State Of The Arts

Looking Beyond Labels

Artists with disabilities want their work viewed as art–not as therapy, and not as “special.” “I don’t want to be a disabled artist–just an artist,” says painter Martin Vogel.

“Being labeled is one thing you’ve got to watch out for,” agrees painter Ernie Pepion. “You get labeled as a handicapped artist, and you can get labeled as a Native American artist. I’ve got both labels.”

Even Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, says that the segregation must stop. “I emphatically reject the notion that special or different arts programs be developed for disabled people; rather, existing programs of the highest quality should be opened to everyone. It’s the only way we know of to avoid creating double standards, to avoid ghettoizing disabled people.”

Seems clear enough. Artists with disabilities have been labeled and patronized for so long that they often desire a chance at mainstream recognition. But wanting to be “just an artist” raises some hard questions. Should artists with disabilities avoid their disabled peers; should they avoid artists with developmental disabilities; should they avoid creating art about disability?

Most do all of these things, according to arts professionals and artists themselves. But a growing number of artists with disabilities are examining their motives and teaming up with the cross-disability organization Very Special Arts. For many, VSA is a bridge to the larger art world, and a chance to help educate the public about the talents of artists with disabilities. For a few, it’s been a way to participate in a burgeoning arts movement within disability culture.

Art Worlds Apart

One problem that artists face mirrors the struggle of many disabled athletes who’ve had to distance themselves from the image of the Special Olympics–games for people with developmental disabilities-in order to promote elite athletic competitions such as the Paralympics.

Likewise in the art world, organizations such as Very Special Arts historically have worked to increase self-esteem and inclusion of young people with disabilities–often developmental disabilities–rather than promoting adult artists with physical disabilities who are trying to break into mainstream galleries and museums.

That’s changed in recent years. Without abandoning its diverse arts education programs for youth, VSA has invested heavily in adult artists through fellowships and through its galleries. The galleries–one in Washington, D.C., and a new one in Beverly Hills, Calif.–currently represent 1,121 artists who have a wide range of disabilities and make everything from fine art to crafts.

Predictably, the continued inclusion of artists with developmental disabilities has caused some professional artists to balk. The twist, however, is that art by people with developmental disabilities is in demand–it is a popular example of “outsider art,” the often childlike and eccentric work of untrained artists. Far from the cerebral work often found in modern galleries, outsider art is accessible, whimsical and affordable, according to its fans.

“Tons of dealers and galleries and professionals are working to cultivate the outsider art movement,” says Stephanie Smutz, director of the 6-year-old Very Special Arts Gallery in Washington, D.C. “But on the other side are professional artists who see outsider art as therapy and not as art.”

Vogel is an artist concerned with the role of outsider art–and particularly crafts–at the VSA Gallery, which represents him. He doesn’t want to exclude anyone, but he does hope that the works can be shown in their best light. “If people come to see great art, they don’t want to see toys and things made with Popsicle sticks,” he says. “It’s OK to have that, but it needs to be separate, like in the big museums. They have a crafts section or they sell them at the gift shop.”

Smutz defends inclusion as a celebration of diversity-and adds that many of the outsider artists have only physical disabilities. “I find that people really detest the modern art gallery–they detest the art because it’s cold and dry. They come here and see art that reflects people, that reflects the human spirit.”

A Question of Fear

The developmental disability question is really one of fear. Discrimination in the arts is so entrenched that many struggling artists with physical disabilities fear that their talents might be dismissed if the VSA Gallery gains a reputation for being charitable to less serious artists. The question then becomes, What’s being done about barriers to the larger art world?

Smutz says that many galleries and art schools are inaccessible, so VSA has stepped in with workshops, information and visibility. “For artists who don’t know how to make a living, we teach them how to do slides, a bio, a resume, a portfolio and legal agreements regarding consignment sales,” she says. “Then, they can go to a commercial or mainstream gallery. We consider it a success story when that happens.”

Vogel commends the vision of VSA, but says there’s more to be done. “You have to bring in the critics and get the write-ups in the real art magazines,” he says. He also cites a need to provide gallery goers with lists of works, shows and sales. “This is very important. Collectors don’t want to buy some fly-by-night artist. They want to know he’s been around and will be around.”

Up until recently, Vogel didn’t associate with VSA himself. “Now I’m seeing the potential of the disabled art world because there are some influential people in the disability community. It’s really growing by leaps and bounds.”

From Charity to Culture

John Kemp, president and CEO of VSA, is one of the people nurturing the art community. Kemp, a quadruple amputee, has traveled around the world spreading the message of equality in the arts. “The power of the arts in our lives is not fully understood,” he says. “Art is an opportunity for people with disabilities to talk about their lives–the oppression and sometimes the pride–to use the arts to express the human condition.”

Kemp came to VSA at a crucial time: The board of directors suspected that VSA’s mission needed updating since its emotional inception in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith, who was deeply affected by her sister’s mental disability. “Without denigrating what it was before, it is the sign of a good organization that it can evolve,” says Alan Toy, a Los Angeles-based actor and activist recently hired by VSA to direct its 1999 festival, “Art and Soul.”

“Almost every nonprofit started as a charity,” explains Kay Hullings, vice president of development for VSA. “These organizations have evolved from charities to equalizers–they level the playing field.”

The charity mentality is long-gone, confirms Kemp. “Fighting employment discrimination is my first love,” he says. “We have a registry of artists with disabilities who pay no fee, for whom we provide marketing and business support. We consider them 1,100 entrepreneurs and, hopefully, we are going to help them grow their business.”

