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Deaf Studies VI Artworks

20 Deaf Artists: Common Motifs
Deaf Artists' Exhibit at Deaf Studies VI Conference
ProArts Gallery, Oakland, CA

10 Selected Works

Brenda Schertz, Curator, Touring Exhibit of Deaf Culture Art
Northeastern University, Boston

The full exhibit comprised 69 works of art, including 12 films, created by 20 working Deaf artists plus nine students from the California School for the Deaf at Fremont.  Issues relating to space and permission from the artists to reproduce images of certain works led to the decision to select ten works - one from each of ten Deaf artists - as a broadly representative sampling of this exhibit.

The limited number of works examined also allows me to discuss some of them in more depth than would be practical in an examination of all works.

Deaf Artists participating in the full exhibit were: Chuck Baird, Irene Bartok, Jeff Carroll, Connie Clanton, Susan Dupor, Paul Johnston, Tony Landon McGregor, Betty G. Miller, Victor Notaro, Joan Popovich-Kutscher, Tracy Salaway, Orkid Sassouni, Paul Setzer, Ann Silver, Ethan Sinnott, Dawn Skwersky, Robin Taylor, Mary J. Thornley, Ron Trumble and Guy Wonder. The students from the California School for the Deaf at Fremont were: Yekaterina Belorusets, Jenamarie Daviton-Sciandra, Carlos Diaz, Jan Epitacio, Laben Hur, Tim Lopez, Bekah Mandel, Ronz Ian Reasol, and Meuy Saelee.

The original introduction to the exhibit brochure is as follows:

20 Deaf Artists: Common Motifs

The first two exhibitions of Deaf Art that I organized, in 1993 and 1995, were each titled "Deaf Artists' Exhibit: A Perspective of Deaf Culture Through Art" which reflected a growing awareness of the importance of Deaf Art in Deaf Studies.  The personal perspectives of the artists brought fresh insights to what it means to be Deaf.

The ever-growing number of works in the field of De'VIA (Deaf View Image Art or Deaf Art) frequently amaze me, not least because of the number of motifs common to artists who have had no prior contact with each other.  Not all of these shared motifs are included in this exhibit, because there simply is not room for them all, but many of the works here do use similar symbols.

Some of these symbols are quite obvious.  Take the hand, for instance.  In a variety of different forms, the hand appears in many works as a symbol of our pride with our language and the importance of our means of communication.  Endless approaches to representing sign language in different formats are also popular.  Sometimes certain positions or differences in proportion indicate that the hand represents oppression or oppressors.

TTYs are another easily recognizable motif.  Interpretations of sound, music or use of musical instruments also frequently occur.  Speech lessons and the experience of learning speech have stayed with many of us for most of our lives and this, too, is reflected in this exhibit.  Feelings of being trapped are another common theme.  One curious motif that has appeared in recent works is the reworking of historical paintings or other representations of historical events to reflect Deaf history or the Deaf experience; this is a way of indicating the magnitude of an event in our history.

This exhibit invites the viewer to explore other common motifs and themes and share these observations with other viewers and artists in the gallery.

Many nuances of the works included in this exhibit may be difficult to discern without knowledge of the issues and perceptions common to members of the Deaf community.  This guide is intended to provide information concerning the ways in which each work is relevant to the Deaf culture or experience.

People who are already knowledgeable about the Deaf culture may find this guide helpful in obtaining deeper insights into these works.  No one, however, should consider the information presented here absolutely definitive: it is, rather, subjective material written on the basis of information obtained from a variety of sources, including the artists, and including direct quotations from many of these artists.  Viewers are encouraged to offer their own thoughts.

Brenda Schertz
March 30, 1999

Every one of my exhibit brochures has included a reproduction of the De'VIA manifesto so that viewers may have an understanding of the criteria that define "Deaf Art" or "De'VIA."


Chuck Baird
Grant Thy Spirit, 1999
Oil on canvas, framed with feathers, 24''w x 36''h

"This is a portrait of Danny Lucero standing and holding his own personal blessing feather with his finger and thumb in the handshape 'F' for feather and spirit.  While I am not a scholar and am not certain of the symbology, I like the sense of 'spirit' that appears to be signed in the way Danny moves the feather. The background of this painting is a sunset view of a locale called the 'Valley of the Gods' in the southeastern corner of Utah.  Danny is an acquaintance of mine who is part Navajo.  I may have some Native American blood in me, and this is part of the reason I feel Danny and I hit it off from the beginning.  I have been to Sedona, AZ, every summer for 10 years, and the history and culture of the Native American peoples of that region have made a deep impression on me."

Danny Lucero, the subject of this work, was astonished to see this painting when he entered the gallery. Chuck Baird had taken photos of Danny a decade earlier to use as a possible inspiration for future work but he had not had a chance to create the actual work until this year.  Danny had forgotten about the session, and the sight of the portrait came as a total surprise to him.  He kept repeating "he captured my essence" in a tone that indicated he was offended and felt that his Navajo heritage and traditions had been violated. The painting is an excellent resemblance of Danny Lucero in his role of storyteller. Chuck portrayed Danny as a serious, calm, and spiritual person and this was borne out during Danny's performance as a part of the closing ceremonies of the conference. At the end of that performance Danny gave Chuck an eagle's feather to indicate his forgiveness.


