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Works by Deaf Women

Works by Deaf Women: A Group Exhibition of Nine Artists
Ceres gallery, New York City, March 2 - 27, 1999
Curated by Lesley Kushner

Press Release

Ceres Gallery is proud to host a group exhibition, "Works by Deaf Women" featuring the paintings, sculptures, and photographs of nine artists from around the United States and Canada: Janet Ahrens, Irene Bartok, Claire Bergman, Susan Dupor, Lesley Kushner, Orkid Sassouni, Dana Simon, Robin Taylor, and Mary Thornley. The show is curated by Lesley Kushner.

The show reflects the diversity of visions and themes of artists from the Deaf community, a distinct cultural, linguistic, and experiential minority. While some of the artists in this exhibit include issues of Deaf culture in their work, and others do not, the goal of the show is to promote exchange. We strive through our art to become more visible, less marginal, and more accessible to the larger public.

Janet Ahrens, a professional paper and book artist who uses both Eastern and Western methods of paper formation in her work, is inspired by the rough vigor of the Iowa landscape where she lives. Her two and three-dimensional pieces are made from flax, cotton, or kozo.

Irene Bartok's exquisite photographs reflect her deep love for the beauty of colors and shapes in nature, architecture, and interiors of Italy and New York City. A fashion designer, she feels that photographing the realities of nature and architecture provide an important counterbalance to the transience and illusions of the fashion world.

The full-length portraits of Claire Bergman capture the uniqueness, subtle mystery, and dignity of individual sitters. Each portrait, executed in beautiful color harmonies, evokes a particular mood and strong rapport in the observer.

Susan Dupor draws upon her experiences and emotions growing up deaf in a mainstream school and hearing family. Ms. Dupor gets inspiration from her ties to Deaf Culture and the beauty of American Sign Language, which she uses in her paintings.

Lesley Kushner's mixed-media sculptures use a variety of materials that have feminine associations: junk jewels, fabric meshes and floral elements.  Her oil paintings are more abstract and explore themes of natural and aquatic forms.

The vibrant, colorful, mixed media works of Dana Simon employ both painting and sculpture. She breaks the two-dimensional picture plane by incorporating sculptural materials such as wood, plexiglass, rubber and plaster life casts onto the canvases.

Moments of Deaf life: weddings, socializing at Deaf clubs and at Deaf conventions are themes of Orkid Sassouni's photographs, which capture the essences and nuances of sign language. In addition to documenting Deaf Culture, she creates works using the techniques of gum cyanotype printing and video.

Her many years of professional theater experience have informed Robin Taylor's sculptures. She sculpts expressionistic figures: dancers, children and nude torsos, as well as models of benches depicting different aspects of the theater.

Mary Thornley's work portrays defining moments in deaf history, such as the tragic Congress of Milan in 1880, when a worldwide ban was placed on sign languages in schools, and many deaf teachers were fired from their jobs, in order to force Deaf students to speak. She also paints beautiful still-lives and abstractions.

Janet Ahrens
Grinnell, Iowa

Janet Hudnut Ahrens is a professional paper and book artist who uses both Eastern and Western methods of paper formation in her work. She has her MA and MFA degrees in Design from the University of Iowa. In August of 1995, Ms. Ahrens was one of three artists representing the United States and Iowa as a Yamagata Fellowa at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Working with artists from other countries, Ms. Ahrens participated in an open studio that explored and advanced adaptive techniques for people with disabilities. Several of her pieces are now part of the Yamagata Institute's International collection.

Ms. Ahrens's two and three dimensional abstract pieces, made from flax, cotton or kozo, are inspired by the rough vigor of Iowa's multifaceted landscape. Her books do not use the traditional rectangular format: they are sculptural.

She writes, "The ever-changing landscape has been a constant theme in my work... I try to capture a moment in time, showing how the environment shapes the landscape over the centuries. By handling the book, the viewer has control of shaping the book planes like the environment or the landscape... There is no written text..."

