Chapter 1: Art by People with Disabilities and Disability in the Arts

Section 1: Introduction

The attempt to define is like a game in which you cannot possibly reach the goal from the starting point but can only close in on it by picking up each time from where the last play landed.

– Harold Rosenberg[i]


I am legally blind and a painter.  I also have a learning disability. The latter disability seemingly holds less interest for many than the former.  Though being an intellectual or associating oneself with a community that is considered highly intellectualized (in my situation the arts) and having a learning disability does not seem as ironic for most as a blind person participating in an activity which is highly conceived as visual.  Admittedly it could also be that there are few outward signs of my learning disability to note, for instance, when meeting me in the gallery.  One might witness me holding my cane. They may ask “what do your paintings look like?”  I think they really wonder what my practice is like since the question posed does not hold the answer they are seeking.  They want to know if my disability is detectable in my work in some fashion that they might be able to discern.  The positive I conceive in this is that there is a great deal of interest in people with disabilities (PWD) who make art.

Over the years, I have gone from telling people to “just get over it” to taking it as my own personal mission to educate people about the relationship of my vision to my paintings, other art works and the art world system.  But all of my effort has seemed too small to make any sort of impact on my viewers, especially it seems for other people in the arts, regardless of their relationship to disability.  I never would have dreamed that my very biggest difficulty and well-kept secret for most of my life, my blindness and thusly my disablement by society, would hold the keys to unlocking how truly great art needs to and can be understood.

I never wanted anything to do with my blindness when it came to my art.  In fact I concealed it from most people even through the first half of my college education. I did somewhat “come out” through my art in my second year of art school, but I remained skittish about the association for many years.  This was mostly due to the lack of support I felt and the reactions my body and my work triggers. A man said to me of my work “the artist statement says that the artist is blind. Who is the artist?” When I told him I was the artist, he replied, “You don’t look blind!” and waved his hand in front of my face in a most undignified way.  I joke years after that uncomfortable incident that I still wonder what blind looks like.  Most seriously and regrettably, I know what he means.  He wanted to see a display of a disheveled, helpless, unsexy woman and instead there was me: a well-groomed, self-aware and beautiful young woman defying his expectation of what disability looks like.  This made me hyperaware that artists are on public display–whether we like it or not–it is the game of the fine arts and my disability identities were only going to offer more challenges to me.

When I graduated Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in 2008, I began looking for work and more significantly job training in one of the worst economic downturns in history. About eight months later, through a program made possible with stimulus dollars, I found employment with the Disability Art and Culture Project (DACP) as an intern to the founder and art director.  I worked helping to organize the Disability Art and Culture Festival 2010.  Everything about the festival was new to me and magnified my somewhat limited experience with blind and disability culture and the community that it recognized.

During those months with DACP I learned and noticed a great deal which had been missing from my art school experience.  I learned that accessibility is a right not an extra and that as per the ethic of the organization, inclusion of people of all abilities is a must-have in creating a community that is relevant and supportive for all.  If one of the goals was to create a community of support, then one would have to take in to consideration that most people could become disabled at any point in their lives.  I learned that disability is also diverse, ranging from people with intellectual, mental, mobility, and sensorial disabilities and the list goes on and on.  Disability is not always the word these people would use to tell you about themselves.  That disability and impairment are acquired and they do change over time and that makes each person rather unique as far as accessibility needs and their story and thus individual feelings about disability impairment and chronic illness.  Lastly and most surprising to me, I learned that disability communities do not agree on language nor feel kinship with other PWD, shunning certain language and types of disability out and away from their communities.

All of this made me incredibly curious about the place of disability in the arts, how the fine art world might talk about it and who might need to be in this conversation.  I observed that the community around DACP was not very concerned about a fine art discussion. The able-bodied allies who in that community seemed to be primarily jilted expatriates of the fine art world, often declaring as much by calling it exclusive and snobbish.  This is not completely untrue, but it doesn’t help in fostering a relationship between the two worlds.  At least at the time I felt a bit betrayed by such remarks as I was therefore assumed to not be a part of the disability culture if identified as a fine artist, oh and that I must be a snob.  Similarly, it seemed that the disability communities felt incredulous toward the ideas of and the system of the fine arts, under the impression that fine art conversation would just impose ideas of normality on their community rather then being a possible avenue for the presentation of their work and advocacy.

On the other hand, is the art world any better in fostering an open dialog? No; the views the disability communities largely hold do have some truth to them.  These prevailing attitudes pointed out to me that the art world was no better in embracing PWD and the artist that spring from our communities, often labeling these artists, writers and performers (who seem often to be self taught) as outsider artists when clearly their work did interact with the contemporary art dialog and was treated as fine art and made with the intention that it is for a fine art public.  That view makes work by PWD less about the works they make and more about how those works could be used to draw a boundary marking the limits of fine art.  As if to say your work is only worth for fine art what it can do for us and not its own merits.  This is a shameful and prejudicial way to think of such work.

Early in my internship, my boss gave me over 50 pages of reading on art, disability, and disability culture and none of it was written by art theorists or art critics couched in the art world.  After my reading and rereading it, it occurred to me that there was never a single disability and art conversation or lecture in any of my art history classes at PNCA – a shocking realization.  After all, PNCA was a place I had grown up in since the age of 12 when I first started to take classes for children on the weekends. Visiting the school again during my internship (2009) I noted that the school still had (at that time) three departments and graduate studios that where completely inaccessible to wheelchair users and no accessible door opener at the front entrance.

How all of this slipped my attention for years I do not know. Why this shocked me I still am unsure, as I was the first student who is Blind to graduate PNCA.  Since then there have been two more.  This is within a hundred and four years of operation, which makes PNCA one of the oldest art schools on the West Coast.  We have had students who use wheelchairs, are Deaf or hard of hearing and have graduated a myriad of students with intellectual and learning disabilities.  We have plenty of patrons who come into PNCA who have disabilities, this much is obvious, but never did we speak about these bodies as presenting a challenge to how we think and talk about art and curation nor the inadequacies of the built environment.  A building that I should point out was built well after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

All of these experiences are why I started a 3-year project starting with a call to artists, writers and performers with and without disabilities.  That call led to the exhibition A Somewhat Secret Place (July 2011) and this book A Somewhat Secret Place: Disability and Art. This book takes that show and a few examples from contemporary art and art history and tries to build a framework for understanding and defining disability in the arts. I have done this not as a disabilities scholar nor disability activist nor as an art theorist because I am none of these.  This attempt is born from a need to find myself a comfortable place in the art world or, that is, to make that place.  So I write this as a painter–one with a unique perspective from having lived with my feet on either side of a little known border.

The Exhibition: A Somewhat Secret Place July 2011

To fill a void I perceived in the arts world and explore something I found unobserved by art criticism, I set out to make a discourse. I did this by creating an exhibition in the hope of writing this book. In the pages of this book you will learn about this very modest and unusual arts and literary exhibition titled A Somewhat Secret Place.

This month-long exhibition in July of 2011 was accomplished over eighteen months with the collaboration of Alyson Osborn who curated and directed our performance arts submissions and Helen Healy who helped in the selection of our literary readings and of course, while I curated the gallery art and provided the over-arching event coordination and artistic direction.  The exhibition was made possible through the mentorship and sponsorship of the Oregon Women’s Caucus for Art and the support of our whole community.

