Artist Disabilities

By Trevor Ballanger

Artists of every medium face creative dilemmas. Sometimes it’s self-doubt, other times it’s a lack of focus. For a select few, it’s a lifelong disability.

Stella De Genova, a visually impaired painter in Chicago, has spent years adjusting to her condition. When she was 16 years old, she found out she had a degenerative retinal disease and would eventually lose her vision. Today, she has about 15 percent of her eyesight left, which forced her to leave her job as a legal secretary but led her to explore her passion for creativity.

Art has been in De Genova’s life since her childhood, and she said she has always loved colors and drawing. Now she volunteers at Second Sense, 65 E. Wacker Place, a nonprofit that uses art to help the visually impaired gain new perspectives on living with a disability. She said she’s learning new painting techniques and discovering new mediums such as sculpting. Nature, particularly trees, tends to be a recurring theme in her paintings. She said her paintings are experimental, and are gradually become more minimalist as her eyesight continues to fade.

“[Art has] always been my outlet, and I find it therapeutic,” De Genova said. “It was just for me, as an individual and my identity. That is really who I am.”

De Genova said negative stereotypes about the visually impaired have followed her throughout her artistic career. Because of this, she is helping Second Sense develop new art therapy programs that will include painting

and improvisation.

Angela Geis, a visually impaired Chicago-based photographer also involved with Second Sense, said she has experienced discrimination in the job market, despite having a degree in psychology. She said potential employers thought her visual impairment would prevent her from doing the work. After several cornea transplants, she eventually went completely blind in her right eye and now has about 15 percent of her vision in her left eye, she said.

Geis said she needs assistance from her husband when walking through sites like Graceland Cemetery to shoot her black and white photos, which she prefers to leave unedited. She added that she enjoys photographing in locations that appear haunted and mysterious. At times, she won’t know what the photos will look like until they are uploaded to a computer.

Geis began volunteering with Second Sense by exhibiting her photography in its art shows. She said people are often condescending toward her work when they discover her condition. She said she would prefer people focus on the quality of her photos, which many find shocking because of their dark nature involving ominous looking mausoleums, statues and headstones.

“That’s probably why I do the dark art thing,” Geis said. “People’s reaction to my dark stuff, that’s what I like seeing and hearing. Not the [reaction to being] blind, but the reaction from the art itself is cool. It’s vision beyond my disability.”

Heidi Latsky, a classically trained dancer in New York, said she had a stereotypical view of dancers with disabilities until 2006 when she was asked to do choreography for Lisa Bufano, a bilateral amputee missing both her hands and feet. She said Bufano inspired her by exuding a fierceness and vulnerability she hadn’t seen in other dancers. Bufano sometimes performs with the aid of large wooden table leg stilts attached to her hands and knees.

Based on her experience with Bufano, Latsky decided to explore working with different body types to create a performance piece titled “Gimp.”

“[The dancers] who were in the piece [said] this can never get sentimental; this is not a pity piece,” Latsky said. “This is about the individuals in this show showing off their uniqueness and strengths.”

Jerron Herman, a New York-based writer who dances for Latsky, has hemiplegic cerebral palsy, which affects the left side of his brain and makes it difficult for him to walk. He said his peers told him dancing would be impossible because of his condition, but he always felt the need to prove people wrong. He added that experiencing Latsky’s routines helped strengthen his body and gave him more confidence in personal relationships, something he struggled with in high school.

“Dance really was a vehicle to help overcome an obstacle of mine, which was the stigma [surrounding] people who are disabled [that they can’t] be performers,” Herman said. “And also the idea that I could stretch myself a little farther and identify something about my artistry that was dormant.”

Herman and Latsky’s latest show together, “Somewhere,” is a play based on the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.” It promotes exploring new possibilities while remaining true to one’s self, Herman said. His performance includes walking across the stage while an able-bodied performer mimics the shape and instability of Herman’s body.

According to Latsky, trained performers with disabilities are typically stronger than other people and rarely have injuries because the choreography caters to each dancer’s disability. She added that she’s thankful to have a space for her dancers to train.