Irene Bartok
New York City

Irene Bartok is a native of Venice, Italy. She obtained her degree in fashion design from the Private School of Professional Studies in Paris and at F.I.T. in New York City. However, her first love is photography. Her passion is to capture the beauty in nature and architecture--- their elements, shapes and spiritual essence.

Ms. Bartok writes,  "The fashion industry changes constantly while nature remains almost the same.  When I take pictures, it keeps my world in balance and keeps me in touch with nature.  Fashion is illlusion; nature is reality. In these pictures, nature and architecture remain silent and their essence is revealed more powerfully."

Claire Bergman
Bethesda, Maryland

Ms. Bergman studied art at Pratt Institute, and with Thomas Fogarty at the Art Students League for nine years.  She was the winner of a White House art scholarship to attend New York University.  Ms. Bergman has had solo shows in New York City, Maryland, and Virginia, and currently resides in Bethesda, Maryland.

She writes, "The purpose of the portraitist is to reproduce the uniqueness of the individual, the depth of feeling that varies from one person to another, and character, though without embellishment.  To this end, it is not enough to paint just the face and the upper half of the body.  The entire figure must be shown to create a feeling of wholeness and completion, so that it may be imbued with an inner life of its own.

The paint is neither slapped on nor stabbed into the canvas but spread with rapid sweeping strokes. For life to be breathed into the portrait, harmony and balance are stressed.... The particular matching combinations of colors used-- oranges, blues, and hydrangea greens-- reflect the splendor of life and imprint the subtle mystery of the human personality on the canvas... The idea is to evoke a particular mood in the observer, or to establish lasting rapport between the picture and the observer..."

Susan Dupor
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Susan Dupor was born deaf and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where she attended "hearing impaired" mainstream programs from kindergarten through twelfth grade.   Ms. Dupor earned her BFA degree from the Art Institute of Chicago.  After a year's stint at an animation studio, she enrolled in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) and the University of Rochester, earning a master's degree in Deaf Education.  Ms. Dupor lives in Wisconsin, where she paints and teaches art.

Ms. Dupor felt that throughout her childhood, creative art helped her deal with the lack of genuine socialization caused by her education in the mainstream. She writes, "My emotions and experience growing up deaf are seen and felt in most of my pieces. Today, constant exposure to the Deaf culture... is an ongoing inspiration to create new paintings with Deaf themes."

She cites such Deaf poets as Clayton Valli, Peter Cook, and Debbie Rennie as major influences on her work. Ms. Dupor explores themes and experiences in Deaf culture such as the "hotly debated issue of cochlear implantation, which is frowned upon intensely in the Deaf community," and the "bitter experiences of a deaf person in a non-signing hearing family when it comes to having major family festivities."  She expresses in her work the beauty of sign language and the deep ties of Deaf people to each other through their language and culture.

Lesley Kushner
Brooklyn, New York

Lesley Kushner was born deaf and was mainstreamed in hearing schools in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her parents are classical musicians and their devotion to music inspired all three of their children to go into the arts. Besides her parents' artistic influence, Ms. Kushner discovered that painting could be used as a way to affirm herself, despite the pressures of  mainstreaming.

Ms. Kushner graduated from Parsons School of Design with an M.F.A. in 1984, and has lived and painted in New York for twenty years. Her recent work expressed experiences of loss, and also her deep belief in feminism. She writes, "Collage elements in my work are built up into a surface of sense colors. I embed bridal fabrics (lacy floral meshes and veils), beads, and costume jewelry into oil paint. I'm intrigued by the contrast between the delicacy of the veils and the heaviness of the pigment, which becomes a color matrix for the meshes and jewels."  In addition to her collages, she continues to explore abstract themes and natural and aquatic forms in her medium and large-scale oil paintings.

