Freedom Through Flight
Actor and Activist Christopher Reeve (a.k.a., Superman) died on October 10, 2004. Harry Grimm rolled into the studio two days later and said, “Superman died. Superman died.” He was inspired to draw a picture of Superman surrounded by his wife and two children. Harry first positioned Superman in a wheelchair, and proudly showed the scene to other artists and sadly exclaimed time and again, “Superman died.” In Harry’s world, Superman lived in a wheelchair. This is not surprising given that Harry, too, experiences the world from the vantage point of a wheelchair. Wendy, in her usual supportive manner, came over to see how the painting was progressing and suggested colors for the background and helped Harry paint in narrow areas that required more developed motor skills than Harry possessed. The next day, Harry expressed a desire to draw Superman as an actor who donned a cape and magically leapt tall buildings in a single bound. However, Harry could not visualize what a human being would look like flying across the sky.
Instead of letting Harry slip into an artistic void without a vision, Wendy invited David Dewey into dialogue with her and Harry about what a flying person would look like. David sketched an image of a flying Superman, with his cape blowing in the breeze and the infamous “S” inscribed on his chest.
Harry used David’s sketch as inspiration to draw a flying superman and superwoman on the top of the picture. When David Novak, a volunteer, asked Harry what he wanted to do with the picture, he said “Mailman.” David wasn’t quite sure what he meant. He again said,“Mailman.” Wendy explained that Harry wanted to mail the picture to the grieving Reeve family.
David asked Harry why he wanted to mail the picture to the Reeve family. Harry said, “Happy.” “You think it will make the Reeve family happy, Harry?” David asked. “Yeah.”
Passion Works Studio supports collaborations between artists with and without disabilities. As the magical collaborative process unfolded between Harry, David Dewey, and Wendy, Patty Mitchell was engaged in an interview with a magazine reporter and used the picture to exclaim, “These artists want to change the world! Well, at least they want to influence the world.” Harry, Wendy, and David collaborated to create art that went beyond aesthetic expression. The picture emerged as a political and social statement. Using this medium, they sought to artistically capture the complex nature of Reeve’s life as both actor and activist for individuals with disabilities. This collaborative art is meant for aesthetic consumption and appreciation, just as Christopher Reeve’s movies were meant to entertain. Yet, this art strives to “influence the world” just as “Superman” influenced the world from a wheelchair. The picture memorializes Reeve’s freedom through flight -as both actor and activist. The picture represents the triumph of the human spirit against the forces of nature and society. The picture represents the power of courage and determination in the face of human frailty.
Since its inception, the metaphor of “flight” has remained central to how Passion Works performs (dis)ability. A case in point: “A Story of Flying” written by Deni Naffziger and illustrated by David Dewey narrates one of the original inspirations for Passion WorksÃ³the story of Gabriel, a young boy with Downs Syndrome. As the story unfolds, Gabriel asks his sister Sophia how to fly. Sophia encourages Gabriel to “pretend.” Magically, Gabriel and Sophia learn to fly together. Five years later, Passion Works collaborated with students of Hocking College under the direction of instructor Deni Naffzinger to create a CD entitled “Get up and Fly: Passion Works Music Project.” The project emerged as Deni taught a creative writing class at Passion Works studio that brought together college students and artists with disabilities. Conversations among participants became poems, and the poems became songs. Magically, participants collaborated to soar high above their physiological differences to create art. Harry’s picture, too, captures the potential of people in wheelchairs to be “supermen” and fly. After Reeve’s accident, he was never able to live completely free from a respirator. Yet, perhaps it was Superman-the-activist who truly experienced the freedom of “flight” by lobbying lawmakers, supporting medical research, raising money for stem cell research, and testifying in front of congress for insurance reform. Harry “pretended” and creatively envisioned Superman-the-actor in fl ight. Yet, his painting began with a portrayal of Superman-the-activist flying above and beyond a spinal cord injury to change society. This is the essence of Passion Works.
Artists at Passion Works engage in daily heroic struggles against mortal restrictions that emerge from mental retardation and development disabilities (mr/dd). Passion Works cultivates an environment in which artists with MRDD can “fly.” Flight represents breaking the bonds of “perceived” limits of humanity. Certainly Superman the-actor possessed powers that no one else did; yet, he was ridiculed for this difference and in fact tried to hide his super powers. Staff members of Passion Works do not anticipate a person’s potential based on ability, and in doing so provide artists the freedom to fly, break free from societal expectations and stereotypes that often reduce them to their physical ability. For artists like Harry, the experience of disability emerges in part from inhabiting a body that becomes a site of struggle over the meaning of “difference.” Indeed, it is the exterior of the differentiated body that most draws attention in public discourses about disabilities. Physical variance becomes a focal point of attention marking people with disabilities as “different.” What is at stake here? For people with disabilities, they are often “gazed at” and responded to as “body-objects” whose physiques are seen as barriers to expressions of their essence -their minds, spirits, souls, and aesthetic impulses. When measured against the yardstick of able-bodied, people with disabilities often fall short of “normalcy.” Passion Works resists such tendencies. Staff members respect artists as holistic individuals -biological, psychological, and social human beings with memories, hopes, fears, purposes, sacred values, and aesthetic impulses to express these experiences.
Perhaps the undercurrent of “flying” at Passion Works is not surprising given that “fl ight” is something that has always captured the human imagination. As children, we watched birds soar and experienced an intense desire to enjoy such freedom. The history of aviation reminds us that humans, with the help of science and technology, created airplanes to realize such dreams. Airplanes, of course, are acted upon by various forces including gravity and wind resistance. The engine and propeller of planes, in turn, combine to create forces of thrust just as wings provide lift to overcome the forces of nature and enable planes (and humans) to fly. Likewise, Passion Works provides space and resources for artists to fly. Like the engine and propeller, Passion Works counteracts the forces of nature and society in order to allow individuals who are otherwise voiceless and invisible to express themselves. Flight is about exploration. Flight is about transcendence. Flight is about freedom. Freedom, in turn, requires risk and struggle to explore, express, and even transcend one’s self.
Just as Christopher Reeve the actor made his mark on society as Superman and later as an activist for disability-related issues, Harry and the other artists of Passion Works have the potential to “get up and fly” -to leave their mark on the world. We can only imagine that Harry observed Superman as both actor and activist and said to himself, “I can fly.”David R. Novak is a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. His research focuses on communication, “alternative” and feminist organizations, and the processes of community, democracy, and social change. Lynn M .Harter, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. Her research and teaching interests focus on the discourses of health and healing and organizing processes, feminist and narrative theory and practice, and communication and social justice.