On presenting the work of artists with disabilities:
Matthew Higgs: The nature of each individual’s disability is so distinct and idiosyncratic, that you can’t generalize, you can’t generalize about anything. So each time you encounter a new artist in this work, it’s almost like you have to recalibrate, learn a new language, and then deal with that individual.
Each time you present the work of an artist with disabilities, the circumstances are always so different that it just forces you to address the question, how does one go about this? How can you be respectful to the intentions of the artist, if the artist doesn’t have any conventional forms of communication? How do you present the work of an artist when the artist has no larger understanding of the art world?
And for me, the key is to create a long-term, lasting conversation around the relationships between creativity and disability, individuals with disabilities who are artists, the centers that support those artists, and organizations like White Columns. And how can we make that a more productive, interesting conversation for all concerned?
Lisa Sonneborn: These questions are very similar to the ones we asked ourselves when we were working on our photo/audio installation, Here. Stories from Selinsgrove Center and KenCrest Services. We had to ask ourselves repeatedly if our narrators with disabilities understood the context of the work they were participating in. Were our narrators willing to tell their story, or were they working under some sense of obligation? Would sharing their story be personally beneficial? Most importantly, would sharing their story have a negative impact on their lives, or put them in harm’s way?
Personal memory is critical to our understanding of the history of institutionalization. Hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities were institutionalized in this country in the 20th century. Pennsylvania still operates five state centers; they are supported with our tax dollars, but how many of us truly understand the day-to-day experience of living in a segregated environment? I believe we have an obligation to gather accounts of institutional life from those who remember it, or still live it.
We talked with 19 people who lived in a state center or worked in a sheltered workshop. You know, we went in with a plan, and the only thing we really understood right away was that the plan had to be tossed, and new plans had to be formed all the time. But I think what we came away with was the idea that just the act of listening was a radical act in and of itself, because these are folks who aren’t asked to tell personal stories. And they’re monitored; they’re asked if their house is clean and safe, if their transportation is good, but they’re not asked about what’s essential to them. And just listening to that, however those stories were told, was an incredibly radical act.
MH: At Creative Growth, I think what was radical was the advocacy, to break down all of the barriers and prejudices that exist for individuals with disabilities, and to move the creative labels out of the ghetto of outsider art or the arts and disabilities community—which is an extraordinary community—and move it into the larger realm of contemporary art.
So from the beginning, [Creative Growth’s founders, the Katzes] were insistent that the work produced at their centers would be shown outside of them, and that the galleries in the centers they established wouldn’t exclusively be for the artists there, but the work would be presented alongside more conventionally trained artists from outside of the center.