Orkid Sassouni
Great Neck, Long Island

Orkid Sassouni has been photographing Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people for over two years, traveling all over the United States to capture their daily lives, activities and community events.  She shows how Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing are the same as other people, and yet unique.

Ms. Sassouni writes of her subjects, "My original purpose was to show just sign language, but soon my idea changed to more of a fine art of sign language and their life within me. I became fascinated with their pride, their energy, their most important tools in communication, their thoughts and their self-consciousness of the world outside. It was to show how they define themselves or see themselves in any situation, such as in a small crowded place. Distance and spacing are very vital to our communication need. We communicate with three things: facial expression ( equal to voice tones), physical expression (equal to action),  and hand gestures (equal to talking with the mouth). All of those became American Sign Language, known as ASL."

 Ms. Sassouni also creates photographic works using techniques such as gum cyanotype printing and video.

Dana Simon
Brooklyn, New York

After graduating from New York University, Dana Simon studied for two years at the Art Students League. Her work merges the shapes and colors of abstract painting with figuration and her canvases are saturated with vibrant, energetic colors. Ms. Simon employs both painting and sculpture in the same works. She breaks the two-dimensional picture plane by incorporating sculptural materials such as wood, plexiglass, rubber, and plaster life-casts onto the canvases.  She has discovered that a sculpture can become part of a painting and in her mobiles, the painting can be removed from the canvas to become sculpture.

Since childhood, Ms. Simon has had Usher's Syndrome, a progressive condition that affects both her sight and her hearing. One aspect of Usher's Syndrome, Retinitis Pigmentosa, causes her to see differently. As a result of her own physical limitations, Ms. Simon feels compelled to explode pictoral and figurative boundaries in her work. She breaks the figure into fragments, and freely rearranges the fragmented figure into unnatural positions. Each body part shown becomes an object in and of itself; and in some instances are joined to form a whole.

Ms. Simon chooses to accept her vision as original, rather than limited, and has integrated it into her art.

Robin Taylor
New York City

As the daughter of a travelling salesman, Robin Taylor spent the first eight years of her life crisscrossing the United States with her family. Ms. Taylor left home at age 17 to pursue an acting career, and made a living in TV and theater for many years.

Ms. Taylor became deaf as a result of having a tumor removed from her ear. She left the theater world and found an outlet for her emotions in sculpture. Her performing background has inspired her artwork, which she has shown in galleries in Los Angeles, Seattle, Kansas, Vermont, London, and New York. She sculpts expressionist figures: dancers, clowns, children, and nude torsos as well as models of benches depicting different aspects of the theater.

Ms. Taylor works with the Tallix and Polich Art Works foundries, both located in upstate New York.

Mary Thornley
Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia

Mary Thornley received her MFA degree from the University of Washington in Seattle. She has exhibited widely throughout the United States and Canada, with solo shows at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., at galleries in Seattle, Rochester, and in Vancouver, British Columbia. This year, she is the artist- in- residence at Gallaudet University.

In addition to painting beautiful still-lives and abstractions, she has depicted the significant figures and events in the history of deaf people.  In her painting, "Milan 1880," she draws from Goya's work, " The Third of May, 1803" to depict the letters for American Sign Language (ASL) being shot by a firing squad, a reference to the Milan Congress of 1880, where sign language was banned in deaf schools worldwide.

About "Milan 1880" she writes, "Art is rich in rebellion, massacres, wars, or the effects thereof. My well-known painting, purchased by Gallaudet... participates in this established tradition... and is a footnote for DPN (Deaf President Now), the rebellion that changed the history of Deaf people in America." DPN was the student rebellion at Gallaudet University in 1988 which resulted in the hiring of the university's first-ever deaf President, I. King Jordan.

Guide to Artists' Works

1. "Birches"

Susan Dupor writes, "Deaf summer camps are a Mecca for all Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing youths. Those events brought the most memorable moments for campers and they learned a lot from each other. For instance, in this image, a group of pubescent girls watch a precocious camper narrate an erotic story in sign language. The vivid story has captivated the imagination of the cabinmates and spurred a sexual awakening."

