Charmaine Brown: Her Art Comes First

Her art may focus on disability, but don’t dare call Charmaine Brown a disabled artist. “I’m an artist, not a handicapped girl in a wheelchair,” she says. “Being part of the disability community didn’t make me an artist or help me become a better one. Disability helped define me as an artist and gave me insight into how the disabled are viewed.

“An artist is what I am.

Photo by Margot Geist

Brown has parlayed her insight and talent into over 60 group shows, numerous exhibition awards and more than her share of grants–including ones jointly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in 1993 and 1995–as well as a Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation Quality of Life grant in 2002.

Now 44, she sustained a C6-7 incomplete injury from an automobile accident in 1984. Her accident was both mundane and freakish. Asleep in the back seat when her girlfriend rear-ended another car, Brown did not wake up during the accident, and later, she didn’t think much of needing help to sit up to give some directions; once they reached their destination and she couldn’t get out of the car, however, reality began to sink in and, well, you know the rest.

Born and raised in Houston, Brown moved to Albuquerque, N.M., with her family at age 14. Following a year of classes at the University of New Mexico, she moved to Austin “to be crazy for a while,” returning to Albuquerque three years later. She was injured shortly thereafter. “When I became disabled I didn’t know how the larger society really functioned. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that being disabled in this world is much harder than I thought.

Growing up, she did sports, music, Brownies and Girl Scouts, but always felt sort of isolated or ‘outside.’ “Art’s what saved me,” she says. “In high school I did drawing and a lot of sewing. When I got to the fine arts department at UNM, I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’ve found myself. I’ve met my group of people and have a place in the world!’”

The Voice
The disability focus just sort of happened, emerging a couple years after Brown graduated from UNM. It came in the form of a loud, clear, studio-quality artistic voice that she uses to offer insight and understanding in teaching and educating the world about disability.

Her signature medium–fabric–allows her to combine skill, expertise and love of sewing with an artist’s need for visual expression. She works primarily in blue and white satin, with the international wheelchair stick figure often repeated throughout. Over the years she combined the soft pliable fabric with different disability paraphernalia to create some truly stunning and unique hangings and sculptures.

Why fabric?

Working in fabric--Brown's signature medium--allows her to combine her love of sewing with her need for artistic expression.

Working in fabric–Brown’s signature medium–allows her to combine her love of sewing with her need for artistic expression. Photo by Pat Berrett.

“Because I’m really good at it!” she says with both assertiveness and joy. “I’m a master seamstress. I love the detail, the choices, the variety, the endless range of possibilities. I like the sensual look and feel of satin against the stark metal of the medical equipment. Together, the fabric and structural elements create a more visceral and intimate experience with disability, which is unavoidable in my work, but the satirical themes I’ve created bring humor to the paradox.

“My art stimulates a dialogue in a culture so focused on image and struggling to accept people who appear physically different. I want to deconstruct that mythology because attitudes and ignorance are often much more disabling than our disabilities,” she says.

Working with fabric presents some problems, especially for a quad with compromised hand function. The intricate pattern and detail work means lots of scissors work; using a sewing machine involves a good deal of fine motor hand skill; then there’s getting around those pesky foot pedal controls. And it means keeping everything clean. By blending the technology of a programmable sewing machine to do monogramming with the heavy creative use of hemostats, she makes it look easy. Her big, open studio–easily the size of a three-car garage–sports a square circle of cutting tables accessible from both sides, three high-end sewing machines, a couple mannequins, a computer, great light and lots of music. She’s supported herself for the past 15 years by supplementing her art with custom seamstress work, sometimes struggling to make ends meet, other times with an eye on that SSDI earnings limit.

The Body of Work
Her 1993 one-person installation, It’s A Jungle Out There, was a lesson in accessibility. She hung black plastic netting less than five feet from the floor, forcing viewers to either crouch down or use wheeled office chairs upholstered in the international handicap-blue to view the show. The net ceiling served as both physical and metaphorical barrier, blocking full access and preventing viewers from standing but allowing light and images through.

In Chariots of Desire she placed much of the art, including works combining the sexy “mud flap girl” and the gender-neutral wheelchair symbol, uncomfortably high, and required viewers to crank their neck to see it. In 1997 came Dismiss the DIS Myths, four vignettes of some of the bigger misconceptions–parking, sex, superquad, “confined”–about disability and “those people.” There was a car dashboard and hanging fuzzy dice, replete with the blue wheelchair figures; an entire bedroom scene in the same motif; a portrayal of the “courageous-overcoming” myth and reupholstered wheelchair alongside a ramped, open and non-confining birdcage.

Her 2000 show, A Disabled Fable, forced viewers into an up-close and personal look at the experience of disability.

Her 2000 show, A Disabled Fable, forced viewers into an up-close and personal look at the experience of disability.

Sideshow Banners presented even more of an edge, with banners depicting the Tattoo Lady, seated in a chair and adorned “head to wheel” with the stick figure tattoo, and the “Half Woman/Half Machine” wheeler waving from her chair. Step Right Up placed a banner in a corner and invited viewers to sit on a stool, put their heads in a cut-out and look through; when they did, they saw their reflection in a mirror atop that familiar wheelchair stick figure. Cheer It Up offered a set of cheerleader uniforms which together spelled out “D-I-S-A-B-L-E-D.” It was all uncomfortably funny.