Herman agreed that it is a common misconception about people with disabilities that they are more susceptible to injury during performances but said training has actually made him stronger and helped align cilhis body.

Citlali Lopez-Ortiz, a doctor of kinesiology and an instructor at the Joffrey Ballet, said dancing increases confidence and good balance for those with disabilities. Her work is primarily aimed at those with Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and movement disorders.

“In my judgment, the [style of dance] that has the most potential to therapeutically improve outcomes of the treatment of motor disorders is classical ballet,” Lopez-Ortiz said. “The reason being it has higher language structure, it trains posture before movement and it specifically trains balance and motor control in a whole body context.”

Lopez-Ortiz said to maximize the exercises’ effects, high-intensity classes such as jogging and traditional ballet techniques must be done every day. She added that music helps her dancers focus through an effect called rhythmic entrainment, which she believes subconsciously triggers movement in the body. However, studies have not yet been done to prove the accuracy of this theory.

Music can help people focus in other ways, said Warren “Wawa” Snipe, a rapper and dancer in Virginia. He said it was a way for him to persevere as a musician despite being deaf since birth. Although Snipe has a hearing aid, he said he sometimes goes without it to create his music through his heightened senses and the vibrations of a song’s rhythm.

Snipe said he likes to perform R&B and jazz but primarily works with hip-hop, which he refers to as “dip-hop” for the deaf community. He said he enjoys implementing sounds from daily life into his music and uses drums to gain inspiration, but the key is letting the vibrations guide him toward understanding the music’s direction. He said he uses sign language to accommodate the deaf and hearing impaired when he performs.

“When I’m [feeling vibrations], that’s what makes the creative juices in [my] mind,” Snipe said. “You can use the entire world as music—cars driving, walking, things like that. These things have the rhythm, so I incorporate [that] into the [music].”

Although he said the music industry is slowly beginning to include more deaf artists, such as Sean Forbes, he’s still disappointed the movement isn’t more widespread. However, he’s doing his part to raise awareness by performing in several countries, including Japan and Australia.

According to him, some haven’t been open-minded about his creative abilities. He said he has argued with people who don’t believe he’s deaf and say it should be impossible for him to make music because he can’t hear. He once walked out of a record label meeting after executives told him they weren’t convinced it was his voice on the recording. Still, he feels it’s his responsibility to educate people about deaf culture.

“It’s my job to tell you what [deaf people] can do,” Snipe said. “We can do anything.”

Ironically, Latsky said she is sometimes intimidated by her dancers with disabilities because they are able to do things she can’t. An aerial dancer in the show who is missing both legs uses her arms to swing from long cloth hung from the ceiling. Latsky said artists with disabilities are gaining recognition across the country and on TV shows like “Glee” and “Push Girls.”

To further the progress of people with disabilities in the arts, Frank Tumino, an administrator for Little City Center for the Arts in Palentine, Ill., said the center was created as safe haven for those with mental impairments to express themselves. Tumino said therapy is a byproduct of the center’s fine art program. Thirteen artists with mental disabilities contributed paintings, sculptures and videos for the center’s current show running through Jan. 6 at the Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main St. in Rockford. Several pieces coincidentally centered around circles, which illustrated the exhibition’s title, “Full Circle.” He said the center is going to try to hold as many exhibitions as possible to encourage artists to socialize with one another and spread the word about their abilities.

Tumino added that the center helps its clients develop motor skills and improve their socialization and self-image. He said they are assisted, but not taught, by professional artists so they can learn to come up with their own creative strategies.

“It’s one of the largest and most diverse programs of its kind, especially in the area,” Tumino said. “We tried to make it so that anybody who has a mind to do anything will be able to do it here. We want to make sure there’s a way for people to come across

new ideas.”

Herman said the increasing prevalence of people with disabilities in the media is a testament to the positive effects of using art as an outlet. He added that people with disabilities are exploited less because of more progressive attitudes, and fewer artists are being stunted in the pursuit to succeed.

“I would love to see all art forms integrate people with disabilities,” Herman said. “We’re necessary, and we are a voice. We have a long way to go, but I feel optimistic about it.”