Dispelling Myths About Artists Living With Disabilities

Chappelle Letman Jr. (Detail), Original photo by Don Snyder

By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

“Able-bodied folks feel that, if you’re in a chair, you’re disabled, and if you’re not in a wheelchair, then ‘suck it up, buttercup, figure it out.’

Kristi Copez, The Fire Next Time, 2018, Relief print, 24 x 18″

 “Wheelchair, disabled. No wheelchair, not disabled.”

It’s just one of the many myths imposed on people living with disabilities, explains Megan Alves, Marketing and Program Manager for the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve as well as curator of the AAWR’s W/O Limits: Art, Chronic Illness, & Disability Exhibition, featuring all works by artists currently living with long-term disease or disabilities.

She explains the idea for this exhibition came from her own experiences with a chronic illness: “Going through that and you know, all of the medical circus that surrounds all of that. So, sitting with this, I [thought], ‘how can I turn this experience into something that I can both share with people in an empathetic fashion to encourage change in advocacy through not just empathy but disability, and how can I support these artists and provide a platform that is not asking them to ignore their physicality in order to be professional artists but embracing and inclusive of all the different experiences.’ This is a great opportunity for platforming these artists, and from a personal perspective, it’s really helped me come to grips with what is sort of the ‘Sword of Damocles’ of a prognosis that they can’t do much with.”

The exhibition features artists in many different mediums—sculpture, performance art, photography, and paintings, to name a few. Local award-winning artists like Kristi Copez and Kate Snow will have their works featured, as well as nationally-exhibited artists like Arabella Proffer and the late Chappelle Letman. Most were artists prior to becoming disabled or chronically ill.

Proffer’s work actually began to change just prior to knowing her cancer diagnosis, as if she had “seen” what was happening inside her body. “Prior to knowing her diagnosis,” explains Alves, “she started switching her work from figurative portraits, that were stunning, to these isomorphic structures with all these tendrils. Interestingly enough, when they did the [medical] imagery, [her art had] mirrored the tumors that were all throughout her body.”

Arabella Proffer, Tantalize, 2018, Oil on canvas, 16 x 20″

An important aspect of the exhibition is to showcase the professionals over their disabilities and to change the way others think having a disability is like. Many artists develop chronic illnesses or disabilities that have no physical effect on their ability to create—it’s just something that has to be lived through alongside their work. Some use their art as a tool for expressing their feelings about having become disabled or ill.

“[Other people may] see the disability first [if] you frame it that way,” says Alves. “Instead of seeing these amazingly talented people who have been to art school… and done the work, [and] their practices are ferocious and beautiful and… powerful, versus, ‘My, how nice of those disabled people to draw us pictures.’”

Workshops at the exhibition range from programs on communicating with autism to puppet-making workshops that allow participants to create images of themselves. Alves explains, “The idea is to create an identity puppet, something that represents yourself or something you want to be or something you hope you are. You can make something that’s basic, [and then choose props to add to your puppet.] [They] take these cool little identity markers, and put them on in a way that feels significant and resonates with them internally. I’m psyched about it!”

The W/O Limits: Art, Chronic Illness & Disability exhibition at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve runs now through November 12. For more information, see the AAWR’s website.