ARTISTS WITH DISABILITIES SPEAK
Our series on art and disability has discussed inclusion in the arts, accessibility in the Cleveland scene, and the historical disability stories hiding in plain view at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This fourth (and final) article features the voices and artwork of local disabled artists we’ve had the honor of speaking with.
Artists with disabilities exist at every level of the Cleveland art scene: curators, gallery staff, emerging and established artists. Cleveland is also home to many talented disabled artists working in relative anonymity.
Many artists hesitated to be publicly identified as disabled. Some worried they weren’t “disabled enough.” Others were concerned with potential repercussions. In the words of one artist of color, “Publishing this [with my name would] only contribute to ostracizing myself even further—it can’t be traced back to me in any way.” Many asked to remain anonymous.
Disability itself can be a barrier to discovering work by disabled artists. Our community often exists under the radar, unbeknownst even to each other, and all working with unique limits on physical and mental energy. In the hopes of creating further community and scholarship, we’ve created a Facebook group (Rustbelt Disability Aesthetics) and invite all to join.
Some of our respondents are significant figures in Northeast Ohio, while others are unknown. What they have in common is that their work has been shaped by the experiences of living with disability in a world dominated by the abled.
How do you navigate being “out” about your disability?
In disability aesthetics, a “big tent” approach is used—artists who have any physical difference, medical condition, or neurodivergence that impacts their work or life are part of the disabled arts community.
Most respondents said they don’t actively hide their disability. Yet the majority also spoke of expending energy to appear abled (i.e., leaving mobility devices at home) or of masking their neurodivergence in public. “I never thought about disability as a thing to ‘come out’ about but you’re right. It’s like when I ‘came out’ as gay twenty years ago. I lost jobs but I felt better about me. I have no idea who knows.” Anonymous
“I don’t mention it and hope it doesn’t come up.” Anonymous
“Since I have a mobility aid, there is no way to hide it. I really dislike when people look through me to see where the artist might be—I’ve gotten to where I push enough that I look and act ‘normal’ (whatever that is).” Becky Grasser
“In addition to invisible health conditions, I’m part of a [Dissociative Identity Disorder] ‘system.’ The stigma is immense. Long, painful experience has taught me not to even tell otherwise trusted friends. This is the first time I’ve been allowed to speak as myself in regards to my work.” Hans
“I am very open [but] I have invisible disabilities; I hide them well. People who don’t know my diagnosis are often shocked. I usually do not experience the same variety of discrimination as visible disabilities. Rather, people downplay my struggle with my health because I’m pretty and brush it off as an excuse.” Chrystal Shofroth
AESTHETICS AND DISABILITY
How does disability inform your work?
Many artists had difficulty formulating a response to this question (as an abled artist would struggle to explain how lacking disability informs their work). As one musician responded: “I’m disabled. I make art. How can that not be enough informed-ness?”
A majority began by saying their work was not thus informed—and yet, as they elaborated, they described many ways their work was deeply shaped by disability. After all, what artist’s practice isn’t intrinsically informed by their experiences?
Respondents spoke of how physical limitations curtailed their working hours and/or required them to create new working methods or styles. (Adaptation of method is found in many historical accounts of creators whose disability drove innovation in their field.) They also spoke of disability as a guiding force directing them towards their creative vocation, either due to limiting other pursuits or because of its therapeutic qualities. Some discussed how their content directly addresses disability.
“Often I have to evolve my creative processes to accommodate the particular flaring disability.” Chrystal Shofroth
“I have to work really hard to not let [disability] interfere. There is loads of planning ahead. I had to make sure my process was not time-sensitive so that, if there was a medical issue, I could still get back to what I was doing without any loss.” Becky Grasser
“My symptoms are difficulty with math, spelling, and logic questions. I never enjoyed these things anyway. What I really enjoyed was making things. I was lucky to be able to trade these things I felt were less-desirable traits for the excitement of making things. My disabilities steered me away from my weaknesses and allowed me to focus on my strengths.” Christopher Pekoc
“Anxiety and depression, believe it or not, fuel my creation.” Sean Dodrill
“I visually and mentally see things differently than other people do. That shows up in my artwork; most probably think it’s just creative license. I wonder if they sometimes know that I’m showing them my own type of realism. Would they still like it?” Anonymous
“Creative art offers freedom to ‘try on’ different roles; the freedom to speak in another’s voice has a profound power for those who must live in hiding. As long as art may engage in fiction, it provides a chance for true honesty—a diary of the unspeakable self. [Art] is the only thing entirely honest in my relationship with the external world—a manifesto of my own existence: creo ergo verus sum: I create, therefore I am real.” Hans
“When I get overwhelmed [as an autistic person], I try to express myself by creating art. I let my feelings flow through art.” Katie Harroff
“INSPIRATION” AND CALLS TO ACTION
What is Northeast Ohio doing right, and what do we need to work on?
