Art sits in our universe isolated except for our presence to view it. Yet it is tethered to the creator of the piece who brought his/her passion, imagination and vision to reality.
Sometimes we know about the artist. S/he can be famous or someone totally unknown to us. Our thoughts reside with what we see and assume; an unconscious assumption is that the artist is able bodied. Yet there are many great artists who have met extraordinary challenges to bring their art to our lives. That journey, although not easy was triumphant; filled with an insatiable need to create, powered by the strength to overcome their afflictions and determined to capture all that was important to them. They have transformed their lives and consequently may transform our lives by example.
Deaf, illiterate, with minimal language skills and probably autistic, James Castle created art. Being pragmatic, he used found materials such as bulk mail, cardboard cartons, and cigarette packages for surfaces, sharpened sticks and twigs for pens, stove soot mixed with his saliva for ink and flour with water to make paste. A self taught artist who lived a relatively isolated life; he beautifully mastered the concept of composition and perspective. His drawings, collages and constructions are now recognized worldwide.
Georgia O’Keefe was a famous American painter who pursued her art even through her elderly years when her health was quite compromised. By the time she was 84 years old, Georgia had only peripheral vision but continued her painting and sculpting by directing an assistant for help. To alleviate the stress of painting and to keep her creative verve, she soon began exploring a new medium, clay, that would offer a tactile experience to compensate for her vision loss and was less visually demanding. Only weeks before her death at a frail 98 years old, she continued to create art.
Stricken with polio and unable to use his arms, Erich Stegmann learned to use a mouth held brush to draw and paint. Realizing there must be other talented artists who were similarly compromised, he started the Association of Mouth Foot Painting Artists which now includes over 700 artists worldwide. They use either mouth held brushes or toe clenched brushes to create extraordinary art work marketed as greeting cards, calendars, prints and illustrated books. Their goal is to encourage artistic potential and secure financial independence through their art.
Tim Lefens confesses to have been a self absorbed artist when a friend asked him to show his slides at a school for people who could not walk and/or talk. Then his life turned around. He felt compelled to creatively engage these people who were trapped inside bodies that were twisted and distorted; harnessed inflexibly for movement but quietly alive inside. His first approach was to enable their painting by using the wheelchair to make tracks on a floor canvas. After realizing its limitations, he developed a more controlled and dynamic process using headbands equipped with laser beams to select paint colors, brush sizes and location on wall canvas. His non profit Art Realization Technologies, (A.R.T.) “creates systems which enable the uncompromised creative self-expression of people with the most severe physical challenges”.
Disabled and in constant pain after a trolley accident ripped through her pelvis and spine and left her with broken ribs and eleven fractures in her leg. Frida Kahlo channeled her energy in to art. She was in a body cast and in bed when she began painting self portraits "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best." Her paintings often used symbols and depicted her physical and psychological distress as well as her love of nature and Diego Rivera, her husband and mentor. In 1939 when the Louvre in Paris bought a Kahlo painting, it was its first acquisition of 20th century Mexican art.
With Down’s syndrome, an inability to hear or speak and thought to be severely retarded, Judith Scott spent 35 years in an institution until her twin sister obtained her release. A self taught artist, she went to a facility every day that encouraged creativity for disabled adults. It was there that she created large non functioning fiber sculptures using discarded objects; wrapping them in bundles and sometimes using other objects. Although she did not understand art or the importance of her work, her sculptures are now shown in galleries and museums around the world.
“Artists with transforming illnesses are heroes of creativity and role models for us all. Working despite innumerable hardships, they shape the essence of our culture and create great beauty in our lives.”-Dr. Tobi Zausner
“If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”-Goethe