.

Q: Tell me about yourself and how you got started in urban farming.
A: I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. I’m from a big, stereotypical urban family, so growing up I went to church, school, sports, and that’s it. I never intended to be an urban farmer. My family didn’t even grow potted tomatoes on the front porch. It was an intersection of experiences, like living in Central and South America, that changed things.
Studying culture and history abroad in Nicaragua got me interested more in justice in general, rather than agriculture. I started asking myself, why is Nicaragua one of the poorest countries in our hemisphere? How can I provide basic features of living for people? Coming back from there changed my perspective. I wanted to learn more about my own culture, and in Houston, food is a big part of that. I went to work at an organic farm in Maine after about a year of living in Houston teaching and waiting tables.
Q: What was the farm like in Maine?
The farm was in an incredibly rural, small town. It was a 20 acre farm on a country road with about two acres in vegetables, and it ran off the grid on solar and wind power. The farmers there homesteaded, which means they grew produce for sale but also for themselves. Rosie [the main farmer] took an apprentice every year, and she and I would wake up Monday through Friday at 6 am, and then be out on the field working until 5 or 6 PM. 
Q: Was that a difficult adjustment, from living in Houston to working long hours outside on the farm?
Everything about farming was a brand new world for me, and I had to learn the small details like what type of seeds to use, but living in Nicaragua, we were basically outside all the time. I’m athletic in general, and I enjoy that physicality of working outside.
Q: How did your farming experiences lead you to founding Small Places?
When I left Maine, I had no idea what I wanted to do. It has never been, “I’m going to be a farmer.” It’s more that I’m fascinated by how our culture works and food is so integral into that. The work we do as a farm, it’s getting me deeper into why our society works the way it does.
An opportunity presented itself in Iowa where I could work on a large organic farm up there. It was a step up in scale and professionalism. The farmer worked to build a good reputation as a professional farm, and they had good recordkeeping and documents compared to the previous farm. Working there strengthened my business sense to help me when I eventually started Small Places.
After I came back from Iowa, a friend working on a farm in Nicaragua told me about an opportunity to manage a farm there in 2012. Farming in the tropics is different, so I learned how to work in a new climate. I was also managing people for the first time, so that was new.
Q: Tell me what it was like starting the farm. Why Houston and why urban farming in particular?
I started the farm in Houston in May of 2014. I wanted to stay in Houston but there were no farming jobs here, so I now run the farm with two of my brothers. I called it a meeting of the minds = we would cook dinner and brainstorm about the idea of running an urban farm in Houston. 
We saved up money and started going to conferences and talks on health and food. The interesting thing was, agriculture was almost never a part of the conversation. Often, people will say urban areas need more access to fresh food, so they’ll talk about building a grocery store, but in an urban setting, people are disconnected from where food comes from. I don’t think the problem is access to grocery stores. It’s access to agriculture.
People sometimes ask why we don’t just get 50 acres in Beaumont and affect more people with more product, but we want to be where the people are so we can be part of the conversation. When I go to community meetings, people always ask me about the farm. We’re now a part of the community. Our farm is in the neighborhood so you can meet other people there, connect with other people who are interested in eating healthier, being outside, and want their kids to be more conscientious about nutrition. These important conversations stem from having the farm in the middle of the city.
Q: One of the biggest challenges urban farms face is the rising price of real estate. How is Small Places overcoming the increasing cost of land in Houston?
The value of our land has almost quadrupled in four and a half years. Can I justify my 1.5 acre farm on a piece of land that could be valued up to a million dollars? The impact that my farm has goes beyond food production. Houston’s productive green space is diminishing. We just had some Rice students do a Social Return on Investment calculation to determine the financial benefit of the farm, including non-tangible benefits. We give pre-K students free bags of produce, and because of that, the cost of healthcare can go down $10,000 per child. They’re projecting over $1 million in value due to less visits to hospitals and being healthier in general. I think of it as a minimal investment in the long term health of my community, and I think more people are recognizing the health realities of obesity, so I think $1 million is justified.
Q: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?
A: My least favorite is probably the marketing and accounting, which my brother does usually.  I’m not really inspired by that.
My favorite is interacting with people on the farm. There’s all kinds of people – kids who have never been there, adults who’ve immigrated from places with a lot of agriculture, people who just drove by. The fact that people are gracious and interested always motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing.
Q: Any parting words of advice?
I would say it’s important to get out of your comfort zone. If I’m comfortable arguing about environmentalism or why society sucks at taking care of it, that’s great, but can we not do something beyond that? Inform yourself more. We get comfortable in our belief systems, but we need to challenge ourselves to learn more. And get out of your routine. Do something you wouldn’t normally do. Make dinner for your neighbor. Break down some of these barriers we build up. Donate money to something you believe in instead of going out and eating or drinking. Take a different route home. Just do something to get out of your default setting – go home, go to work, go to the store, go back home. The world is way beyond that.
Interview By: Erin Philip

A More Flexible Approach to the Straw Ban

With Seattle’s city-wide ban on plastic straws and utensils, major businesses like Marriott, American Airlines, and Starbucks announcing plans to eliminate straw usage, and increasing pressure from environmentalists, it’s become harder to ignore these ubiquitous drinking utensils. But how much impact do straws really have on the environment, and how did the movement gain so much traction?
Straws have been used by humans since ancient times; there are wall paintings of Mesopotamian royals drinking beer and wine through long tubes dating back to 3000 BC. Materials ranged from grass, actual straw, to paper, but plastic straws only started to become the dominant trend in the 1950s, when plastics became cheaper to produce. 
It’s estimated that 500 million straws are used in the US each day, enough to fill 127 school buses. Due to their small size, these straws often get past mechanical recycling sorters and end up in the ocean, polluting the water and harming marine life. A recent report on plastic flows projects that by 2050, oceans will contain more plastics than fish by weight. The same study found that since plastic packaging is often used only once, about 95% of the value, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.
The focus on banning straws arises because they are relatively easy, inessential items to eliminate – at least, for most people. The straw ban has gained recent attention for marginalizing disabled people, who depend on straws as an accessibility tool. While proponents of the ban have suggested alternatives made of metal or bamboo, these options may pose choking hazards and high costs for disabled consumers, promoting a situation where disabled voices are left unheard when it comes to environmental policy.
The #StopSucking movement may have taken off due to the symbolic power of simply saying no to a straw at a restaurant; no one wants to be the person responsible for a poor sea turtle with a straw stuck in his nostril, especially not when everyone else at the table declined a straw. It’s easy enough for most people to participate in the straw ban voluntarily, but we should be cautioned against mandating the ban and inadvertently dismissing the needs of the disabled community. Instead, consider adopting the following habits so everyone can reduce the impact of using plastic on the environment:

1) Use reusable shopping bags. A single plastic bag can take up to 1000 years to decompose. Reusable bags can often hold more groceries, keep certain items cold, and come in fun designs to show off your (eco-friendly) personality!

2) Buy items with less plastic packaging. Instead of single serving snacks, see if you can buy in bulk and transfer to reusable containers when packing lunches. Instead of buying dozens of plastic water bottles at a time, use a reusable bottle to track your water intake and keep drinks cool or hot.

3) Recycle plastics you do use. If you must use plastic, take care in disposing of items properly to minimize their environmental impact. While not all plastics are recyclable, it helps to know what your local recycling plant accepts and keep that waste separate from trash that ends up in landfills. 


By Vox Blogger: Erin Philip