Several artists gave shout-outs to the Ohio Arts Council and VSA Ohio (the state organization on arts and disability), which provide grants for disabled artists and disability-related programs. Some noted an increased art-accessibility effort. In the words of Becky Grasser, “There does seem to be some increasing awareness that we are here. There are still places that are pretty bad, but progress is occurring.”
Lack of accessible venues and studio space was a leading frustration for people with limited mobility. For others, there were two primary, related concerns: First, that networking is central to art-world success, something impacted by physical inability to attend events, communication difficulties, or neurodiversity-related social challenges. Some reported prejudice (“designed to frustrate you to the point you quit”), particularly among multiply-marginalized artists such as those who were people of color, older, self-described as “unattractive,” or queer/gender-nonconforming.
“I’ve always had trouble meshing with people and making contacts. So that’s really it. I don’t fit into any groups so it’s hard to find people to back me.” Sean Dodrill
“It’s hard to keep working when people react negatively to who you are as an artist, not the quality of the work. I’ve shared self-portraits and had people say they were ‘too dark’ or ask for a ‘trigger warning’ because there were medical devices. People want the choice to never even see a disabled person.” Anonymous
The second primary concern was financial. The average SSI disability income is under $700/month, so paying application fees can be impossible. With limited networking opportunities, invitational shows are often equally inaccessible.
Several artists made concrete suggestions to improve disability access to networking and shows.
“Put disabled folk on your boards, and then listen/react when they say something isn’t working. People have art that has deep roots in their own disabilities. Please don’t put that off as [just] a ‘special show’—let us participate in all the conversations.” Becky Grasser
“I would encourage galleries to waive fees for artists with disabilities.” Chrystal Shofroth
“If you’re going to have a separate prize for disabled people, treat it in the same way you would a prize for the ‘best work by a woman artist’—as a serious award. Don’t disqualify people who are ‘too good.’ If every other category has prize money, this one should also—not something insulting like a smiley face sticker. Consider having the judge actually be disabled. When you make notes to invite winners to your next show, also invite that disabled artist.” Anonymous
“My pet peeve is when these shows prioritize the perspectives of doctors, family members, and healthy on-lookers, at the expense of the narratives of the people actually experiencing these things. Nationally, I’ve seen shows that had themes of recovery, trauma, addiction, or disability, in which, despite the presence of many stunning works by disabled people, all awards and press representation went to non-disabled artists who were talking about the issues secondhand. What to do instead? Celebrate self-representation, agency, and the uniqueness of disabled voices.” Hans
“We need venues that are unbiased. We need to be judged by a panel of people who are representative of all races living in our communities. We need art venues that respect our physical handicaps and that welcome us. We need more minority-owned and -managed art venues. Or even better, we need a diverse group of people to create a true collective of all artists from all races and all circumstances that is unbiased and nurturing.” Anonymous
Among the artists we spoke to whose disabilities prevented fulltime or non-studio work, the majority had been forced to “drop out” of the fine arts scene as a matter of survival—even if they had been on an upward trajectory. However, many artists, even those who expressed profound frustration with the system, retained their faith in the work itself.
What advice do you have for other disabled artists and audiences who share your condition?
“Don’t give up no matter what.” Sean Dodrill
“Half of my job used to be paperwork and filling orders. [Find an abled person] to do your busywork—then use the time to double your output. Or use Instacart and never leave the house. In the time you would’ve spent shopping, do your paperwork.” Nathanyel Summers
“Don’t worry about what others say; the work has to say your message, not theirs. Talk to the community. Explore finding aids/workarounds that help you and be creative. If your process is ‘messy,’ embrace it, have fun, and find your peer group that will help balance things without judgment.” Becky Grasser
“Don’t be an artist if you want to be rich; be an artist because it’s who you are. Don’t give up if something you’re trying doesn’t work for you because of your physical limitations; evolve your goal.” Chrystal Shofroth
“Making art is exhausting and will take up so much of your energy and time. People will tell you that with your fatigue or illness or poverty, you shouldn’t waste it. But here’s what’s important: it’s your time. You get to use it however you want. You have no obligation to make art. But if you want to make art and wear yourself down ’til you’re crying in pain, do that. It’s your time. Only you get to decide what to do with it.” Anonymous
“[We] should band together. Some artists may feel that their disabilities make them inferior to others. They are not alone and they are not inferior. [Calling] attention to artists with disabilities over the centuries, some of whom are highly celebrated, is helping contemporary artists with disabilities realize they are part of a much larger and celebrated community. Being part of that larger community brings with it hope and the feeling that you can succeed. Hope that things will change. Hope that things can get better. Hope that your work may also be celebrated.” Christopher Pekoc
The authors can be contacted by email at CripplepunkArt@gmail.com and welcome you to join the new Facebook group: Rustbelt Disability Aesthetics.