The Power of the Gaze

I recently took myself out on an artist’s date — something Julia Cameron recommends in her book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. My city is having a festival of art by people who have disabilities, so for my artist’s date, I went to the galleries to see the static visual art, and found myself compelled by the choices the artists made regarding where their subject (when their art included a subject) was looking.

  • Is the subject looking away from the viewer If so, how? Demurely? Fearfully? Disdainfully? Heroically?
  • If the subject has closed eyes, is the subject hiding? Or is it a symbol of willing vulnerability?
  • Is the subject looking straight at the viewer? If so, how? Is it a challenge? An invitation? A plea? A statement of fact with little emotion?

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At the Grand Rapids Art Museum, there were two paired portraits by David Lock. The watercolors (or, watercolours, since Lock is from the UK) are portraits of the head of a cobbled together person. The eyes are different from each other, there are different jawlines, different ears, different skin colors and textures, all in the same face. It’s like a cubist-style painting run amok. In each of the pairs (as they were hung here, at least), one subject looks away from the viewer, and the other looks right at the viewer — each in a different way.

Misfit (Smoke), 2012, had an averted gaze that felt like the gaze had slid away, as if the subject didn’t want to be looking at you looking at him. Misfit (Unwanted), 2012, looked right at you, and it felt like a challenge, probably because of the lifted angle of half of the chin and jawline. The other pair was quite different. In Misfit (Shadow), 2013, the subject looked slightly up into the middle distance, a classic hero pose. While its partner, Misfit (Slice), 2012, looked right at the viewer, but without much emotional content; the gaze didn’t feel like a plea or a challenge, it just was.

It made me think about all the varying expectations people who do not have physical disabilities (or at least, people whose bodies do not broadcast their disability) have when looking at someone with a disability. Do we think of them as embarrassed? As noble? As intrusive? As a blank?

And from the point of view of the person with a disability. Are they tired of everyone always looking at them? Do they feel pressure to be The Heroic Representative? Do they reject that pressure with an “F.U.” to those applying it? Do they just want to be, without worrying about how you see them?

You can see images of all four of these watercolours at Lock’s website.

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My favorite venue was the 250 Monroe Street Gallery, which had pieces by West Michigan artists. Deb Dieppa showed Outsider Art-style pieces, bright and energetic works that incorporated lots of words. Marylu Dykstra had a number of paintings, including a series of waterfalls (water as both an image of crushing and of solace), and a painting called, Hope Emerges (2012), that had a tiny face of a woman surrounded by a highly textured, dark surface that reminded me of Great Canadian Shield rock.

But the other two artists there gave me more to think about in terms of this “gaze” question: Reyna Garcia and Robert Andy Coombs. Garcia had a number of works in the show, including a large installation of painting and photography, Ayotzinapa We All, her “reflections on her work as a community organizer to support the case of the disappearance of the 43 Normalista students last September 29, 2014 in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico” (from her artist statement). But for these purposes, I want to talk about her series of three large paintings, “Voces de Esperanza (Voices of Hope), 2011-2013,” that focus on the immigrant experience. These looked very different from her protest paintings, which were full of heavy, saturated colors, and textured paints. The immigrant works had rich colors that I think of as clear — not in terms of being see-through, but not muddied. The paint is applied in a flatter style, using more sweeping strokes. (As a Canadian, they reminded me of Group of Seven, Lawren Harris’s work.)

And there are almost no distinguishable faces. Faces are plain ovals.

She doesn’t mention why in her artist statement. Was it to make the figures more universal? To make the story she tells less personal and more socio-cultural? I don’t know, but they were beautiful and striking, especially the blue female figure of hope rising out of the water, with the wind blowing her hair around coalescing into wings.

You can find images of the Voices of Hope series here; they were 2011 Art Prize entries.

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But it was Robert Andy Coombs’s series of nude portraits that drew my attention the longest. First of all, they are beautiful bodies, beautifully lit, intriguingly lit even, with lots of interesting plays of light and shadow.

There were three shots of each subject: one close-up of the head and shoulders with the subject looking away, a full-body shot, and another close-up with the subject looking right at the viewer. Before I talk about the experience of looking at these photos, let me include Coombs’s words about the Disability and Sexuality Series, 2011-2012:

Having a disability myself, I am interested in photographing various types of physical disabilities, showing each individual as a sexual person. Despite having disabilities, the subjects are still human, therefore having sexual needs and desires. Photographing each subject nude allows the viewer to look at what goes on beneath clothing, showing scars, tattoos, and adaptations in order to lead functional lives. The subject’s gaze is an invitation to look, confronting the viewer, making each subject come to life.