Susan Dupor
Transportation Hub, 1995
Oil on masonite, Diptych 10 ½" x 8 ½"

"This diptych is an analogy of prostitutes and ABC card peddlers who are often seen in metropolitan areas.  When I was living in Chicago, I traveled around the city by public transportation and would occasionally encounter a peddler trying to sell ABC cards to the passengers.  It made me uncomfortable because many other Deaf people were trying hard to prove themselves as equals to hearing people in the hearing world. At the same time the painting is a reminder that there is a social issue that needs to be addressed."

This work consists of two small oval paintings, framed as if they were a pair of portraits. One shows the back of a naked female torso, on which are written the words, "Hello, I am a Deaf Mute. I am selling this Deaf Mute Education System. Will you kindly ..Pay Any Price, Thank you." The second shows the front of a naked female torso, upon which are figures of hands spelling out the alphabet, such as are seen on ABC cards. Train tracks above and behind the figures indicate the intensive traveling often involved in peddling. This diptych represents an ongoing reality that still troubles the Deaf community. The image of the peddling Deaf person makes most of us cringe because they often affirm the pathetic images that many hearing people have of Deaf people. For as long as these ABC cards have been in existence, there have been campaigns against their peddlers. And there have been heated debates on whether they should be considered entrepreneurial ventures or financial exploitation by "head" peddlers – also called "King Peddlers" – who manage several peddlers under his command. There is an entire subculture within the Deaf culture of Deaf people involved in peddling ABC cards.


Paul Johnston
Unity of Communication, 1998
Watercolor, 29" w x 22"h

"Each visual communicator shares visual information and language."

This is a semi- abstract work and attempts to describe its components lead the reader to imagine something grotesque, but the work is in fact soft, lyrical and cheerful.  It is of particular interest because it rewards careful viewing.  It contains several of the motifs that indicate De'VIA: eyes, fingers and the like. Connecting strands and striped banners through some motifs lend a sense of celebration to the whole. The viewer can also sense the presence of a community or the workings of a collaboration among the components. Unity of Communication is a classic example De'VIA containing many elements mentioned in the De'VIA manifesto, of which Paul Johnson was a signatory.


Betty G. Miller
TTY Call, 1997
Neon Assemblage, 21" w x 21" d and 26 " h, old TTY, hand/phone /half - figure

This is an assemblage of an old TTY, painted orange and with the stick-on letters GA and SK on the TTY's readout line, which is lit up by a neon light.  In addition, on the back of the TTY is a half figure piece in a collage and surrounded by a swirl of blue and purple neon light.  There are also pieces of curled neon lights on each side of the TTY.  On the keyboard of the TTY is a hand, placed as typing a TTY message.

The artist's choice of a bust of the robot character 3CPO from the Star Wars films generated lively discussions among viewers and guides alike. This character 3CPO functions as an interpreter and protocol specialist, able to communicate in thousands languages, and this seems an excellent analogy for a relay operator transmitting voice and TTY messages between deaf and hearing people. Visitors asked whether the artist had consciously selected this character for that purpose, but when the artist was asked the reasons behind her choice, she stated that she had chosen the figure on impulse. This is an example of how people can read into things more than the artist intended. The work remains a striking example of Deaf artists' portrayals of technology in a positive way. In the late sixties and early seventies, when the TTY was new, it was a major breakthrough for deaf people, making it possible for them to communicate over the phone for the first time. This had a profound impact on Deaf people's interactions with each other.


Orkid Sassouni
Two Photos from Book 1, 1997 – 1998
Black and White photographs

The photographs shown here are two examples selected from the 27 in Orkid Sassouni's 8" x 8" album entitled Book #1.

These works portray two Deaf persons signing in a nightclub/bar setting.  In each photograph, blurs indicate hands in motion.  They also capture facial expressions in the middle of signed conversations, which showing clearly the earnestness of the signers. This is a reminder of the times when Deaf people were reluctant to sign in public because of the stares they would get from hearing people. This has changed dramatically over the past 20 years because of the public's changing perception of sign language and Deaf people.

Photography is a medium specifically named in the De'VIA manifesto, but I have not previously seen an exhibit where photographs by Deaf artists are identified as De'VIA.


Paul Setzer
"A Person's Life Is Vision without Sound," 1999
Acrylic on canvas, 12"x36"
"A Soldier's Life," 1999
Acrylic on canvas, 12"x36"
"A Person's Life Is Mixed of Sound and Vision," 1999
Acrylic on canvas, 12"x36"

"A Person's Life Is Vision without Sound" represents a person who is profoundly deaf.  "A Soldier's Life"  represents a person who was a soldier who lost his or her hearing on the battlefield.  "A Person's Life Is Mixed of Sound and Vision," represents a person who is hard of hearing.