During the exhibition we hosted four artist talks, three performances inside and outside the gallery, literature readings and a children’s story time. I hosted a writing workshop with guest organization Write Around Portland where creative work actually took place inside the gallery space.  With the support of The Riot!, Human Services Research Institute and planning by Yoshiko Kardell (Policy Analyst), we jointly organized a 21st birthday party for the ADA. This party was complete with a panel discussion, cake and bubbly. Throughout the show we had nearly 1,000 guests of all ages and walks of life.  Our guests were diverse, including people interested in showing their work as people with disabilities, people working in social justice and the smallest of our visitors: the children who learned about the art with the same wonderment and frankness they explored the wheelchairs of our wheelchair user friends as well as the magic for them that is my folding cane.

The show was a place where I could greet a guest and say the words never uttered by any museum docent I have every met, “You are encouraged to touch everything.” This sent a group of Korean students in a PSU study abroad program into a completely ecstatic state of play, a welcomed transformation from their quite closed politeness when they arrived in the gallery. Then I gave them day-old ADA birthday cake.  I had to explain that people in the US do not normally celebrate the anniversaries that laws and acts having passed.  It was all an interesting cultural exchange and stretched what a fine art gallery can do and how art can be accessible to all people.

What was learned in the gallery by the visitors is difficult to measure. I acted as an audio describer to even sighted people, walking them thought the 3,000 square foot unfinished retail space to explain the premise of the show.  The premise was to demonstrate that the art world has a lot of disability in it by artists with and without disabilities and that it is illuminating about art to talk about it, and make all art and literature accessible to everyone.


Section 2: The Questions of Language Fine Art, Equality, Disability Terminology

What are the Fine Arts?

For a moment let your mind wander to the question, what are the fine arts? Then, let us playfully begin imagining a group of ideas, movements, names, objects and places in your memory where the label of fine arts has been applied. Take your time with this exercise.  Put away your self-criticism and self-conscious thoughts – the thought that you must reach the end of this section to understand the ideas I am presenting.  Now, in your mind you have written a list of sorts. What is on your list? Surely, paintings or drawings are located at the tops of the majority of our lists. Perhaps this is where you stopped.  But if you are a brave minded person or had practice in this sort of imagining, your list may be quite long.

In imagining your list you might start to think of places where the fine arts are enjoyed, such as galleries and museums.  Moreover, you might have even observed the question well and responded with a list including works of opera or literature and maybe places such as auditoriums and libraries.  I suspect the items on your list are items that are agreed on as masterworks or are names of masters of art, literature and music.  I am betting the masterworks that came to mind are those that are agreed on throughout the ages by the cannon of art history, and their very existence rose to your attention by some sort of educational process.  Thus, do we say that it is that kind of scholarship, which makes an object or collection of words or series of notes written and played a work of fine art? What is your answer? My answer is yes and a little bit more.

Let us turn this around for a moment to find some clarity on this whole fine art issue.  Now I will ask you to imagine a list of “not fine art characteristics” that make an activity, item or idea not fine art.  This of course is rather broad, so I will give you an example to work through.

For instance, take that classy “open” sign or chalk-art menu at your favorite coffee shop.  Now, I know I am assuming it is not a masterpiece, but please bear with me.  I mean no insult to “coffee artists,” who take pride in their chalk-art for I am sure the chalk-art is not easy. We digress. Think about what about this type of sign disqualifies it as fine art. With this new list of “not fine art characteristics” try to use it on say a random online image search on, say, Art Brut movement sculptures.  What you will find is a common use of primitive material and an autocratic or specialized language. Thusly, these works were largely for an audience of a few–the artist namely. It is noteworthy that nearly all the works that were given the name Art Brut were by people with disabilities. However, I must note for ease here that Art Brut is the origins of the outsider art conversation and is talked about along side contemporary outsider art. So that is since Art Brut is not a term synonymous with outsider art but rather a particular collection gathered and exhibited in the mid 1940’s we must understand that works not deemed high art nor design would contemporarily be called outsider art.

Perhaps for some the useful nature of Art Brut work and outsider art (therapeutically expressive), the seemingly decorative motifs and the autocratic language is comparable to the cute listing of beverage sizes in words that are completely made up or re-appropriated for example the menu line granda-what-have-you 16oz. $3.50, so on and so forth. Maybe the coffee shop sign is messy or unfinished looking to you like the rawness of the Art Brut work.  It could be that you perceive all or some of the elements to be child-like.  If these observations are items analogous to ideas on your “not fine art characteristics” list then you may not consider the Art Brut work or the coffee menu to be in the world of the fine arts.  Right you are.

How could this be since people with big degrees have been writing about Art Brut for over 60 years and not chalk art on menus? Whether Art Brut (and outsider art) is fine art or not is hotly debated in the fine art world. Those against its inclusion argue that for something to be classified as outsider art it needs to be made by a marginalized person outside the institutions of art, that they make the art with no intention to sell it but rather for a personal use, and that the material or techniques developed by the creator are unique and self taught and do not rely on the use of fine art materials and processes.

Yet when an accepted fine artist uses outsider type materials such as cardboard, Sharpies or auto paint, they tend to defend their use as intentional to evoke an association to fine art via a relationship to the tradition to art theory.  It seems to be a defense built on semantics and prejudice.  It is interesting to me that artist often get named outsider artists for simply meeting several but not all of the of the criteria and that they have a disability. In literature I am not sure what the perfect parallel would be per se. In music, I would say that someone along the lines of Daniel Johnston’s splash in the indie music world, for he was self taught and though he wanted to share his work a public he went about it in rather unconventional ways.  I think people generally think of him as a outsider type artist as well since he has a mental illness.

What is truly interesting to note of is that as the artists’ works are called outsider art, one might take the position that as artists and writers are identified and discussed, they begin to become a component of that continual lineage of art trying to define itself.  These works are then displayed in galleries and museums. That is, in the places on our lists where we think fine art is presented.

In the mid 1940s the artist Jean Dubuffet was compelled to tear down the sorts of art world attitudes that exalted polished or skilled craftsmanship and ideals of perfection.[ii] That is the ideas and aesthetic preferences that make up the great classical tradition reaching highs in the neoclassical or idealist movement of the 18th century and the early forms of modernism of the 19th century.  Instead, he embraced the irrational, anti-institutional, purposeful art object, imperfect and raw, asserting that these had a more human quality.  So it was for many Europeans during this time, for how could the strict formulas of modernism create works that could speak to the nonsensical horror of the Second World War.  In addition, one can notice the rise of psychology and the dependence that surrealism had on it and how they embrace the idea of the art of the insane as possibly being closer to the unconscious which the majority of their art work sought to access.  This can be thought of as contrary to prior notions of say the Nazi exhibition Entartete Kunst (translated as Degenerate Art) which showed works by mentally ill persons next to works by modern painters to prove the inferiority of the former.  This is also an excellent example of the idealistic model of thinking informative and for a purpose primarily to support the state and to support and spread a common worldview.

What Dubuffet did was to take the work of marginalized people whom he did not consider artists and examine their differing styles.  Distance and time give perspective that the countermovement to the neo classical and idealist movements were the romantics and that these two models (one rational the other emotional and irrational, even indulgent) existed in great profusion throughout the American and European art worlds during the early part of the 20th century. Today there is a great interest among artists in outsider art and in art that can be thought of as neo romantic.

Dubuffet is clearly a product of his time and though I deeply admire his work, I think it to be flawed. He felt that “[t]here is no art of the insane any more than there is an art of dyspeptics, or an art of people with knee complaints.” With only a regard for his own artistic practice and worldview, Dubuffet created Art D’ Brut. It is important to see that Dubuffet was looking for something rawer. He found this in marginalized populations, living in asylums and hospitals for the “lame and retarded.” These people had no apparatus in place within themselves or in the institutions they resided in to endow their activities or even their very lives with respect.  Dubuffet callously created ethical issues in his identification of art from outsider artists.  He has baffled artists and historians alike on whether there was or wasn’t an element of exploitation.