Still pending is the question of whether to change the name from Very Special Arts to something that reflects current sensibilities. “There are very serious discussions at our board level,” says Kemp. “By continuing to use our name, we reinforce the ‘specialness’ of disability, when we think of people with disabilities as having the ordinary strengths and weaknesses of any man or woman.”

But despite his emphasis on ordinariness, Kemp is a leader in the collection and cultivation of art that specifically addresses the disability experience. The vast majority of artists with disabilities still avoid the subject, but a few are emerging as serious participants in disability culture.

A Disability Aesthetic?

Ernie Pepion is a VSA success story and one of the premier painters whose work resonates with a disability perspective. A C5-6 quad, Pepion, 54, is Blackfeet Indian and a Vietnam vet living in Bozeman, Mont. His work is part of several traveling shows and he is a guest lecturer at universities, but his humble beginnings echo those of many artists with disabilities.

“I was a rancher until I was 28 and got in a car wreck,” he says. “In rehab, there was this guy in an iron lung who could get out for one hour. I’d just go down and paint with him to pass the time.”

An hour a day turned into 25 years as a career artist. During the 1980s, Pepion picked up a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and then his MFA. In 1987, he was discovered at a VSA “Call to Rise” show. “They got me recognized,” Pepion says. “Jean Kennedy Smith bought one of my paintings there. From then on, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from that one painting in their gallery.”

Pepion’s work can be quite visceral and frequently features a paralyzed figure with deep red skin, a quad belly and curled toes. He is often tied, caged or separated from other people. “Growing up as a Native American living on a reservation by a border town, there was definitely prejudice from both sides,” Pepion says. “That was a common occurrence. When I came back in the wheelchair, it was almost identical discrimination against the handicapped.”

A handful of other artists illustrate their disability experiences with similar drama. Some of the work raises the question, Could there be a disability aesthetic?

Most artists and art professionals say no–that there couldn’t be any identifiable visual pattern to the work of people as diverse as human experience itself. But others venture that there is a universal disability experience that may yet find its way into visual language. The most common suggestion for such a theme is brokenness and the search for wholeness–as seen in the searing images of one of the most famous disabled painters in history, Frida Kahlo. Other themes might be separation/inclusion or oppression/resilience.

Smutz, VSA’s expert on this topic, says it’s simply too early to identify a pattern. “It may really happen in the next 20 years.”

Nonetheless, Howardena Pindell, 54, an art professor at State University of New York at Stonybrook, has a personal story to tell on the subject.

Pindell was an artist before the car accident that resulted in a near-fatal head injury and permanent damage to her neck, back and legs. Now she can stand for only short periods, cannot climb stairs, and has numerous other physical limitations.

In her work, Pindell rarely focuses on disability content–she aligns herself much more with women and African Americans–but she says her artistic vision changed dramatically after her accident. “In art school, I was a figurative painter,” she says. “This evolved into a style of lyrical abstraction with no titles. But after the accident, I started using images, bright color and emotional titles. One commonality was splitting images and uniting them–which I think has to do with the fracturing of the mind.”

Martin Vogel, a 32-year-old T3 para from Tujunga, Calif., has yet another approach to a disability aesthetic: painting with the wheels of his wheelchair. After years of making tracks in the dirt, he decided to make his mark on canvas. “I have never been negative about using the wheelchair,” he says. “You shouldn’t be ‘stuck’ in a wheelchair–use it to your advantage.”

To that end, Vogel attaches paint dispensers–similar to shoe polish bottles with brushes–above each wheel. As he moves back and forth across the canvas, he creates symmetrical patterns that he later fills in by hand. At a VSA workshop, Vogel explained the significance of his discovery: “The first time my wheelchair painting technique really worked, I realized that I had never felt so comfortable in all my life, and had never loved painting so much.”

When considering a disability aesthetic, this comfort may be as key an element as any. Smutz says that assistive technology usually redefines the process of creation and can cause uncertainty among new artists. “There’s an emerging group that has the freedom to decide the methods and the materials they’re using,” she says. “They feel comfortable that the creation they’re producing is art.”

A Billion Points of Light

Whether or not there is a disability aesthetic, everyone agrees that the importance of art in disability culture is growing.

“There have been people toiling in the arts a long time,” says Kemp. “They’re just now getting more serious attention from the disability rights movement, which has recognized that there is a cultural side to our movement.”

But the new momentum has built-in stumbling blocks, Kemp says. “When faced with this notion of being part of a group, many people will not relate. This is the result of a long history of no pride in ourselves.” But if a significant number of artists do choose to address disability, then the momentum could bring about great change. “If art can create awareness and respect for being disabled, then we will have a greater feeling of cohesiveness. And one day, disability will be acceptable.

“The anger of the disability community hasn’t even come out yet,” Kemp adds. “Look at the unemployment situation-have we reached utopia? I don’t think so. We live in an oppressive era. I hope some artists will address this.”

But where Kemp sees cultural coalescence around discrimination, Alan Toy sees a poetic kind of entropy. Says Toy: “Disability culture is like a nova that explodes and then you have a billion beautiful stars. It’s not that angry and hot anymore, and the forces holding it together are gone. Is it a lasting culture? I don’t think so. Is it going to be more beautiful? I think so.”

Either way, Kemp says, “disability culture evolves. We don’t define it so much as nurture it.”

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