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W/O Limits: Art, Chronic Illness, & Disability
September 22 @ 5:30 pm - November 12 @ 5:30 pmFree
Opening Reception: Thursday, September 22, 5:30 – 8:00pm (free, no registration required)
Accessibility in the Art: Virtual Panel Discussion: Wednesday, October 12th, 7:00pm – 8:00pm
ReelAbilities Cleveland – Film Screening, Improv, & Panel Discussion: Wednesday, October 26th, 6:00pm – 8:30pm
Disability Friendly Puppet Making Workshops: Sat, Nov 5th, 10:00am – 12:00pm & Sun, Nov 6th, 1:00pm – 3:00pm
About the Exhibition:
Many folks consider chronic illness and disability a “them” rather than an “us” problem – an unfortunate but distant reality which impacts only a handful of the population. This couldn’t be further from the truth. According to the CDC, an estimated 26% of Americans experience some form of disability, with Women and People of Color being affected at rates much higher than their peers. Inclusion and accessibility are everyone’s responsibility, and artists can be the vanguards of social change.
This September, the Artists Archives is proud to present W/O Limits, an exhibition which exclusively features the work of artists experiencing chronic illness and/or disability. Curated by Megan Alves and Mindy Tousley, the remarkable show emphasizes accessibility and raises awareness while inspiring visitors with the art that people with chronic illnesses and disabilities create.
W/O Limits: Art, Chronic Illness, & Disability showcases nine evocative Northeast Ohio artists, including Sarah Brown, Kristi Copez, Chappelle Letman Jr., MANDEM, Meg Matko, Arabella Proffer, Nate Puppets, Andrew Reach, and Kate Snow, and features a wide array of dynamic creations from paintings to video performances, touchable sculptures, and interactive digital installations.
The exhibition was conceived by curator Megan Alves as an extension of her own journey living with Scleroderma, a rare and progressive autoimmune disease which impacts the organs and connective tissue. She explains, “After I was diagnosed, I started looking around. I realized how many brilliant artists I knew who were also living with some form of disability. Far from diminishing the quality of their work, these challenges make their art more powerful because it addresses the complex realities of living in a human body. It is fearless, and ultimately, about us all.”
W/O Limits shares the moving stories of artists who are also survivors. Though their situations vary, they are united by their ability to explore, share, and rise above their physical limitations using the power of visual art. Setting the stage for the exhibition are the cogent self-portraits of Kristi Copez which reflect on the intersections of her identity as a Black Disabled Woman. As she explains, “A question I ask myself as someone with a disability is ‘what are you presenting to the world?’ Is my disability visible, and I will be discounted? Or conversely, is it not visible enough, and I will be doubted. These are portraits of a Black Body. A Woman’s Body. A Sick Body. What I want you to see is the beauty of the art AND the illness.”
An important theme in the show is the use of art as a tool to process the experience of illness. In 2010, artist Arabella Proffer’s work shifted dramatically from renaissance inspired portraits to biomorphic still-lives of floating blobs with ribbon-like tendrils. It was only after her diagnosis with terminal cancer that she realized the shapes mirrored the tumors that wrapped around her kidneys and spine. As Proffer describes, “My work has increasingly gone into a transcendental direction with these organisms and shapes acting as guides, or perhaps signals and prophecies. My visual vocabulary is now about the universal love of beauty, because making it beautiful is the hard part.”
Artist Sarah Brown has made a career out of helping others to process trauma with art. A Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Registered Art Therapist at the Cleveland Clinic, Brown has translated her life with epilepsy into a series of 12 life-sized foam heads. Displayed chronologically, the vividly embellished forms confront the viewers at eye level and trace her journey through corrective brain surgery and cognitive recovery. “The sculptures are meant to reflect rebuilding identity and self,” Brown explains. “I went from being a disempowered person with epilepsy… to being an empowered person and identifying what I can do… Now I can now look at myself as an author of my life.”
Advocacy and inclusion are powerful currents which flow throughout the exhibition. Each piece provides a unique window into the world of chronic illness and disability, facilitating change through empathy and fostering understanding.