If you have not noticed yet, all this list making and outsider art discourse is a trick to hopefully convince you of one thing. The high or fine arts are always trying to define what make one thing art and not another and in the process making a progressive history of culture through the fine art world.

This “the fine or high arts” is confusing to pin down. In the arts what is “fine” and not “fine” is a great question for artists, performers and writers to debate for a healthful practice.  I would argue that a curator either has to take a stand on what fine art is to responsibly maintain the galleries as a place of fine art dialogue or altogether do away with this idea. I find the latter unusual and harmful to the artists the gallery represents. This I will later explain further in my discussion on the support systems of artists with severe intellectual, physical and psychological disabilities.

I do not mean to be hard on you, the reader, in asking questions that are debated over and over, and that volumes of books are written about each year. It is all this thinking and writing which add to our understanding of the phenomena that is the artistic practice and fine art object/activity. I am sure that some reading this book may have exhaustive education in the arts and as part of their continuous journeys these readers may have had to define what constitutes a work of fine art, literature or performance. I shall ask these readers to set aside those feelings to delve into my criteria that I outlined in building this exhibition, which is primarily comprised of what is called the institutional definition of the arts. James Elkins, a prominent and respected figure in the world of fine art criticism and art theory, wrote in the beginning of his book defining the place of religious art as low art: “Art is whatever is exhibited in galleries in major cities, bought by museums of contemporary art, shown in biennials and documentaries and written about in periodicals […]”[iii]  Thus I believe that the power of curation is its ability to shape what fine art is, both by showing art that is already accepted as fine art and by presenting works that challenge current notions of contemporary art.

For me, Elkins is missing characteristics of practice which I believe make a big difference to whether, or not the work will make it to the institutions that make up the art world, and that is why I think there is something further that needs to be talked about. George Dickie’s framework for what fine art is presents a five-point idea that I believe is only missing one thing. Dickie writes: “1. An artist is a person who participates with understanding in making a work of art.”[iv] What does this mean? Is it that “Well, yes I am making a drawing, and not muffins, with this pen and paper?” I think it can be as simple as this. Those who would argue against this idea would be limiting the kinds of minds that could be in the fine art world with a valuing of intellectual ability above human commonality and thus mutual respect. Also they would be discriminating who could be a working artist in the art thus limiting further the economic choices by PWD.

Dickie’s second criteria I think was rather visionary, because it gave room for process art of the 1960s and 70s as well as the projects of social practice art (branch of participatory art works) occurring all over the world recently in the form of dinner parties and walking projects where in the end there are objects only as a product but not as the art part. Dickie continues, “2. A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an art world public.”[v]

His third point does however require asking the question of epistemology. How is it that some one knows something is it purely intellectual? Purely emotion or is it ineffable? 3. A public is a set of persons whose members are prepared in some degree to understand an object that is presented to them.” 4. The art world is the totality of all art world systems 5. An art world system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an art world public.”[vi]

This is called the institutional definition and sounds as if it is lacking.  In studying disability as an aura in the arts I have found there is bit of soul that is missing. So let me ask, why take disability as an important aspect in understanding the fine arts, or for that matter why is the fine art important to a discourse on the place of equality of people with disabilities? Disability is a common attribute to the human experience for every individual, and our arts are not only a great means to preserving culture and creating discourse between people but they inherently are endowed with the truths of our very humanity. Therefore, to have a fuller understanding of art we must be able in the arts to appropriately identify the presence of disability in the arts and be able to know the difference between an aspect of art that shows the presence of disability and a type of art that shows disability.

What is Equality, Especially in Art?

Equality is an interesting word. In some way this book is about addressing inequality. That is to say in the way art history, theory, and culture talks about art and disability. In this way this book is about finding my own place in the art world as a painter and as a person who is legally blind. I will bring up hard issues about the exclusion of people with disabilities in the fine art world and problems that I have witnessed in the forms of exclusive behaviors currently present in the art communities of Portland, Oregon and worldwide.

A discussion like this is long overdue. In discussing this type of art I believe that there is an opportunity to learn about our very humanity. I did not realize until recently how rare my perspective is on this topic and felt that as an artist I should put down my brush and pick up my pen so to speak.

I take the idea of equality from the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, mainly because most of her writing points out how the hollowness of elitism in social groups is detrimental and for the fact that her philosophy has a redefinition of the social contract and putting those values into law.[vii]  Nussbaum writes:

What I am calling for, in effect, is […] a society that acknowledges its own humanity, and neither hides us from it nor it from us; a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable, and who discard the grandiose demands for omnipotence and completeness that have been at the heart of so much human misery, both public and private. […] it constructs a public myth of equal humanity, to substitute for other pernicious myths that have long guided us. Such a society remains elusive because incompleteness is frightening and grandiose fictions are comforting. […]It may even be that such a society is unachievable, because human beings cannot bear to live with the constant awareness of mortality and of their frail animal bodies. Some self-deception may be essential in getting us through a life in which we are soon bound for death, and in which the most essential matters are in fact beyond our control. What I am calling for is a society where such self-deceptive fictions do not rule in law[…] [viii]

I think Nussbaum’s legal thoughts are easily adoptable by the arts.  Art, unlike law, is a phenomenon supported by historians, theorists and institutions – it is public opinion, it is not about protection and fairness.

I admit there can be legislative acts made to ensure equal dignity through representation given to art by peoples with disability in governmental institutions.  In the past this has meant the segregation of programs only devoted to our population and further setting people with disabilities aside from the fine art world system. A prime example of a program such as this is VSA arts (formally known as Very Special Arts). There have been wins in the forms of the ADA guidelines mandatory for every artist grant, such as the grant this book was written under, which require artists and writers to make their work accessible for all.  Of course the problem with laws like this here in the open market of the USA is that it excludes the privet sector i.e. the gallery.

It is obvious to me is that this is not the only way to go about making some sort of equality.  Literature about art has driven what art has become. An especially nice example is with the legitimizing of the abstract painting of artists like Jackson Pollack by critic Clement Greenberg by means of his writing.  I find critics important and hope that they continue to rise to the very difficult challenge of intellectualizing works of art and literature. I hope they now do it for people who would not be able to communicate on that level (like John Kelting), and those kept outside the educational system that do not have the means to articulate what their work might confront in the arts (like Steffeck who is rapidly seeking to create and more interact with the art world). I think it is about time to ignore the well-worded artist statement (still baffling to most) and ask for critics to examine work by people who cannot speak in-depth to what their work does, that is, its utterance.  I will say, from the experience of curating this show and book, it is a hard practice but one which uses all the skills at one’s disposal.

In my appendix I present a metaphor where I call what critics do fore the fine arts the nutrient for works or art.  I point out that the art world is deeply in trouble as the audience for works is more limited in the kinds of bodies that could access much of the art world in the face of a the population full of PWD and people who could  become disabled at any point as disability has always been with use and variation in bodied will always be with us. I claim that when art is inaccessible it distorts the ability of fine art to speak to all people and thus fail Dickie framework in failing to make a public. I think here I should turn this around and say as long as critics refuses to speak intelligently about art by people who may not have “Normal mental capabilities” then art criticism itself will be putting art in danger. Being that art also has a critical role in democracy allowing the public to know themselves and use art as a forum to talk about issues of the day. Failing to represent PWD who have disabilities on equal footing as those who do not by art critique will too be oppressing the political representation of PWD however this is in a rather covert way.