An invitation and a confrontation, indeed! The first two subjects, especially so, because in order to even see that they were fully nude, you had to look right at their adaptations. You had to look right at the places their disabilities manifested themselves, which most people really don’t do. Or at least try not to do overtly. I admit, the first time, my gaze slid over the first one without looking closely enough to realize the man was fully nude. I had to go back to it when I saw the second subject’s full body shot. Just for that alone, this was a striking experience.

There were other things to think about in these photos. The first subject had a tattoo of folded hands on his chest, above them the words, “Pray for me.” Was that a sincere request? A bit of an “F.U.”? Both? Something else? Coombs has a tattoo on his collarbone, “Giving up is the ultimate tragedy,” that you’d be able to see if he wore a T-shirt, but he was dressed to the nines every time I saw him, so I never did.

Coombs was entirely successful in his desire to portray people with disabilities as sexual, but it wasn’t primarily because they were naked. It was in their eyes (whether closed or open), in the challenging lift of the chin (in Coombs’s full-body shot, in particular), in the softer mouth (an almost-smile?) of the third man that gave his final shot a come-hither invitation.

These were my favorites of the festival, for both the challenge and the invitation, as well as the sheer beauty of the images.

You can find images of the Disability and Sexuality series on Coombs’s website.

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So lots to think about. Lots of questions to ask. Lots of beautiful and challenging images. In other words, an entirely successful artist’s date. If you are in the West Michigan area, the DisArt Festival continues through April 25, 2015, although some galleries will keep their works up longer. If not, I encourage you to take yourself on an artist’s date — fill that creative well for once, instead of just drawing from it.

If you’re interested in the other art forms on display at the festival, here are my reports on the Fashion Show and Poetry and Comedy Night.

“It’s true. It’s still funny.”

DisArt Comedy and Poetry Night

That’s a quote by Liz Carr, the British comedian and actress who was the final performer in DisArt’s Poetry and Comedy night, and who was so funny about true things that pushed the boundaries of what isn’t funny, that I was exhausted by the end of her performance. It was a cathartic exhaustion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The evening started with West Michigan poet, and founder and leader of the organization, Compassionate Connection, Randy Smit. I’ve taken creativity classes with Randy and he’s a great facilitator and encourager and taker of the discussion to a deeper level, except when he occasionally takes it to a sillier level — all of which are wonderful. He’s also a poet who juxtaposes the mundane and the sublime and throws in some killer analogies which manage to make me laugh, make me think, and break my heart, often at the same time.

The poem titled “February 29” was a perfect example of that dynamic. It started out so ordinary, with, “Where would I be without toast?” But then, while eating a square of buttery toast, he thinks about a friend who’d driven his wheelchair off a pier, and how and why “they” said it happened (an accident), and wound up at his own conclusion, “he must just have gotten tired.” Devastating.

He started off with a rant poem inspired by a man who had driven illegally on a bike path, when Randy was wheeling down the path one sunny afternoon, to ask him whether he needed any help. Here are some of my favorite responses (direct quotes as I heard them, but probably not as set on the page):

Do I need help? Yeah.
I’ve been trying like crazy to pay down my credit card.
I’ve been dying to learn some Hebrew.
I could use some insight into my 401K.
I’ve got a new pair of jeans; I can’t get them soft.

He, of course, doesn’t need help to continue riding down the path. From a poem called “Inspiration,” I loved this line:

The deep abyss you call the present.

In a poem about his brother Chris’s dog, he made me laugh with, “The white fur between your toes smells like Fritos,” and then got me teary with the adjective, “omni-benevolent.” I did find a link for one of my favorites of the night, “Toilet Talk,” so I’m able to include this great analogy in its fullness:

I think I’m all set is what I’ll
say to the student nurse in just a few minutes, I

hope. But first − Even my sense
of God being in control seems to
be changing, I say, it’s much more like
a director of a musical, I mean certainly in charge
of what might… but then, I guess
more as a maestro, a muse, thrilled with
harmony, the soaring of hearts out
in the seats, the flautist, third chair
bassoonist, stagehands and soloists each rapt in
their singular, lustrous offerings, the conductor
at the center of the grand production − yeah, maybe
that’s who, that’s how.

I’m just crazy about the maestro leading the musicians who are “rapt in their singular, lustrous offerings.” Lustrous. Great word. His final poem started out talking to and about his younger brother and it was so big brotherly in funny and dear ways. Then he expanded it to his family, “I’d like to thank my family for being who they are and never quite telling me to my face.” And then he expanded it again to his “brothers panhandling in Cairo,” and wound up wondering what he could’ve done if he’d lived from end to beginning.