Color is a major component of these works. The first piece is mostly blue, with splotches of yellow and red, indicating the communication problems that often exist at the beginning of a Deaf person's life, arising from either a lack of exposure to language or the confusion of oral and signed communication. Paul Setzer said that he chose the predominant blue because the deaf child looks at the sky as he looks around the world. In the portion of the painting that represents later parts of the Deaf person's life, the blue has fewer yellow and red splotches. The colors of the second piece are dramatic, starting with bright yellow on the bottom, representing the auditory mode. Midway through the painting, there is a large black bar representing a crisis – such as a war – and red drips from the bar.  As your eyes move up to the top of the painting, a blue block indicates that this person has switched to a visual mode after losing his hearing. The many yellow and red splotches indicate the struggle involved in making this transition. The third piece contains blue and yellow intermingled from the bottom to the top, where it looks green in many places.  This represents the life of a hard of hearing person, which may be both auditory and visual. The varying degrees of violet on the left and right edges on all pieces indicate the "up and downs" of a person's life.

Much of the art identified as De'VIA is figurative.  I find it refreshing to see an abstract work recognized as De'VIA, although not everyone may agree. The contrasting color values and intensities are listed as the indicators in the De'VIA manifesto.


Ann Silver
Deaf Identity Crayons: Then & Now (Crayon Box Series), 1999
Mixed Media, 20" w x 16" h

"Centuries ago we were a box of crayons, not human beings. Because pathological, medical and audiological viewpoints have prevented us from being seen in a linguistic-cultural context, archaic labels have been embedded in our language and literature—some of which still exist in this day and age.

"The 20th century has witnessed shifts in terminology notwithstanding. As it has taken decades to remove the poisonous power out of the anomalous descriptors given to our unwitting community, we must not allow hearing people to define who we are, how we should be identified, or what is semantically apropos for us."

Copyright © 1999, Ann Silver


Ethan Sinnott
The Last Supper, 1997
Oil on canvas, 36" x 24"

"The Last Supper is my reinterpretation of a classical Renaissance theme according to the contemporary Deaf outsider's viewpoint.  Biblical and mythological stories were a popular genre among painters and sculptors throughout the Renaissance, and became artistic conventions of their era.

"The moment during The Last Supper I have chosen to portray is Jesus' relevation that he would come to be betrayed by one of his twelve disciples.  Instead of the usual full-frontal and linear arrangement of the same scene found in Renaissance paintings, I set the scene up as if being observed by a Deaf outsider in a Hearing world.  Jesus' back is turned to the viewer, who cannot see his face and what he's saying.  The disciples' violent, vehement protestations-as human nature tends to shy away from fallibility and culpability-become more mysterious, confusing even, with everyone talking over each other.  Judas is not made so clear-cut; it could easily be a table full of Judases.  This dramatic event, as it unfolds, is an absurd, bizarre spectacle to the Deaf person who obviously cannot hear what is obviously being spoken."

The work, of mostly somber browns, makes use of strongly contrasting shadows in the style of artists in the Renaissance period. The bright yellow background makes an effective substitute for putting halos around the heads of the disciples. The representation of Jesus as having turned his back on the viewer strongly indicates rejection.


Robin Taylor
Avenue of Loss, 1998
Bronze, Stainless Steel, Copper on Marble Base, 15"H x 12"W x 8"D
(Limited Edition of 12)
(Left to right:  Side view, front view, front detail)

"Avenue of Loss deals with (depending on your point of view) a hearing mother trying to communicate with her deaf little girl who is following the river of her heart (the doll), chasing the doll and leaving the oral world and continuing on her own road.  And the mother's own hand turns to stiff wood (because she uses no ASL and has no language skills to communicate) and all she can think is that her child is headed down the drain and lost forever. That's why I named it 'Avenue of Loss' - no communication!"

This work was displayed on a free-standing pedestal, away from the walls so that visitors could walk around it and view the work from all perspectives. There are several very powerful visual symbols in the piece, for instance the metal grating between the mother and child which appears to be a metaphor for communication barriers. The mother's face lacks eyes, nose or mouth, and the wooden stick shown in place of her right arm indicates her inability to communicate. The mother is dressed in drab and torn clothing which emphasizes a feeling of despair surrounding the piece.

This speaks to the experience of many Deaf people, who separate from their parents and families when communication barriers become unbearable.


Mary J. Thornley
Two Deaf Musicians, 1997
Oil on canvas, 37" x 39"

"Deaf people enjoy music too; it's not a hearing 'thing'. Therefore it's appropriate--and overdue-to render two deaf players cubistically sawing away at their instruments."

While many hearing people assume that Deaf people do not understand or appreciate music, there is a long tradition of Deaf artists incorporating music, musical instruments or musical themes in their works. The Deaf artist Harry Williams was well known for his use of musical instruments and colors to indicate that art is our "visual music." Paul Johnston employed the stops of a clarinet on papier-mâché sculptures of arms in Lyric I and Lyric II to indicate the visual lyricism of signing hands. Victor Notaro in his film, Footwork, used the image of moving feet to illustrate musical rhythm. Mary Thornley's Two Deaf Musicians, then, continues the tradition. Some viewers commented on the lack of strings for the guitars, which might have been meant to indicate the absence of sound but might equally well had no such meaning.  In some works of the cubists Picasso and Braque, stringed instruments have been represented without strings.