In this book I want to move away from solving problems in the form of Nussbaum’s suggestions with social justice as an activist–of which I have no direct experience–but rather act as an advocate socially.

What I suggest is that the accepted canon of art theory must begin to create its own language for talking about the presence of disability in all artistic practice and we must first do this by saying that there are differences between art about disability and by a person with disabilities. I will focus on those differences in this chapter after a brief discussion on how I will use words and my views about criticism inside disability culture and across disability culture.

How about people with disabilities (PWD)?

If you will note I have already been using this term and though I feel moderately indifferent it is my preference.  While this term has to its disadvantage bad grammar as the noun (people) is before the adjective (disability) it is recently commonly used in disability studies and communities because it puts the humanity of the person possessing the disability first; ergo, it is called person first language.

I recognized in my struggles writing artist statements even very early in my life that I wanted to be judged as an artist first with my being a visually impaired (or Blind) person second and a woman lastly and only in relationship to the work when it had something to do with it. What I have found is that my disability identity seemed to overshadow the work I have made. What this amounted to was even when I wrote about myself with person first language such as “I am a artist who is blind,” I still received amazement and many questions like “So how do you do it?” and comments about the irony having to do with a visual impaired person doing an activity which is commonly understood to be visual in its action and in the result of a visual object. I find this unfortunate as I felt it kept people from first delving into the work or looking at other aspects of my lived experiences that informed a particular body of work. For me there is no other acceptable term than disability to describe what I want to talk about in this book, so I shall use it. But to honor disability culture with its multiple sides, I will interchangeably use people with disability (PWD) and disabled. However, I will be more specific about impairments when the person I am talking about favors an identity other than PWD or disabled/impaired. In my own case, I call myself blind as it feels like a term that places me with a people who have a common lived experience.

In my life outside this book, I tend to use many terms to describe myself for the benefit of not confusing other people, as I wear glasses, makeup and identify objects by use of my available vision. So when I say I am blind for the most part it only serves to invite conversations that are, for lack of a better word, inconvenient. So in a way I suppose I find myself shading personal feelings from the uneducated masses. Some of my liberal blind friends have told me nasty things about what this means about my character or what they believe it does to my self-worth. In defense of my character and my self-worth, I must remark that I do what I must and do not critique others for how they think or speak about themselves. My attitude is not for a moral or ethical reason, but for my selfish desire to take people for who they are and understand them.  Just as I have made a note here on how I feel about my own identity you will read similar notes about the artists, writers and performers.

Is there any right language to use to describe PWD, impairment and chronic illnesses?

 Fine art as a term is difficult, as people love to argue (and need to) over its definition. Similarly, disability, as a term, is a difficult word in itself. Disability is a charged word in contemporary society because it denotes inability and I would observe a socially forced subjugation. Some in the disability community do not like the word, saying that it is inaccurate and disparaging toward the person who is labeled “disabled” and offer other words such as “differ-ability,” which made a big splash on the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report.  On March 30, 2012, The Colbert Report hosted the Special Olympics Chairman and CEO Tim Shriver, who came with the message that the R word (meaning “retarded”) is something his athletes would like the public to not use to say something is inferior. What is truly interesting to me about this segment is two-fold. Firstly, what was said about person first language:

Stephen: What is the proper term now? What would you suggest?

Tim:  Say people first. Don’t call someone autistic, Retarded, disabled, invalid. Call someone a person with [so you are –] a [–] Person with [hair with] goop in it as an example. [LAUGHTER] […] [But technically we say] people with [Intellectual disability.] I like […] I like the word diff-ability. [But then sometimes people–…]

[Stephen: What’s a differ-ability]

Stephen: That sounds like you [can’t pronounce the word disability– and you-and you– are a person with a] speech impediment.

Tim: [You are such a quick study[ix]

Secondly, what interested me was that nothing was said about the many other slurs that identify a group of people that are used to say something is inferior or “un-cool.”  I believe Steven Colbert’s quip of a PSA to children implied that no matter what one does, there may put a foot in their moths but that disability is not the be-all end-all for exemptible slurs. Their conversation was:

Tim: I don’t want to be a cop. I want to be a teacher. [You’re allowed] to be humiliating, degrading and hurtful. I’m aloud to petition you to recognize what you say and be aware of the option you have to stop. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Stephen: So you are asking […] for Self[-]awareness.

Tim: I’m asking for social awareness. This is a forgotten population.

[Look,] I’m asking you to lead a campaign to save America’s kids.


Stephen: [Are you ready for] my PSA, okay? Hi, I’m Stephen Colbert, kids, don’t use the r word. it is totally gay. [laughter] You’re welcome. Tim Shriver. Chairman and C.E.O. of the Special Olympics. Don’t use the r word for any reason.

However, there are still problems as “special” itself is patronizing, denoting something of a lower standard like, “oh, that hat is special.”

To have a disability or to be labeled as disabled brings a host of implications. This is the same for the word impairment. Words like gimp and cripple have been reclaimed such as in the case of “crip poetry,” although a testament to the lack of this reclaiming as a force outside the disability community is that there is a form of gagster poetry which uses the same name and shows more prominence in pop and literary culture. Those who I have known to speak out about it, such as the writer Carmen Papalia (whom I shall discuss in a later chapter), do get a fair bit of criticism for not being completely supportive of people allying themselves with this.

Each year, about twice a year, I work as a server at the Portland Blind Café, which is a dinner and concert in the complete dark. The person without a disability owns the company and the band has no disabilities. The kitchen staff has had a Sous-Chef who is legally blind but currently all the staff in our kitchen is sighted. In my opinion the event is not a simulation exercise in that the guests are reminded often that they are only having a sighted experience in the dark and not a blind experience.  During the dinner there is a Q&A session with the servers and an introduction sometimes accompanied with a little poetry. In Portland there are a few other blind people who host along with me. I have greatly enjoyed getting to know my coworkers and their views. However, each night when we seat throngs of the hungry and excited guests I know “it” is coming and whom “it” will be coming from.

The 2010 President of the National Federation of the Blind Rose City Chapter, Jim Jackson, hails from a sibling set of all men who are Blind. He feels a great pride in his blindness and has very strong political views about language and current issues. Sometimes his voicing of such opinions is to my personal displeasure. Without fail, each night “it “ will be stated in language borrowed from NFB texts that the terms visually impaired or sight impaired are disparaging words and that the right way to refer to someone who is legally blind is Blind with a prideful capital B. I disagree.  People will and should call themselves whatever they wish but when it comes to art, the language of the day has always prevailed. The ideas which one disability movement may have over another should not dominate the way we write or talk about art unless they have something to do with that art.

In short, even among a select demographic–the blind within the disability community–we do not agree on identity language and it is always changing. To me this is an indicator that for art to have its own language will mean more ability for us to talk clearly without politics about practices and aesthetics.

How About Using the Word Handicap? Some say disability is another word for a handicap and with pride or disgust say that is all handi-crap. “Handy-Crap” is a term I have heard many times in motivational speeches given by people with and without disabilities, but it is a term that I find faulty. “Handy-Crap” identifies most often the idea that one’s mental, physical and psychological limitations caused by impairment and in societal expectations of PWD are not “real” but an illusion that only serves to limit the person who has the impairment. I agree that there is no need to assume that the personal and social stigma of a disability or impairment must be a barrier to dreaming and doing.