* * * * *

The next performer of the evening was poet Jim Ferris, Chair of the Disabilities Studies Program at University of Toledo (in OH). We got a hint of how he’d be right away from his shirt, which had stick-figure illustrations of people, one of whom used a wheelchair, engaged in a variety of sexual positions. I sure hope there was nobody in the audience who was uncomfortable with people with disabilities talking about sex; if so, they were in for a rough night. Ferris also talks faster than Randy, so I was able to jot down fewer of his exact words.

His first poem was the very funny, “High Concept,” about calling the Screen Actor’s Guild on a lark to see whether there’s already a Jim Ferris registered, and being put through to Jim Ferris’s agent and getting acting work although he tried to argue with them:

No movie star wears a brace or walks like I do unless they’re trying to win an Oscar.

The poem, “Fear at Thirteen,” was about being prepped for surgery. The images were sharp and often disturbing: one leg shaved to the hip, doctors and nurses hovering over him “showing only bandit eyes,”

and what you fear most is that you’ll pop a boner and die embarrassed….

He wrote a poem to a critic who kept being asked to evaluate Ferris’s work despite the fact that he always trashed it:

The crackle of pity tenses the electric air. He wants to see me limp …. He’s publicly disappointed when I don’t dance his way.

Besides other poems about being and knowing and sex, he read two poems that could also be characterized as rants. One for all the people who want to tell him what to wear and how to be so he’ll appear “normal,” that powerfully included the repeated line, “I won’t cover my stumps.” And another, “Tell Aristotle,” inspired by philosophers and thinkers over the centuries who think disabled children are not fully human: “tell them I lived…

Tell them all, we thrive.

* * * * *

And then Liz Carr came to the stage. She’s a British actress and comedian (she plays a forensics expert on a TV show there) who was able to make us howl with laughter at her stories of indignities she’s endured as other people try to deal with her disability, as well as what she gets away with because people don’t know how to deal with her disability (including her freedom to reach the Mile High Club because the flight attendants don’t dare question how long she’s been in the bathroom with her partner).

She started out with describing her experience at a comedy competition. The building was accessible, but the stage wasn’t, so the organizers came up with the solution of lifting her up to the stage at the beginning of the competition. That worked, but it meant she had to sit there while all the other comedians performed, but

it’s okay. They put a drop sheet over me. It reminded me of Christmas at home.

Somehow, she got us to laugh at the medical interview she was given before they’d let her on the plane to come here: “Do you think you’ll die during the flight?” She lamented how rich people got Disney to take away “the gold card of crippledom”: “We can’t go to first in the queue.” Said rich people were hiring people in wheelchairs to wait in line on their behalf so they could skip ahead of everyone else.

There’s another story that I can’t even begin to describe, just to say that it started with Amsterdam, went to the Anne Frank house, and then wound up with the audience screaming at the punchline, “Schindler’s lift.”

So many of her stories were like this. Her observations about her life and the lives of other folks who are disabled pushed the boundaries of what should be funny, but she made us laugh at them, laugh at our own earnest ridiculousness, laugh at the humanness of her condition and of ours. So she, indeed, had to say, “It’s true. It’s true. It’s still funny.”

It sure was on Friday night. I’m so glad I went.

The Mother of Invention

My husband and I went to our first fashion show this weekend. We dressed in black; I wore my steampunk-inspired earrings; we practiced our high fashion attitudes.

silly fashion shot

Happily, this attitude was more appropriate to the event, the first ever DisArt Festival Fashion Show.

mohawk dude

From their website:

DisArt is a multi-venue Disability Arts Festival scheduled for April 10-25, 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Through several world-renowned exhibits of Disability Arts from all over the world, DisArt Festival 2015 will challenge its audiences to reconsider the importance of community, identity, and difference.

Which sounds all fine and good, but let me tell you what it meant for the Fashion Show: every model was a person with a disability. Each was given the full hair and makeup treatment. Each got to strut their stuff on a professionally lit runway, accompanied by the musical stylings of a professional DJ and the raucous cheers of the audience — except when the sleeping baby came out and we all tried to clap quietly. Many of the designers were people with disabilities.

It was one of the most joyful events I’ve ever been to.

Unlike most fashion shows that make the press, this was a family event, full of children and grandparents. Maybe a quarter of the crowd dressed for a fashion show, but the rest could have been going to any event their offspring were involved in. There were lots of kid volunteers, with whole families in blue DisArt T-shirts. The organizers kept having to bring in more chairs, and still, people wound up standing. Room 217 in the Woodbridge N. Ferris Building of Kendall College of Art and Design practically vibrated with excitement.

