Student's award-winning film captures peer's never-give-up spirit

Contact: Olga Bonfiglio
Photo of Tirrea Billings and Johnson Simon.

From left: Billings and Simon

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Tirrea Billings elevates stories on film. Johnson Simon does wonderful things to canvas with paint.

Their two passions converge in Billings' documentary "Painting Dreams: The Story of Johnson Simon."

Recently recognized with a national award no other WMU student filmmaker has achieved, the film showcases Simon's quest to overcome, through his craft, the challenges of cerebral palsy. At the same time, it showcases Billings' talent for storytelling.

As a youth, cruelly and frequently teased because of his condition and treated in school as though he had an intellectual impairment, Simon concluded that life wasn’t worth living—until he discovered his artistic talent.

"That kept me positive all the time. That really changed me," he explains in Billings' film. "Art is what makes me, me."

The film captures Simon layering canvas with paint in studio at WMU, at times using to artistic advantage the spasticity of his hands and fingers caused by cerebral palsy.

Billings recognized the beauty and inspiration of Simon's life experiences after the two met at a student organization's Bible study. A storyteller in multiple mediums, she initially wrote about her peer for an English class assignment, but knew she also wanted to capture him on film.

"'Painting Dreams' is about an inspirational, kind-hearted, motivated individual who does not look at his cerebral palsy as a setback, but rather as a reason to be even more motivated in pursing his dreams," says Billings, a senior from Saginaw, Michigan, who is studying film, video and media studies at WMU.

"Simon continues to break the stereotypes of college students with disabilities, and is living testimony that nothing is impossible. And, most importantly, he illustrates what it means to never, never give up," she says.

Finding the beauty in truth

Billings enjoys creating documentary films because she's moved by the real-life experiences of others and the beauty of their truth.

"Films are like visual books," she says. "I want to share those visions and those stories with the world. There is so much beauty in truth, and I want to capture that beauty in my documentaries."

Photo of Johnson Simon and Tirrea Billings.

"Painting Dreams" grew out of an English class assignment after Billings met Simon in a Bible study group.

In February, her hard work earned special recognition. "Painting Dreams" received an honorable mention in the Broadcast Education Association’s Festival of Media Arts. The competitive festival is open to individual BEA faculty and student members, and it witnessed more than 1,500 entries this year. Prizes were awarded in April during BEA's annual convention and festival in Las Vegas, Nevada.

"I never imagined getting a national award so early in my career," Billings says. "The BEA film competition is extremely competitive, and I am honored to be the first to receive an award in WMU history! Not only is this validation that I am definitely pursing a career that I was meant for, but it also gives me the motivation to keep advancing my skills in documentary filmmaking."

Dr. Jennifer A. Machiorlatti, professor of communication and Billings' mentor, says that by pursuing documentary filmmaking, the undergraduate is on a path not many students choose.

"It's a very specialized profession that certainly doesn't have the income potential of broadcast or fiction feature films," Machiorlatti says. "But documentary educates, informs, uplifts and gets people involved with their communities. These films change lives, and Tirrea is already well on her way to becoming a talented storyteller and community activist."

After receiving her diploma from WMU next December, Billings plans to seek a graduate degree in documentary filmmaking and journalism from DePaul University in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Simon also plans on attending graduate school where he will study to be an art professor or an art therapist with an emphasis in painting.

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