There is something about the words “Handy-Crap” that seem to me to say that impairments and disability identity are things individuals are called to overcome. This means when a person fails to overcome and meet such expectations, they could be perceived as less than human; conversely, if they overcome then they would be identified as super human. Either way in this scenario the individual would not be a member of the group but an example of failing or succeeding. There is one fact that will never change that this term does not acknowledge. Some cannot overcome disability–the identity nor the impairment itself. There is something inherently destructive about the idea of success and progress when defined in this model. Much time and effort has been given to this thought in historiography and in art about the failings of modernism and colonialism. Though that analysis looks at large groups of people, I think that the idea of success as a destructive element can be applied to individuals as I have shown here.

I want to make a world where people are continually given permission and acceptance to feel and act as themselves even during times of transition such as aging, illness and as we have been discussing, the adoption (willing or not) of the social labels or identity as a PWD.

The reason we no longer use the term handicap is because the word means limited.  Thus handicap is insulting as is says that those with impairments are lesser.  To not have a particular ability does not inherently mean one is lesser than another. Handicap is associated with games as well and it has been phased out of use. I think a role model, such as a motivational speaker, should not use buzz words that are unseemly for the majority of disability studies and culture, because it keeps the out of date term in circulation.  Although it is not true that handicap comes from mid evil bagging a lot of people think it does as in “cap in hand”.  I would argue that this association of PWD something about charity although erroneous is still destructive. The term handicap came from old English games about bartering, and it should stay in and only in the world of game as life is not a game and will never be as fair as a game.

Section 3: How to Talk About Work by Artists with Disabilities

Now that I have stated how I can to this case study and the language I with to use I would like to start by confront the flabby term “disability in the arts.”  I will present in this chapter works by PWD and an artist with a chronic illness, which had nothing to do with disability.  I suggest that the best disability conversation to have about such work is on the mechanics of individual artistic practice and the best word to use to connote this notion would be disability in the arts..

With crushing entropy, during the rise and aftermath of modernism, fine art and literature has become more and more intellectualized. I believe this has caused a problem among Americans which is that “art” is something that is beyond their understanding. Literature, however has suffered less of this funny business. Literature has its own contemporary paradox having to do with literacy.  On the one hand, literacy has declined in the United States significantly since the 1920s. On the other hand, more people are using written language to communicate and have access to publications and unpublished works than ever before through the use of the Internet.

What does the rise in the intellectualized forms of high art mean for those of us who do not have the ability to communicate their thoughts and feelings on a high performing intellectual level? I think it means exclusion and subjugation. Which is, in my opinion, our loss, and I shall tell you why as I introduce you to John Kelting, a featured artist in A Somewhat Secret Place who has Down syndrome.

The primary problem of contemporary art is not that it is intellectual it is that this drive for “smart art” does not make good art, and in fact I would propose it hinders us from expanding the arts to encompass a fuller depiction of human experience.

We can better understand the work of an artist with Down syndrome if we understand what Down syndrome is and the level at which the public holds prejudice in the form of myths about the genetic condition. I would say that the work of someone with Down syndrome cannot be altogether understood and taken seriously unless the viewer takes the person who made the art into consideration with the same respect given to a person without a disability.

As your guide I am faced with a nearly impossible feat because if you hold myths about DS to be true, the statistics are not in my favor of convincing you otherwise. “If the topic is not very important to you, or you have other things on your mind, you are more likely to make use of misinformation. Most importantly, if the information fits with your prior beliefs, and makes a coherent story, you are more likely to use it even though you are aware that it’s incorrect.” [x] Because this issue hurts me so deeply, I can do nothing more than try to present some facts for consideration. Joseph Campbell said, “Myth is what we call other people’s religion.” And if our bodies are our temples, our ideas about medical science are its religion. To that I would say that those religions need some reform.

Down syndrome (DS) is named for the doctor who first described the symptoms of the condition, but is also known more properly and less commonly as trisomy 21. Simply put, people that have DS just have more than the rest of us in the form of an extra full or partial 21st chromosome, making those with DS have 47 chromosomes not 46. If that is confusing to you, just think of it like I had to in my genetics for artists course in college. We all have a whole lot of genes in each of our cells. Our cells have a bundling system in place to, so to speak, to keep cell formation and other genetic operations tidy. This bundling system is called chromosomes. Chromosomes are similar to the rest of our bodies, in that they like symmetry within reason, so chromosomes come in pairs. In some cases this is not always true, and that is the kind of situation wherein genetic conditions like DS occur. DS will only occur to sex cells (sperm and ovum) upon formation or during conception and not later in life.  DS is very common worldwide with a case or two occurring in every thousand babies born. Although, many more cases of DS are detected through a variety of tests and those pregnancies are terminated during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. The condition is marked by intellectual disability with IQs about half that of the common IQ of a given age group, along with physical differences that can affect fertility, mobility, speech and in some cases the pulmonary system. In a Time magazine article titled “Early Decision,” the author Bonnie Rochman writes:

While half of all babies born with Down syndrome have congenital heart defects, new surgical techniques have made repair relatively routine, extending their average life span from just 25 in 1983 to 60. Thanks to early educational intervention, more and more affected kids are attending mainstream schools. Teens with Down syndrome go to college; 20-somethings get married.

This article about testing and the choice of parents to go through with the rearing of a child with DS says to me that now, more than ever, people with DS have opportunities to be active participants in society, but that this is news to many people and these people have a lot of ignorance-based fear. I have learned in researching this that a lot of people do not think people with DS will live full lives. That DS babies should never plan to grow up to be parents and that due to intellectual “short comings,” people with DS should be considered less valuable.

I wish I could say that all my friends see people with DS as equal or having equally valuable lives, I cannot say that this is true. In a few conversations I’ve had about prenatal testing, inevitably two questions crop up. The first, if there could be a cure for it should people with DS take it?  The second question what about the stress on parents having a child with all those needs, so why is it so wrong in your opinion to say such parents should go through with having a DS baby? These questions are in a side a scenario where a family is trying and wants to have a child they are just questioning to have a child with DS.

My feelings are to the first question, is that a cure for DS would indeed be amazing, but like cochlear implants would mean a fundamental change for a person’s life and this is something that could change who they are, so in some cases people might not want to do it.  This imaginary situation could be a red herring taking us away from the real issue, which is the attitude that people with disabilities need fixing as if we are fundamentally broken rather then seeing us as part a of the normal and wide range of human beings in both body and mind. To the second question I state I have birth defects and I am glad for my life, and I find my life valuable regardless of my disabilities. Beside one could gain disabilities at any point in life. To say DS automatically make a life worth not bringing into the world is really a part of a bigger issue of discrimination it say one life is worth living and another is not. Now I do not mean to say this mean I know what is best for mothers. This is up to them but I highly doubt that if the social pressures and education about DS was available there would be increasing rates of aborted DS pregnancies and perhaps too society prejudice for these unique and wonderful people would diminish. I wish that everyone would know of my friend who have DS what good people they are and how those who love them value them.

Let us pause here to reflect on the attitudes in the fine art world about the presence of children in art as so much of the public’s misinformation and opinion holds that DS people are like children. I have never read anything mean written about the art of people with intellectual disabilities nor DS, but what I have seen about children who have been taken seriously in the gallery is utterly ugly.

On a sunny late spring day in 2011, a husky silhouette of a man appeared in the doorway of a Greek deli and food market, the man walking with swaying sweeping steps. He was wearing gold wire glasses and was dressed in black. He first walked up to the counter then toward a window table to my left. The smell of fresh bread and olives hung in the air and this man deeply inhaled and made noises of delight. After which he said hi and waved hello to everyone in the store while looking around curiously and took a seat adjacent to my table. I sat eating a Greek salad with buttered bread and the best cup of Greek coffee of my life.