2. "A Lesson"

A "Deaf can do it" reminder to deaf students in a hearing dominated world.

3. A-I "Untitled"

Gum and Cyanotype Prints

Orkid Sassouni has been photographing beautiful sculpture with lines and textures using a Sinar Bron four by live camera. In this project, she used several different processes: gum bichromate and cyanotype printing on special hot press cream papers. Gum printing is a non-silver process. Chemicals that are sensitive to light are combined with specific watercolor pigments. The print is exposed to ultraviolet light and then developed with water two or three times. Then, after the paper is dry, if is painted with cyanotype and then exposed to ultraviolet light for a very long time The result is a print with rich detail and amazing color.

4. "Emerge"

Dana Simon's work merges the freedom and gut feelings of the expressionists with the colors and shapes of the abstract painters. She also explodes the limits of two-dimensional painting by working with plaster life casts. She has discovered that a sculpture can be a painting.

5. "Lady of Reflection" and

6. "Rite of Passage"

Janet Ahrens' two and three-dimensional pieces are made from flax, cotton, or kozo. She integrates industrial materials, such as electric wire, with handmade or organic materials. The ever-changing landscape is a constant theme in her work

7. "Time: Eternity"

Janet Ahrens tries to capture a moment in time, showing how the environment shapes the landscape over centuries. The book format intimately involves the viewer with the piece. By handling the book, the viewer has control of reshaping the book planes, like the environment of the landscape. Almost all of her books are held together without the use of sewing or adhesive. There is no written text. The distressed surface and edges are created by the use of walnut dye.

8-13. "Divergence"

Susan Dupor writes, "Zoology has always been my passion. It is heartbreaking that numerous species are endangered due to human encroachment and exploitation. The evolution of primates fascinates me because they are the closest cousins of ours in the animal kingdom. In this series I examined the remarkably diverse hand forms that are a result of Natural Selection. Like the primates, we humans use our hands endlessly. The hands are the primary communication mode Deaf people use." The primate hands featured are hands of the Aye-Aye, Orangutan, Spider monkey, Potto, Tarsier, and Langur.

14. &15. "Transportation Hub"

The diptych is an analogy of prostitutes and ABC peddling cards which are often seen in metropolitan areas.

16. "PL 94-142"

Here, two deaf adolescents are shown changing their clothes in the locker rooms of a public school, to which they were admitted after the passage of the "mainstreaming law" Public Law 94-I 42 in the early 1970's. This law mandated but did not define a "least restrictive environment". The deaf subjects are shown wearing body hearing aids. In the background, other students are giving these deaf subjects unwanted attention, and they are shameful, trying to hide their faces.

17. "Elysium"

Deaf women friends, in a blissful moment, spending time together by having a long conversation.

18. "GIenna and Nike"

A deaf woman is about to learn from her hearing dog that there is a message from afar.

19. "Gladiator"

Robin Taylor's bronze relief torso of a gladiator has an expressionistic strength and tension.

20. & 21. "Fish Fantasia l and II"

Lesley Kushner paints aquatic and natural forms on medium and large scale canvases. In these works she integrates the abstract shapes and marks of oil paint itself with shapes that are more representational- the fish and corals and aquatic life.

22. "The Street Cleaner'

Mary Thornley writes, "What happens to throw-away items? What are throw-away items? Many people are regarded as disposable for one reason or another; our social systems sweep them up, remove them from the street or public view. Afterwards we have no idea what happened to them.

23. "Bike Lock: Proposal for a Memorial"

In 1988, the students at Gallaudet University, the world's only liberal arts college for deaf people, closed down the campus in a historical revolt. Later known as Deaf President Now! or DPN, this event led to the election of the first deaf president of Gallaudet University. "Bike Lock: Proposal for a Memorial focuses on the peaceful nature of this revolt and its utilization of bike Locks, a common, everyday item, as a mechanism for political effectiveness.