Robert Andy Coombs, photographer (see his work at the DisArt Hub) and DisArt Fashion Coordinator, welcomed us to the event, and then the fun began.

Robert Andy Coombs

The first three items of clothing were made by open style lab, a nonprofit enterprise out of MIT that designs and manufactures accessible garments. First was a black quilted jacket with grey detail just under the shoulder that was so cool-looking I forgot to notice what made it particularly great for those with disabilities. I talked to the model afterwards, and he said he’d buy that jacket in a heartbeat; some of the garments will be for sale in May, so hopefully he’ll get the chance.

cool jacket

Next was a rain jacket (RAYN) designed for those who use wheelchairs. It has a section that, when unzipped, folds out to cover the wearer’s lap, and has a hood that lays softly against the back, yet when it’s flipped up, forms a brim that funnels rain away from the wearer’s face. I talked with this model afterwards, as well, and he enjoyed the whole process — even his own America’s-Next-Top-Model-makeover-day experience, when one of the stylists didn’t like his hair and wanted to cut it. The model agreed, and loves his new haircut.

The final garment from open style lab was a gorgeous asymmetrical white jacket for women that featured magnetic closings that made it easier to put on and take off. Underneath it, model Jessica Poll wore a white pleated, goddess-style top (that I may have coveted just a tiny bit). Ms. Poll beamed her entire time on the runway.

gorgeous white jacket

The next group of garments were T-shirts and boots designed by military veterans who had been wounded during their service, many during combat in Iraq. A local organization, Fashion Has Heart, pairs designers with veterans to create a T-shirt that represents their journey, as well as boots that are then manufactured by Wolverine. The first model pictured here, the guy with the awesome multicolored mohawk who is totally working the crowd, is wearing a shirt designed by a man with burns over 90% of his body after his vehicle was hit by an IED. The design shows a man in the middle of flames, rising like a phoenix.

The young woman below is modeling a shirt designed by an Iraq war veteran who lost her sight. The tagline on the shirt: “When life gives you lemons, you make the best damn lemonade.” The design is also textural, so a person with visual impairments can enjoy the different design elements.

Fashion Has Heart t-shirt

There were several more T-shirts — one with a gold medal to symbolize the veteran’s hope of becoming a Paralympian, another with many doors, another with an image of the designer standing on his bionic legs. All the T-shirts from Fashion Has Heart are for sale for $25 each.

The final group of garments were designed by students in a class at the Kendall College of Art and Design and in partnership with Spectrum Health Innovations. Each student was paired with a child with a disability and tasked with creating clothing that would be supportive, that would be able to accommodate diapers and leg braces, that would have seams that lie flat. AND that a kid would want to wear — these functional garments had to be fun and attractive. They totally were.

There was a Mickey Mouse-themed outfit with a cape for a toddler who wasn’t quite as excited about the bright lights as some of the other models. An outfit that looked like it could be Green Bay Packers practice gear. One of the models was clearly having so much fun, zooming with his walker, but taking his moment in the spotlight at the beginning and end of the runway, that I forgot to notice what he was wearing, except that it had a cape, too. The garments took advantage of cutting-edge fabrics, with 4-way stretch, and with compression capabilities to support the kids’ muscle development and placement. The pants all had really cool-looking seaming that had functional purposes, but they managed to make it look and feel great for the kids wearing them. It was such a great experience that the instructor of the class hopes they’ll be able to run it again.

When Robert Andy Coombs came out again, he got a standing ovation. He called out festival director, Chris Smit, who also got the standing ovation treatment, and then made many people cry with these words:

We wanted to flip things on their heads, and I think we just did it. There are opportunities for this to happen all over. But it didn’t happen in New York. It didn’t happen in Chicago. It didn’t happen in L.A. It happened right here in Grand Rapids!

Now that it’s happened here, I hope it happens all over.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the DisArt Fashion Show demonstrated that designers and fabric technologists are more than up to the task of designing beautiful garments that fill some real needs in the world — whether the need is for more functional garments for those with disabilities, or for self-expression, or for beauty. Or all three.

* The festival continues all week, with exhibitions, films, round tables, family days, dance performances. All for free. Check out the schedule. *

** I apologize for not being a proper reporter and not getting the names of all the models. If anyone who reads this knows their names, send me a message and I’ll add them. All photographs were taken by Michael Van Houten on his iPhone from our seats. If you want to see professional photos and news reports, you can check out MLive and WZZM. **