This was the moment I met Caroline Kobin and John Kelting. As I do ever so often, I held back from asking the young gentlemen if he was the company that I had been waiting for. I do this because not seeing people well has made me careful over the years.

It did take me a while to understand what he was saying as his soft and kind voice is marked with a soft D-B sound throughout, which for me was a delightful challenge in getting to know him.  We sat again at my table, Kelting at the head, his chair pushed to be diagonally facing me and Kobin next to him and with her back to the window with sunlight illuminating her unbleached blond hair.  She really looked her part, the part of an angel, helping to protect and grow Kelting’s work. I found myself wanting one of her.

We spent a while speaking about better ways to prep Kelting’s work surfaces to produce sellable fine art objects so that the production route would not be the only route for the sales of his work. But I got the distinct sense for whatever reason that these tips I was giving were unusable or just so different that they might not take them seriously. It takes specialized helpers who really understand the art to be the best representative for people who need such help. Even as a blind person I know the people helping me find work have never known what to do with a blind artist; they just were unprepared for me.

During the conversation Kobin showed me original work and reproduction one after the other, so many that I got the impression that this man next the me was only interested in one thing–making images of the majesty that is Hollywood. Kelting said, “Love movies,” and clapped his hands for punctuation. After this, the curious man preceded to put my film knowledge to shame. Kobin, I got the sense, was dedicated to making plans with Kelting to make his habit of art-making into a business and gave ample proof of clients looking for reproductions and the like. But she and he communicated their interest and lack of knowledge about the fine art world and that this would be indeed his first gallery art show. The second time I saw Kelting, he was wearing a tuxedo at our pre-opening and looked stunning and of course (as I would learn is just his personality) he was the life of the party.

Of the work presented to me at our meeting (which was primarily reproduced photocopies), I suggested only originals be included in his application. My belief is that in a fine art gallery like I was constructing for the events, reproductions would be less special for viewers. The goal was to give viewers an opportunity to buy an original. When I received Kelting’s application materials, some of his best work I saw could not be included since the pieces had sold. I picked his depiction of Orlando Bloom as I thought it best showed his process of using watercolor, gouache and graphite to construct these images. The image is a three-quarters view of the actor Orlando Bloom, star of the first three Pirates Of The Caribbean films (2003, 2006, 2007) as the character Will Turner. He is dressed in a blue men’s blouse.  The likeness seems to be secondary to the marks made, all seemingly flowing and weaving yet holding a sort of integrity of the prior marks made. By this I mean he does blend into areas, mixing on the paper or canvas, but mostly lets marks sit on top of each other.  The pencil lines that peek through the pink/peach on the face are descriptive of a figure in the round (meaning three-dimensional).

A disability in the arts conversation for Kelting is going to encompass a few key points which are so big I do not think I can go in-depth here.  Firstly he makes works with constant assistance, which makes his work slightly collaborative. I’m curious if this plays any role in how the work is successfully presented to the public and to what public it is presented to. Does his intellectual defiance make him a target in an art world that values intellect over the sensations his works may cause? Even though such thinking is a part of the art world clearly it is not a part of art. I think an analysis of how children’s art is treated by critics with a focus on inelegance may be a good way to see the hypocrisy around the value of intellect. However, I have not read anything to date that bluntly draws such conclusions about an adult artist with DS. Because so many choices are made for Kelting in how he works a discussion with his support system would be highly enlightening. However, his family once aware that I would talk about issues of discrimination they declined to comment. They further stated they did not want that association for Kelting and that he has never been discriminated against in his and their opinions. I found this and still do hard to believe. I do not think ignoring the problem is going to make it go away and neither will ignoring pubic prejudice. We are going to have to talk about these matters to bring honest respect to the work and fight for the inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. A proactive discussion would keep the focus on the work and prevent the public from turning the artist into a novelty or a freak show. However some artists like to parade their disabilities around to get attention as a gimmick to gain fame, money, or acceptance as their work might then fit into stereotypical notions of disability.

A system of support for the artist Evan Seffeck is critical for him to make and promote his work. His mother acts as his caregiver and also works closely with him to find artist opportunities and write promotional materials as well as a host of tasks associated with his day-to-day practice. The disability art conversation that we can have above Seffeck may encompass issues of intellect but differing a little bit for Kelting as it has more to with access to education and viewing of some arts as both seem to have questionable accessibility.

When I say questionable I do not have in mind the kind of access that disability scholars call for. What I’m referring to is the minimum requirement that does not create complete exclusion.  I realize that practicality dictates that there is a starting point. At least in the fine art community, grants and private art schools would not be easier or perhaps even attainable options for Seffeck because of the built environment and impossibly difficult standards of participation. There is not program by RACC at this time to help an artist evaluate for instance the accessibility of their events besides conversation. Without “boots on the ground” artists often find it difficult to meet the bare minimum requirements to be ADA compliant in addition to organizations with public funding.  Similarly there are no training programs for advocated assisting artists with disability such as Seffeck or Kelting. I am not saying that every event must have the thronging kind of accessibility the DACP offers its audience for the disability Pride Art and Culture Festival. Though many in the disability community would say that is a must. We need a starting point to improve over time and this needs to be a supportive process for artists with disabilities. It takes fertile ground to grow an artist.  It takes fertile ground to grow work.

Another aspect of disability in the arts is how impairment can shape the kind of work an artist makes. That is not the case with David Kidd.  Kidd has many physical and cognitive disabilities and has found what he calls “work-arounds”, a system in which to work with his body. Kidd’s “work-arounds” are similar to the formulaic structures that many famous artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee (who both developed specific methods to use in making work) use.  But unlike Kandinsky and Klee, his came from the need to work with his body in a new way. Kidd’s system sets up what I would call a painting or drawing problem.  That is by creating a system in which to work, one must respond and work within that system as if to solve a puzzle. Kidd writes:

(a) minimize arm and hand pressure by abandoning pencils, pens, pastels and switch to painting watercolor using the softest bristles.
(b) reduce time working by using very broad wash brushes.
(c) draw only in quick flourishes with a long narrow script brush.
After a while I realized this all turned out to improve my art because the contrast of broad and narrow strokes makes it seem more lively. Encouraged I sought to paint even more with even less, and went on to:
(d) single-out what’s essential and ignore superfluous things like chiaroscuro, light and shade.
(e) eliminate backgrounds and perspective. I have long used atmospheric space/aerial perspective; and since that uses what they call “false color” it has led me on to now studying color as expressionism.
(f) draw only at the end, and only where necessary. Drawing in quick flourishes is like gestures that convey feeling.

In no way do Kidd’s disabilities affect the content of his work as in the themes and subjects he wishes to depict. Over the past ten years he has been primarily interested in abstraction from the landscape and the human figure.

So far we have learned that both the systems of assistance that support artists with disabilities (intellectual, developmental and physical) and the “seemingly impossible work-arounds” that Kidd has developed to make work and challenge him in his practice can contribute to the direction of an artists practice, and it can shape where they make art and what they show.

But it is also true that sometimes the mechanics of an individual’s practice will not be significantly shaped by disability, impairment or chronic illness.  It is this that is apparent in the practice at large of Gwen Seemel.  I featured Gwen Seemel First American (Native American) next to the colorful works by Pat Krishnamurthy.  Seemel also had on display next to First American for viewing and sale an art book that featured the painting Apple Pie which charted through images that make up American identity and highlighted the versatility of her characteristic style often adopting the look and feel of other cultures such as the styles of black history painting for a image of an African American jazz singer.

