An artist friend of mine, who passed away last year, used to paint on huge canvases that filled entire walls when they were hung in galleries. With his limited mobility, he couldn’t just use a stepladder to reach the upper corners, or lay it on the floor to paint it as a nondisabled artist might do–so instead, he painted it in pieces, tacking the canvas section by section to the front porch railing of his house where he could work from his wheelchair.
Yet at the same time my friend insisted that his disability had nothing to do with his work. He never painted disabled subjects and he always said his artistic vision would have been no different if he had been born without a disability. To him, art was a refraction of the world through the lens of his own perception, not a snapshot of himself.
I didn’t believe him for one minute. His experience of disability came screaming out of every brushstroke. There was more to his art than that, obviously, but he couldn’t have lived in his body and not have it affect how he saw–and depicted–the bodies around him. It’s too bad he never did a self-portrait–it would have blown the lid off the art world.
The artists on the following pages have all had their work informed by their experience with disability. Most create using traditional means, while others such as Robert Thome and Erin Brady Worsham have made “reasonable accommodations” to familiar media. Each, however, has brought forth images that are powerful, challenging, even disturbing. For it is in those abilities–not disabilities–that art puts us all in touch with our common humanity.
“In this artwork I wanted to show a lyrical and idiosyncratic moment of life with a disability. Whenever I need to change position, I have to ask my husband to do it for me. One of the positions that relaxes me is the ‘Malcolm X Position.’ The first time I asked Jeff to reposition my legs as shown in the artwork, I happened to be reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and we used it as a support pillow. After that, we started calling the position by the name of the book.”
“I make art about what moves me and what moves in life. I love to do portraits–people, animals, plants, children–and I often use my subjects as metaphors for ideas, as symbols for stories. Many characters in my paintings seem disassociated from their backgrounds, emblematic of my own stranger-in-a-strange-land fancies, reflective of the human problem of being spirit while existing materially.”
“Look closely and you will see the wings of my inner angel guide that has brought me to the place where I am making a transition. My guide has illumined the path so that I may see clearly. My disabled self is fading away as I overcome the limitations of my disability. My spiritual/intellectual self is walking forward, symbolizing that in mind anything is possible. The eyes are ambivalent and almost menacing, representing the controversy and the issues left to be resolved.”
“Although most of my images are confrontational and often disturbing, I find them to be a catharsis. I love portraying myself as a martyr, faithfully recording numerous surgeries, facial reconstructions and wounded relationships. The sadder the paintings are, the happier I get. It’s not because I want sympathy; I want people to say, ‘Look at how that woman has suffered, but look at what she has accomplished.'”
“Being a quadriplegic, you’re locked inside and there’s no way out. I paint with my mouth, but if something happens to my mouth, I would paint with my forehead. That’s part of art, inventing ways to get your ideas across.”
Erin Brady Worsham
“Because I am paralyzed completely below the neck and have only minimal movement above, I am not able to drive my wheelchair and must depend on others for all my movement. I’m sure this accounts for my love of action in the characters that inhabit my pictures. I can mentally ‘walk’ into the distance inside my pictures without leaving my chair or having to wait for someone to take me there. In Big Wheels, a young woman in a gaily adorned wheelchair and headdress refuses the mantle of invisibility. I delight in putting disabled people in unusual venues and challenging the viewer with the question, ‘Why not?'”