“I wanted to bring up the parts of disability that are difficult for people, the hard core realities they don’t know about.”

In 2000 she created A Disabled Fable, combining banners, a mannequin and a whole lot more into a Cinderella-themed, mixed-media installation that forced people to get even closer to disability. Cinderella’s Carriage opened to reveal a shower chair; the princess herself was a mannequin dressed in an elegant, appliquŽd gown, seated primly crosslegged with a catheter emerging from her crotch and leading to a leg bag, a bedpan at her feet.

“I began to integrate some of the accouterments of disability–a wheelchair, a catheter, prosthetics–so people could see more and better understand the experience.”

Well, maybe most people; some just found it offensive, including one who complained about having such things as a catheter forced upon her.

“Of all the things to complain about,” she recalls; “that same show had nude photos of elderly women and she wasn’t offended by them.”

Her 2002 Reeve-funded DIS-CARDS–A Postcard Campaignfocused on information and awareness about the social and environmental challenges of living with a disability. The project’s 5-by-7 inch metaphorical and humorous version of playing cards were mailed to residences throughout the country. Some educate, others inform, a few advocate for improvements in lives of people with disabilities, specifically wheelchair users. They were witty, absurd and eye-catching. The cut-and-fold Jack of Ramps assembles into a tiny ramp and provides information on simple and safe home ramp construction. The Queen of Raised Toilet Seats gives the old porcelain throne a humorous makeover and the reader some tips on interacting with wheelers. The Fortune Teller advocates for universal design and converts to a pair of glasses which, when worn in the mirror ask “How many wheelchair users does it take to screw in a light bulb?” (None. The ceiling is too high.) Others speak to the people being people first and all the same, deserving of respect, recognition and inclusion, regardless of physical differences.

“The cards are about social equality, access to communities, full participation. I wanted to raise awareness, decrease the fear and maybe even reduce discrimination.”

Her 2004 installation, A Royal Flush, transformed the jack, queen and other face cards into large fabric wall hangings. She also included sculptures, some up to 9 feet tall, mixing prostheses, assistive devices such as wrist braces, chair wheels and actual playing cards.

Into the Future
Her latest venture is Corset and Cloak (corsetandcloak.com), a small specialty business offering a variety of corsets, costumes, hairpieces and more. She embellishes the garments–from elegant bridal or evening wear to those worn with slacks, jeans, skirts or lingerie–with rich fabric combinations and eye-catching designs to get the wearer noticed and feeling sexy. And if you’re not sold yet, keep in mind that crips–rarely recognized for their sartorial inclination or skill–use them for far more mundane reasons, namely back support and improved posture.

If deciding to be an artist now and in this country is something of a formula for poverty, is making your art about disability the express lane to the poor house?

In Cinderella's Carriage, a commode chair is concealed behind royal trappings.

In Cinderella’s Carriage, a commode chair is concealed behind royal trappings.

“Well, maybe, but it’s what I do well and thrive on,” says Brown. “My life has always been about art; it’s what I do. I try to explore all the issues, attitudes and assumptions about disability to provide a better understanding of it. Maybe I can raise awareness and reduce some of the fear and discrimination.”

That’s a tall order. The results are often political and edgy enough to make the nondisabled squirm, but she’s grabbed the attention of critics and charmed many of those same nervous nondisabled into both a second look and some deeper thinking, and she’s done it by wrapping the power and technical excellence of her work in whimsy and humor–much of it that same dark humor we all use to get through those difficult days. Her art may not always be warm and fuzzy, but smiles, laughter and a soft easiness come through when she speaks.

“The humor is me, who I am. I take life very seriously, even though reality can be absurd. My art may be humorous but it involves a great deal of thought and contemplation. I don’t take anything for granted and I don’t make fun of disability, because it’s my reality and not a joking matter.”

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of that Cinderella-with-a-leg bag/Woman/Machine is Charmaine.

“It’s all kind of biographical,” she says. “It’s what I know better than anything else. I’m in the position to share the disabled woman’s experience. I don’t know what a disabled man’s experience is … but I expect it’s quite a bit better than a woman’s! This is hard and it’s not always pretty. I still miss things and still get tired of worrying about my skin and my cushion and my chair. There’s a lot of sadness and loss with disability. But life’s not about the downs, it’s about the highs; my life’s not about disability as much as about being happy despite some painful realities. I’ve done it for so long that I can make it look easy, but it takes effort, time and a lot of energy. I’ve got the essentials that I need–a place to live, a great studio, food on the table, health, a chair that works. I can pay my bills.

“Much of my art and many of the grants are due to my disability,” says Brown. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn about myself, to look at the value of things, observe people and how they really are; it’s about enjoyment and being happy and knowing how to have fun. I’ve been focused, disciplined, and committed to my career, my physical and spiritual health, all my relationships. Lots of times people can’t see any of that because they get so caught up in the little things, like a hangnail. They want to whine about petty things and complain. Everyone needs to just live. With my life and with my art I try to show people that they can enjoy life and be thankful for it,” she says, “and that they can create a fulfilling life and contribute in some meaningful way.”

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