Gustav Klimt said “art is a line around your thoughts.” Art is always about expression, about putting a line around your thoughts, but even more so when the artists are disabled. Whether it’s painting or performance or writing, it’s all about projecting your personality and ideals into the world, which is often hard to do for the physically disabled. Especially now in the time of Covid, with the attendant isolation, artistic expression is especially important.
I spoke to a number of different artists who are living with varying disabilities and who use a number of different methods and mediums to express themselves. They’re proof that physical disability isn’t a barrier to producing paintings, illustrations, photography, or the written word.
Athena Cooper: Disabled Experience Through Her Art
Athena Cooper, a painter and illustrator from Calgary, Canada, has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, and developed a love for art after her parents encouraged her to take it up as an activity to protect her “brittle bones.” It has since developed into something much more. “I believe that creative practice is a practice. It’s enjoyable and engaging, but it’s also work… I’ll get excited by how the colors are mixing or the way I’ve been able to capture a light effect.”
She takes inspiration from every day things and gives them the feel of her beloved Tiffany glass. “Growing up with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, I was often told how fragile I was and I think that may have planted the seed that would eventually become my fascination with stained glass. What I find so interesting about Tiffany stained glass is that its look is defined by all its imperfections. In a piece of glass that’s intensely blue, there will be this brown splotch in the
corner or a random fleck of moss green. If I were to paint my pseudo pieces of glass without these duller elements or imperfections, the blue wouldn’t appear to be nearly as vibrant. My disability makes my body fragile and imperfect as well. My paintings are my view of the world passed through my own fragile form complete with all its imperfections.”
Not content with just a strong online presence, she staged her first solo exhibition, https://findyourhearth.myportfolio.com/exhibit, as a way to get her art into the real world and to celebrate the love she shares with her husband. This exhibit, along with her online presence, comics, and hopes for a future exhibit shines a light on being proudly disabled, yet ordinary at the same time. “I also want to continue to highlight the beautiful ordinariness of the disabled experience through my art.”
Katherine Klimitas: Watercolor Artist
A watercolor and graphic artist, who also has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, is Katherine Klimitas. She mostly deals with pet portraiture and graphic design, lovingly putting images of pets on canvas. Like Athena, she chose her at an early age because her parents guide her towards “safe” activities.
“I started off working with a cheap watercolor set at five years old, and then I started branching out as I got more and more lessons and took more and more classes. I really loved it, and it was something I could do laying down AND with multiple broken bones.”
Katherine’s website https://kakartnola.com/ showcases the pet portraits and her latest book, Breed All About Us. The book is a collaboration with writer, Yvonne Krumins. It would make any dog lover proud to have on their coffee table.
Picture Perfect with artist Denise Vasquez
Similarly, Denise Vasquez, the photographer based in San Diego, California, who suffered a workplace injury and now uses canes to get around, has merged her disability with what she loves to find her art.
“I view life as being my canvas, and photography, writing, singing, playing an instrument, painting, dance…are all tools on my palette that enable me to express and share my journey on what it’s like being a Puerto Rican woman who is disabled in today’s society.”
Because of this need to express herself she had to find ways to adapt to her new disability. “My disability has definitely impacted my art. I’m not able to do things like I used to (stand, walk, carry equipment, hike, climb…), but I’ve learned how to approach things with a new perspective.”
She finds joy and inspiration out in nature, her photographs reflecting some of the best landscapes in Southwest has to offer. “Some may view these obstacles as limitations, but I really dug deep and questioned if I really wanted to work in those environments anyway. My answer to myself was no, and at the same time, I began seeing where I am in life as my opportunity to pursue my lifelong dream of being a traveling photography, on my terms, at my own pace, and focused on making it a reality.”
Renee Aguirre: Hope of Turning Art Into A Business
Renee Aguirre, a digital artist with cerebral palsy, has loved art her entire life, but her disability often causes her to have to take a step back. “Whenever I have a particularly bad spasmatic fit. It pretty much ruins the whole night. I usually have to wait until the next day to get anything done.”
But it’s this waiting, adapting, that allows her to push forward. “My hopes are that maybe I can start a small business with my art. That I continue to improve. That I continue to have fun with my various projects. Both in spite of my disability and because of it.”
While the end result may differ from the visual arts, writers draw from the same well. Emily Fitzgerald, an author and playwright from San Antonio, Texas, who has myotonic dystrophy, has had to learn to adapt how she works as her disease progresses, in much the same way that Denise Vasquez had to learn how to work after her accident. Luckily she had “discovered that everything that fascinated me (religion, art, art history, philosophy, psychology, history,
sociology) was explored in theatre.”
It is this one of ideas as well as adaptability to her physical needs and allowed her creativity to flourish. She said, “It’s an odd thing, I think, to approach a play the way that I do. There is no plan, just a germ of an idea.” Disability does not inform her art, but it does influence the making of her art. Writing is done at the wheelchair accessible table in her dining room. Directing is done from her chair as well, her ability to command authority not diminished by disability. “My disability does not so much influence my writing, as my writing influences my experience of being a disabled person.”
She’s an artist who uses words the way a painter uses a brush.
Kristina Diaz: Certified Art Therapist
Kristina Diaz is a certified art therapist from Long Island, New York. She became deaf at 18 and also lives with a congenital chronic illness called NF2.
She believes that, “Having visual components in therapy is powerful for these communities that are part of their learning style. There is no right or wrong way to create. During the process, art becomes the medium to focus on your emotions, feelings, and thoughts.” She uses this philosophy to help the deaf and disabled community around her.
One thing I noticed that they all have in common is there a sense of perseverance. Not in the feel good, inspiration porn kind of way, but because there is no other option. Art needs somewhere to go, artists have to get it out.
Disabled artists are no different. Despite the physical challenges that may be presented as obstacles to producing art, these artists persevere and were all the better for it. They create things of beauty for everyone and inspiration for their disabled compatriots, drawing a line around their thoughts while shining a light on them for the world to
Heather MacMurray is a historian by training and writer by nature. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis almost twenty years ago but has likely had it most of her life. Once a professional student and prolific traveler, she now lives a happy life in the suburbs with her husband, two sons, and a cat.
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Katherine Klimitas wrote an article about how she chose art. Click here.
Athena Cooper is also an amazing writer. She wrote this for us. Click here.