Artist Kate Snow has not only used art to chronicle her experience with autoimmune disease, but her latest digital piece uses satire to expose the social policing of disabled bodies. When a debilitating flare up left her unable to make her signature Pointillist paintings, Snow began producing stripped down “Journal Entries,” before pivoting to vibrant, graphic compositions. It was during this time that she started receiving an avalanche of unsolicited advice to “correct” her health. Instead of collapsing under the weight, Snow compiled them. Upon entering the gallery, visitors will be encouraged to scan a QR code to receive such helpful suggestions as “Have you tried yoga?” and “I read pain is controlled by the mind. I’ll send you the article!” – all glimpses into a world where persistent illness is considered to be the fault of the ill.
Art’s ability to dismantle stigma is displayed prominently throughout the show. Playing on a video monitor is a recording of Meg Matko’s endurance performance piece SECRET CONDITION | ADHESION in which she removes a plaster cast from her pelvis using only her fingers – physically chipping away at the silence surrounding chronic reproductive disorders. As Matko describes, “The shocking lack of knowledge, research, treatment options available, coupled with the medical industry’s blatant dismissal of those debilitated by the chronic, physical and psychological pain of these diseases, has resulted in millions of women hiding symptoms, foregoing care, questioning their sanity and suffering in silence.”
At its core, W/O Limits is also a celebration of the beauty of the body in all its forms. To this end, artist Nate Puppets has created Yachveotte, “The Most Beautiful Puppet in the World,” a massive 46-inch soft sculpture crafted from what, at first glance, seems to be a tangle of mismatched parts in psychedelic hues. The choice is intentional, and Yachveotte stands confidently in her beauty, defying society’s labels of “sick” or “broken.” “She’s perfect, just the way she is,” Nate reflects. “No irony intended. And the best part is, she knows it.” An emerging artist, Nate will also display 3 additional sculptures and an interactive touch piece, all “characters roughly based on my experience growing up Poor, Queer, Disabled, and Black in Cleveland, OH.”
So too does the artist conglomerate MANDEM reframe beauty through the lens of disability. MANDEM’s pieces explore the visceral and disabled body, religious iconography, and issues of gender and desire. Their art is simultaneously disruptive and beautiful, in critical dialogue with art history and mythology. Using reclaimed ephemera and historic darkroom techniques, MANDEM’s new body of work, the Anarchronist Archives, presents artifacts “recovered” from a fictious Cleveland attic which ingeniously “address historical trauma, queer/disabled identity, and the transformative power of myth-making… to create a “stitch in time” — a portal that reaches back to those who walked (or crawled or danced) down the stairs before us.”
Thanks in part to the support of a grant by the Cuyahoga Board of Developmental Disabilities, W/O Limits also features a variety of accessibility measures including braille text, a wheelchair friendly layout, and a selection of touchable sculptures for those with sensory sensitivities and visual impairments. Artist Andrew Reach, known for his buzzing, large-scale digital prints, was commissioned to make one such tactile piece. “At first, the thought intimidated me,” Reach admits, “but it had been a few years since I worked in 3D and it would be healthy to challenge myself and expand into new territory. Digital technology is a gift to the disabled, allowing expression that can be too physically demanding with traditional tools.” The result is a 3D printed hashtag symbol, composed of 80 individual hashtag relief blocks – a sensory feast which transmits the concept of metadata to both the eyes and hands.
One of the most inspiring components of the exhibition, is the posthumous display of the work of Chappelle Letman Jr., a successful painter and printmaker until the age of 41 when he “woke up blind”, losing his sight to glaucoma just days after his mother’s death. Rather than give up his life as an artist, Letman turned to carving stone. Letman came to discover “I was not a ‘blind artist,’ I was an artist who was blind. Making art puts me in a state of mind where my disability is not an issue. My life and art are a unity of purpose, spirit, and the moment transcending limitations… I’ve always been an artist since day one. I didn’t let a disability interfere with my life’s calling.” His work will be archived in the museum’s permanent collection after the exhibition closes.
W/O Limits: Art, Chronic Illness, & Disability will open with a free public reception on Thursday, September 22nd from 5:30 – 8:00pm, and will be on view until November 12th.
In addition to coordinating tours with local school groups, and disability advocate organizations including the Cleveland Sight Center and the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, W/O Limits will feature a robust schedule of accompanying programming for people of all abilities.
On Wednesday, October 12th, 7:00 – 8:00pm, W/O Limits will host a free, virtual artist panel discussion which will provide deeper insight into the artists’ work as well as a platform to discuss issues of accessibility in the arts. This digital event will include a community Q&A period to connect the speakers to the audience, as well as allow for broadcast of the show’s mission outside the gallery walls for those who are unable to attend in person.