Seemel’s work seems interested primarily in the portrait and the aesthetic value of patterns in paintings – among other interests –showing us no evidence clearly of her chronic illness as directing practice or influencing it, thus there can only be a discourse here on how there is no disability in the arts conversation to be had to a extent that it would tell us something new about Seemel’s work. On the other hand for my purposes, what is notable about her is that her practice shows that sometimes a disability, impairment or chronic illness really has no influence on how work is made or why it is made.

In the years since the exhibition A somewhat secret place Seemel produced many new bodies of work and publications exploring the forms of animals and many new topics and theme and some familiar to her, such as the self-portrait. This new body of work shows a remarkable confident use of her style.  Paint strokes, lines and round dots transparent and opaque create kinetic surfaces crawling with motion and vivid color. Also noteworthy is her willingness to educate others about her illness Endometriosis via her blog.  Semmel’s role as an artistic ambassador for a little understood and talked about illness that affects so many women is very important.  Her advocacy takes the disease, which is a sensitive topic for many as it has to do with women’s health, thus triggering the aversions society has toward natural functions of the female body and disarms it thus making it a safe topic for discussion.

Seremel may use her celebrity status to do PSAs. However this is not what her work is about.  Here we find nothing or nothing useful to tell us anything new about the work.  It is tempting for many to read into the subjectivity of the artist and their lived impairment experience, and then shoe horn it – prompting sensations of novelty where there is none.  If we are to do that here we would cut short a further ongoing conversation that could take place, such as the role of the artist as community leader.  Also and most sadly for me it would be to ignore the authenticity of Seemel’s works as in what they say and how they make us feel.  I will also say that this willful over looking in favor of a conversation strictly about disability should be avoided when thinking on Seffeck, Kelting and Kidd.  Such conversation should add to not subtract from the work.

As for Seemel there really is not any disability in the arts within the core of her practice, but I would also note here that tangentially in project-based work such as in her other featured work in A Somewhat Secret Place (that I will discuss in chapter 2) there is a disability in the arts discussion that we can have and it will teach us about what a portrait can and cannot do and more about the public face of the artist.

I will say that the writing of Emilia Ramey and her practice in the past have been heavily influenced by her disability.  However in her short stories and more creative writings it is difficult to find a meaningful connection.  Thus, her short story piece presented at the exhibition, and in this book show no detectible disability in the arts or that is it is concealed from us or she is unaware herself how her disability influences the course of her practice.  This is much in the same way as Seemel as Ramey does do quite a bit of advocacy work for PWD.

In closing, my point here is to show that mental and bodily diversity is often accompanied by diversity in practice, but not always to an enlightening extent.  Although, it is all of this, when the presence of disability, (impairment and chronic illness) are or are not present in practice and the questions such a presence may raise, is what for me is truly interesting about “disability in the arts” and the most fruitful use of this term.

I was unable to show all the ways artistic practice is shaped by disabilities. Although I hope that I have introduced you to the beginning of what I have the sense of is a rather large conversation, where disability is not treated as something to hide, rather as a vary human and common phenomenon that creates positive additions for some creators practices. Thus we should not divorce the disability, impairment or chronic illness for creators – even if their work does not have to do with it.  That is because sometimes there may be more to learn about the art they make.  And one might argue that to do so would be create a sort of liberal ableism, which further perpetuates the tendency of our profoundly ablest culture to sweep PWD under the rug.

Section 4: The Art of Evan Seffeck, John Kelting, David Kidd, and Gwenn Seemel

Evan Seffeck, John Day River Fossil Bed,  Watercolor,  12” x 18”,  2009

Evan Seffeck
John Day River Fossil Bed
12” x 18”

Evan Seffeck Biography

Evan Steffeck was born on May 26, 1985, in Bloomington, Indiana. Steffeck graduated from Sherwood High School in 2003. Steffeck attend Portland Community College, taking general classes and many watercolor classes. He likes to use watercolor as a medium because you can paint anywhere and it is relatively easy to learn. Even though he has limited use of only one hand, he can still express the vision in his mind.  Since he struggles expressing himself verbally, it is a great outlet for him to use.

At the age of nine months, Steffeck was on vacation with his family in Florida.  He accidentally ingested some fire ant pesticide.  The pesticide caused him to have seizures resulting in damage to the right side of his brain.  This damage has limited his physical ability similar to how Cerebral Palsy affects people. Since preschool he has gotten around in a motorized wheelchair.

Steffeck tries not to let his situation stand in the way of his ambitions. Friends and family keep him motivated. His goal is to run and operate a surf shop to make boards for the physically challenged and physically able.   Steffeck says he has a long way to go before he accomplishes this.  In the mean time, he loves to express himself through his paintings.

Biography written in collaboration with Evan Steffeck.

John Kelting  Orlando Bloom  Watercolor on paper  8.5”x 11”  2008

John Kelting
Orlando Bloom
Watercolor on paper
8.5”x 11”

John Kelting Biography

John Kelting Portrait

John Kelting Portrait

John Kelting grew up drawing next to his father and sister. Diagnosed with Down syndrome, Kelting was not able to talk clearly so art became his primary form of expression. He has spent years developing a mastery of pencil drawing, watercolor painting, ceramics and sculpture. Inspired by the special effects in films like Death Becomes Her and The Terminator, Kelting began painting portraits of his favorite celebrities. With his distinct vision, Kelting has built a comprehensive portfolio of unique paintings.

Kelting has studied at Portland’s Metropolitan Learning Center and at Graphic School of Illustration and Cartooning. He graduated from Portland State University’s Life Skills Program in 1998. He has worked as an illustrator for The Oregonian and for the Hillside News. He has been displaying his work throughout the Oregon Coast and in North Carolina. His work is in the collections of notable figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has one of Kelting’s portraits hanging in the California Governor’s Office. Kelting currently works and resides in Portland, Oregon.

Biography written in collaboration with Caroline Kobine and john Kelting

David Kidd,  Ess Curve,  Watercolor,  15” x 11”,  2010.

David Kidd
Ess Curve
15” x 11”


David Kidd Biography

David Kidd was born 1945 in the hillside agricultural village of Brontë Country in Northern England.  For Kidd, having a lifelong practice in art and design making art seems to him to be his reason to exist.  At age nine Kidd developed a stutter.  It was an undiagnosed ruptured cerebral aneurysm.  At age 25, another ruptured cerebral aneurysm occurred, limiting his higher math skills and making him chronically depressed. Kidd writes, “I found that no pleasure could lift me up; however making realistic art always brought me back to life. So art became my work-around to being alive.”

Kidd reports that in his twenties he developed a way to “talk around his aneurism” by using his right brain.  He writes, “No doctors believe that can happen. But it did it, and that gave me a belief in inventing seemingly-impossible work-arounds. For example later in life I developed a disabled right arm, which may more easily illustrates my approach.”  Kidd says he uses his right arm to indicate to himself his left brain.

David Kidd Portrait

David Kidd Portrait

Kidd has had a successful career as a graphic designer and digital illustration.  Due to his many years working on computer he developed carpal tunnel syndrome. When his biceps tendon tore in his dominate right arm, the one he preferred to write and draw with, and he writes “it was irreparable so I had to give up any kind of handwork. I thought, Was this the end of art for me? But I remembered my resolve to invite seemingly impossible work-arounds.”

