Performing (Dis)ability and Art Differently
No doubt influenced by public conversations about the death of former President Reagan, Harry Grimm was inspired to draw a picture of Ronald and Nancy, holding hands and holding a jump rope that also connected them. In the corner of the drawing was the presidential desk. The top left corner of the drawing remained sparse. Wendy, a staff artist asked Harry if he wanted to draw a sky and clouds in the corner. He said no. He told Wendy and Deb what he wanted to draw – they didn’t understand him at first. After Wendy asked him several questions, she figured out that he wanted to draw the White House. He asked Wendy to draw the White House on the picture, because she could do it better. She said “No, Harry. You are the man with the plan. You can do this yourself.
He asked her a couple more times to draw the house, and each time she affirmed his ability to do this. He asked for her help. Another staff artist, Deb, searched through overstuffed bookshelves and found a calendar of the Washington D.C. area that had been donated. Often times, artists use such donations as inspirations for their drawings. Deb and Wendy talked with Harry about the various dimensions of the White House that he could draw. Ultimately he decided that his vision was grand – it needed to be a picture onto itself. As he started to draw the new picture, he kept asking where the ramp was. “Where is the Ramp?” “What do you mean Harry,” asked both Deb and Wendy. “The ramp. The ramp.” He was talking about a wheelchair ramp. There were no wheelchair ramps visible in any of the pictures on the calendar. As someone who experiences the world from the vantage point of a wheelchair, this issue was important to Harry. Wendy told him that he could still draw a ramp. He was reluctant at first, and didn’t seem to want to imagine something that wasn’t there. “You are an artist Harry,” Wendy said, “You can envision whatever you want.” Harry drew a ramp that was wide and deep.
Passion Works creates collaboration between artists with and without disabilities. Harry, Wendy, and Deb collaborated to create art that went beyond aesthetic expression. The White House painting emerged as a political, social, and economic statement. Harry, Deb, and Wendy artistically advocated for the rights of people in wheelchairs to access the cherished buildings of our government (and by extension other institutions). As I experienced the White House story as it unfolded, I witnessed collaboration in action. Passion Works defines and performs “disability” and “art” differently than dominant societal practices, and in doing so enriches the Athens Community and the broader societal movement that seeks to raise awareness about disability-related issues.
At Passion Works “disability” is a contested term. Through their daily organizing patterns and practices, members of Passion Works debate, resist, and change the dominant ways we talk about and perform disability in our culture. Depicting individuals with disabilities primarily by their disability is all too common in personal interactions, institutional discourses, and public dialogues. Able-bodied individuals are marginalized in this sort of thinking as well as they also are reduced to certain abilities. Passion Works resists these tendencies. “Disability” is not treated as a weakness to overcome or medical condition to solve. Individuals with disabilities have different life experiences than some ablebodied individuals and those differences are recognized and celebrated at Passion Works. Passion Works assumes that artists, irrespective of (dis)ability, are human beings with memories, hopes, fears, purposes, sacred values, and aesthetic impulses to express these experiences. Passion Works provides opportunities for artists to experience and explore, enjoy and explain, decipher and evaluate.
Just as Passion Works tells an alternative story of disability compared to dominant societal messages, its members also provide us with a different story of art. Like other professions in Western cultures, art typically exhibits a distinctively individualistic persona. At Passion Works, art ultimately emerges as a way of living in communion with others, a means for celebrating, encouraging, recording, recognizing, and developing community. As a volunteer at Passion Works, I have witnessed collaboration in various forms even as it remains a provisional work in progress realized in and through unfolding interactions. Of course, the various artists affiliated with Passion Works do art and create relations with others differently as a result of lifetimes of social, political, and economic moments. I usually always leave Passion Works with a vision of how to live amidst competing, clashing, and colliding stories. Moreover, art is not positioned on a remote pedestal, nor is it relegated to galleries and museums. Passion Works’ art possesses vitality for our community because it derives from the things of ordinary experience – the essential conditions of everyday life. They provide a model of “good practices” of conjoint activity among artists grounded in the lived experiences of those who produce and consume art. Passion Works reclaims art as an aspect of everyday life and as a way to connect with others.
If art can express collective values, and indeed it can, then Passion Works reminds us that art is experience, a way of seeing, feeling, and being. Harry painted the White House red. When I asked him why he made this choice, he said, “I’m an artist, I can.” It is difficult to be in the presence of Passion Works staff and artists and remain a distant spectator. I leave my encounters at Passion Works with a restless desire for more, and a deepened respect for both the clarity and mystery of the universe as negotiated in art. Because of Passion Works, I have an enlarged vision of how to dignify rather than diminish the human spirit and a heightened vitality that comes from being fully present in the moment. Mostly, I am reminded that art is living and concrete proof that humans are capable of using the materials and energies of nature to enrich and unite self and other. The works of art produced at Passion Works operate as springboards in my life, stimuli that lead me to personal realizations about deeply felt subject matters. I hope your engagement with the artful rhythms of Passion Works leave you with reverence for human potential and an enhanced sense of the aesthetic in the ordinary. Passion Works.Lynn M. Harter (Ph.D., University of Nebraska) 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. She has published numerous articles in outlets including Management Communication Quarterly, The Journal of Applied Communication Research, Health Communication, and Qualitative Health Research, and serves on multiple inter-disciplinary and disciplinary editorial boards. She lives in Athens, Ohio, with husband Scott and daughter Emma Grace.