W/O Limits will also feature disability friendly puppet making workshops on Saturday, November 5, 10:00am – 12:00pm and Sunday, November 6, 1:00 – 3:00pm led by exhibiting artist Nate Puppets with facilitation by Clinical Social Worker Chris Richards-Pagel, BFA, MSW, APSW. These small group events are designed for people experiencing disabilities, including people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, to build self-esteem and practice social engagement in a friendly environment using the joyful powerful of creative expression.
During the free, two-hour sessions, participants will be encouraged to create an “identity puppet” which represents an aspect of themselves using an easy-to-follow template and an exciting array of props and materials. After their puppets are complete, Nate Puppets will provide expert instruction to animate their creations, giving them voice and agency. The final component will be a therapeutic puppet storytelling opportunity led by Richards-Pagel, which will promote positive self-image, as well as foster social/emotional intelligence and effective communication skills.
Accessibility and Adaptive Measures:
In addition to proudly displaying art created by artists experiencing chronic illness or disability, W/O Limits is committed to creating a rewarding and inclusive viewing experience for as wide a spectrum of visitors as possible. Some of the accommodations which will be provided are:
- Touchable artwork for those with visual impairment or sensory sensitivities
- Exhibition labels and didactics in braille
- Large font exhibition hand-outs for those with visual impairments and in wheelchairs
- Lower pedestals for easy viewing from wheelchairs
- Special viewings by appointment for the immunocompromised and those with sensory sensitivities, including optional lower exhibition lighting
- Gallery chairs available for those with mobility issues
- Visually descriptive tours available by appointment for those with visual impairments
- Tours available by appointment with deaf interpreters
- Digital catalogs available for free for those with chronic illnesses or disabilities that are unable to attend the show in person
Need an accommodation list above? Or need other special accommodations? We’re happy to help! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to plan your visit or call 216-721-9020 for assistance. We’re looking forward to seeing you!
The Artists Archives of the Western Reserve has been proudly certified as a Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities “ALL means ALL” organization. All people deserve to have equal access to and be equal participants in all aspects of community life. This includes where a person chooses to live, learn, work, and play. Cuyahoga DD’s ALL means ALL initiative provides guidance on actions businesses should take to ensure that they are welcoming of all people and able to support their inclusion in all activities, programs and events. To learn more about the ALL means ALL initiative, visit the Cuyahoga DD website. We look forward to serving the community with inclusion and equity for years to come!
About Cleveland Sight Center: We are a team of professionals dedicated to providing services and support with a high level of compassion and expertise to people of all ages who have vision challenges. Our team of optometrists, vision rehabilitation therapists, teachers, employment specialists & other staff work with individuals & their families to understand their unique vision-related challenges and provide solutions that empower them to reach their goals and live independently.
W/O Limits: Art, Chronic Illness, and Disability is generously supported by an Arts and Culture Partnership Grant provide by Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. This funding has helped us provide accessibility measures including braille text, adaptive programming, and provide catalogs for those unable to attend the exhibition in person. Cuyahoga DD, established in 1967, strives to serve people of all ages who have a developmental disability and reside in Cuyahoga County. Cuyahoga DD is part of the state’s developmental disabilities’ system, which is overseen by the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities (DODD). DODD certifies both people (independent providers) and agencies that provide an array of services directly to people with developmental disabilities.
ReelAbilities Film Festival is the largest festival in the US dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities. Initiated in NY in 2007, the festival presents award winning films by and about people with disabilities in multiple locations throughout each hosting city. Post-screening discussions and other engaging programs bring together the community to explore, discuss, embrace, and celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience. ReelAbilities Film Festival debuted September 2018 in Cleveland with a goal to enhance communication surrounding different disabilities in our community.
Press & Videos:
- Watch the We the People on WKYC interview with W/O Limits Artist Kristi Copez & Curator Megan Alves
- Watch the News 5 Cleveland interview with W/O Limits Exhibiting Artist Kate Snow
- Activism, Accessibility in the Arts by Amanda Koehn, CANVAS Magazine, Fall 2022
- W/O Limits Exhibition Exclusively Features Works by Artists Facing Chronic Illness or Disability by Shawn Mishak, Scene Magazine, Sep 16, 2022
- Ohio Art Exhibit Explores Intersection of Chronic Illness, Disability, Identity & Creativity, by Rebecca Vontroba, Buckeye Flame, Nov 2, 2022