What he did was to learn how to use his left hand to work, for example to use a computer mouse.  In his fine art practice he tried for months to work left-handed with disappointing results, reporting that, “perhaps my left hand could have drawn well after years of training, but I searched for a quicker way so I could to do satisfying art right then. So it was personally vitally imperative to figure-out this work-around.”

Kidd has moved from laborious technical illustration to the opposite. Kidd says “If a critic sneers ‘That’s nothing but a scribble, how long did it take you to do that?’ I’ll reply ‘It took me 60 years!’”  Surely the story of Kidd’s practice is also the story of his ever-changing body, and how he has learned to work with his body.

Currently, Kidd has a day-job doing design work and spends his Friday afternoons in-studio at the Oregon Society of Artists.

Biography written in collaboration with David Kidd.

Gwenn Seemel    First American (Native American)  Acrylic on burlap    35” in diameter    2008

Gwenn Seemel
First American (Native American)
Acrylic on burlap
35” in diameter

This is an allegorical portrait of a Native American and is part of a series about the American identity called Apple Pie, which was documented and published as a book in 2009.

Gwenn Seemel Biography

Gwenn Liberty Seemel is named after the Liberty Bell, a cracked ding-dong with a venerable history. Born in Saudi Arabia in 1981, Seemel has lived most of her life in France and the US. In Brittany, she attended the same grammar school her mother did growing up and she also learned to play a mean game of boule bretonne for an eight year old. Eventually, her family settled in the US, in Oregon, and these past few years she has stayed on, graduating summa cum laude from Willamette University in 2003.

Seemel is a full-time artist who writes and creates videos in English and French for her award-winning blog about her work, portraiture, the business of art, free culture, feminism and her struggle with endometriosis.

She is the recipient of grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, the Oregon Arts Commission, the Celebration Foundation, the Haven Foundation, Change Inc, and Artists’ Fellowship Inc. Her work is in the collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, it has been written about by the prominent portraiture scholar Dr. Richard Brilliant, and it has been featured on BoingBoing, Hyperallergic, Scientific American, and Oregon Art Beat.

Biography written by Gwenn Seemel.

Section 5: Literature of Emilia Ramey

Emilia Ramey Biography

Emilia Ramey was born in 1975, in Panorama City, CA.  She grew up in Montana and then moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2003. Ramey was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2006 while attending Portland State University (PSU). She graduated from PSU in 2007, with a bachelor’s degree in applied linguistics. She reports that she has been fascinated with language and stories since her childhood. Ramey hopes to continue to develop as a writer of fiction and non-fiction throughout her life.

Ramey writes:

To be able to put an experience down in words, and really capture the moment is a wonderful thing. I love creative nonfiction for the amount of flexibility it offers, and the wide range it gives for expression. It is fun to read nonfiction that uses technical elements from fiction and poetry. It is also fun to write.

She is distinguished in the disability communities for her book on dating that she jointly wrote with her husband.

Taco Tales

By Emilia Ramey

Preformed 7/9/2011

“Thank you for choosing Taco Bell, may I help you?”

“I need a minute to decide.”

“Take your time”

“Hello, are you there?”

At this point I roll my eyes and experience that familiar urge to reply, “No, I’ve left for the Bahamas.” But a customer service representative has to maintain her cool, so instead I say, “Go ahead whenever you’re ready.” I stand poised and at ease, like an Olympic athlete putting her training to the test…OK, so I don’t really have that important (or thrilling) of a job. But I do my best.

And it’s ‘All in one breath’ Lady. ‘All in one breath’ Lady can order twenty items in one breath. She has her entire order out before I get the third item typed in.

Five seconds pass.

“Hello? Did you get all that? I don’t want onions or tomatoes on any of it.”

Start over. Five seconds pass.

“I guess I do want tomatoes.”

Start over.

“Hello? Are you there?”

Take a deep breath. Say calmly, “I’ll have your total in just a moment.”

And she’s out there commenting to her passenger, “Boy, these people are slow.”

Who’s next? It’s ‘I want a gordita but I don’t know how to order it’ Man.

“I want a gordita.”

“Beef, chicken, or steak?”

“The 99 cent one.”

“Baja, Santa Fe, or Supreme?”

“The 99 cent one.”

“You get to choose a flavor.”

“Just a plain one.”

“You have to choose a flavor.”

“What’s the difference?”

I close my eyes and think, ‘I’m not here, I’m on my way to the Bahamas.’ Then I explain.

“Is that baddji one really spicy? I don’t like spicy food.”

“You’d probably prefer the supreme.”

Five seconds pass and I feel the urge to call, “Hello? Are you there?”

“I guess I’ll take the other one.”

“The Santa Fe?”

“Yeah, but I don’t want any corn on it.”

I know just what the person behind him is thinking: ‘Boy, these people are slow.’

And I’m thinking: ‘Isn’t it about time for my break?’

And the gordita an is thinking: ‘I’m going to call in and complain if they don’t say thank you’

I confess. I don’t always remember to say thank you. The other day I was working drive-through assist when a guy came through and ordered three tacos with no lettuce and extra cheese. (We have to charge extra for extra cheese) He gets up to the window and wants to know why he is being charged extra when, after all, he doesn’t want any lettuce. I can’t very well explain to a belligerent man the fact that cheese is expensive, now, can I? It would only make him more angry. What I do say is, “We have to charge extra for extra cheese.” And he replies, “How much are they without the extra cheese? I just want to know how badly you’re cheating me.” Not the friendliest guy in the world, but I remain upbeat, and say, “Have a lovely afternoon” as I hand out his order. He called in on me later that day for my disgusting rudeness in utterly failing to say   ‘thank you’. Also, I only gave him one hot sauce. On purpose.

About this time my supervisor asks for a volunteer to wash dishes.

“You can’t all go back there, I only need one.” Then he picks one and everyone else is bummed out. This might sound odd but doing dishes is actually a cool job- the sink is in the back, and you get to work in a peaceful environment for a while. It’s like getting an extra break. No complaints, no rushes, no problems. And the wash water is warm, so you could say that doing dishes is the closest I ever get to the Bahamas.

[Next page]

Section 6: Checklist

o      The work in question is a work of high art.

o      The work doesn’t seek to represent an impairment or disability as described in Chapter 2.

o      The work does not cause disability aesthetic judgments as in Chapter 3.

o      The work does not make a disability pride statement such as addressing the injustices that PWD endure or calling for change as described in Chapter 4.

o      There are no disability artifacts used as elements with in the work.


[i]             Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Action Painters”. Art News. 1952. 1.

[ii]             Peiry, Lucienne. Art brut: the origins of outsider art. Paris: Flammarion. 2006. 11-103.

[iii]             Elkins, James. On the strange place of religion in contemporary art. New York: Routledge.2004. 1.

[iv]             Stecker, Robert. Aesthetics and the philosophy of art an introduction. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2010. 109.

[v]             Ibid.

[vi]             Ibid.

[vii]             Nussbaum, Martha C. Hiding from Humanity: Shame, Disgust, and the Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

[viii]             Ibid. 17.

[ix]             Transcript I quote is the closed captioning (CC) transcript used during the broadcast. Because CC is not accurate, I have inserted some of my own transcription from the full segment, which can be viewed at . Currently, there have been over 55,160 views of this video.  On this website there is not a working CC button, but you can request a full transcript through Viacom Comedy Central office the New York Office.

[x]             Norbert Schwarz, Futurity “Why Falsehoods Are Easy to Believe”,, (accessed June 29, 2013).

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