Professor portrays Deaf culture through pop art


Erin Brown

James Van Manen, associate professor in the American Sign Language-English Interpretation Department, combined ASL and pop art in his solo art show displayed in room 404 of the 33 E. Congress Parkway Building.

By Campus Reporter

Acrylic paintings, wire sculptures and graphic design are the elements James Van Manen, associate professor in the American Sign Language-English Interpretation Department, uses to transform common ASL symbols into works of art in his recently extended solo art show.

Being hard of hearing and raised by Deaf parents, Van Manen grew up with ASL as his first language. He combines his experience in the Deaf community with his love for pop art in the exhibit, titled “ASL Pop Art,” in room 404 in 33 E. Congress Parkway Building.

“I wanted to point out that signs in American Sign Language can be elevated to art,” Van Manen said. “[When people] think about a Deaf person, they say, ‘Oh they can’t hear.’ They don’t think about all of the things that are positive that might exist in their lives, and art is one of those things.”

Van Manen has been exploring and studying art since the late 1990s and working in the pop art genre since 2003.

Van Manen’s exhibit also displays his graphic design work done in collabortion with fellow Deaf artist, Ann Silver.

The exhibit began Sept. 25 and was supposed to last only one week, but has since been extended to Oct. 15, Van Manen said.

Chair of the American Sign Language-English Interpretation Department Peter Cook said the extension allows more students and faculty to view a special part of Deaf culture.

“People started to really trickle in more and more,” Cook said. “They didn’t realize they were missing a cultural portion of what American Sign Language and the Deaf community has, so we asked Jim if he could extend [his show].”

Bronwyn Schlaefer, sophomore theatre and American Sign Language-English interpretation double major, said she enjoys learning the stories behind Deaf art pieces.

“[Deaf people are] just normal people like us, so it’s really nice to see [their artwork],” Schlaefer said. “It’s cool to delve deeper into their experiences that inspire [their] art.”

Van Manen’s art is related to the Deaf community or De’VIA.

De’VIA, according to, is a Deaf art movement created in May 1989, 

“De’VIA is created when the artist intends to express their experience through visual art,” stated “De’VIA may also be created by deafened or hearing artists, if the intention is to create work that is born of their Deaf experience.”

Although Van Manen only became hard of hearing in the last five years, Cook said it was his experience of being a hearing child living with Deaf adults that shapes his De’VIA work.

“[Van Manen] grows up within the Deaf world where the main language is American Sign Language, and he also experiences the hearing world, so he has to balance the two of them growing up,” Cook said. “He uses that experience in his art work.”

Van Manen said he is glad Columbia had him exhibit his artwork despite not being a professional artist or an art professor.

“It’s great that I’m able to share this at our college,” he said. “I look forward to other faculty members sharing what they do in their lives to expand their understanding.”