24. "Divine Power'' and "Eternal Presence".

Irene Bartok, who works as a fashion designer as well as a photographer writes, "The fashion industry changes constantly while nature remains almost the same. When I take pictures, it keeps my world in balance and keeps me in touch with nature. Fashion is illusion: nature is reality. In these pictures, nature and architecture remain silent and their essence is revealed more powerfully. "Divine Power" and "Eternal Presence" were photographed at Lake Major, Italy.

25. "Nature's Children" was photographed in Central Park, NYC.

26. "Flowing Purity" and "The Great Passing" were photographed at Lake Major, Italy.

27. "Love's Alchemv" was photographed in Astoria, Queens.

28. "Majestic Beauty" was photographed at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

29. "Inner Vision" was photographed on 75th Street and Madison Avenue, NYC.

30. "A Street of Verona" was photographed in Verona, Italy.

31. "Twelve Apostles Taking a Skinny Dip"

Robin Taylor has given each of the twelve apostles his own private swimming pool inside baking tin cups See the following page for the identities of the apostles. These are cast in bronze.

Simon Peter  Andrew  Thaddaeus

(Who is called Peter)    (son of James AKN as James)

1   2   3


Philip   Bartholomew  James

(Brother of Harod)    (Son of Alphaeus)

4   5   6


James   John   Simon

(Son of Zebedee)  The Baptist  The Zealot

7   8   9


Judas   Thomas  Matthew

Iscariot   (Tax collectors)  (Tax Collectors)

10   11   12


Limited edition of 18

Single Apostle cups-Editions of 50 each

32. "Milan, ltaly, 1880"

Mary Thornley's painting shows ASL (American Sign Language) being fired upon by a squad of soldiers. This scene refers to the Milan Congress of 18s0, where sign language was banned in deaf schools worldwide and many signing deaf teachers were fired from their posts at these schools, in favor of requiring deaf students to learn to speak. Only recently has sign language begun to be reinstated as a valid language in its own right.

33. "Nocturne II" and

34. "Two Deaf Musicians"

These beautiful still-lives have a modernist, cubist space.

35. "Joey and the National Guard"

In this painting, Mary Thornley places herself as a child in a setting in which she attends school surrounded by the protection of the National Guard. The analogy arose because the school principal had informed Mary's parents that she did not belong in his school. She writes, "I was very frightened. My work was poor, always. I remember waiting for years for the principal's statement to be publicly rescinded. I guess they "forgot" about it. I used to wonder what it would be like to attend a school for the deaf.  I dreamed of being accepted: one of the crowd. But everyone I knew insisted, "You're not one of THEM."

36. "Trapped"

Robin Taylor reveals an anguished "inner child" trapped behind a serene, but transparent facade of wire mesh.

37. "Woman in Blue,"

38. "Pierrot,"

39. "Woman with a Teapot,"

40. "Untitled," and

41. "Respite"

Claire Bergman's portraits reproduce the uniqueness of the individual and the depth of feeling that varies from one person to another. Without embellishment, she paints the entire figure, not just the face and the upper half of the body. She uses matching combinations of colors, oranges, blues, and hydrangea greens to evoke a particular mood in the observer.

42. "Apollo's Kiss"

Robin Taylor depicts Apollo in a priapic moment.

43. "Beach"

Dana Simon's painting has intense and saturated colors that create a vibrant, energetic quality of great warmth and feeling.

44. & 45. "Being Deaf and Free Spirit"

Orkid Sassouni's two books are part of her ongoing project of documenting Deaf and hard of hearing individuals around the country. She explains the features of Sign Language she is documenting on the following page.

I have been photographing and still continuing my on-going project of and about Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals for more than two years. I traveled a lot in one place to another place to meet more interesting people that I either knew or did not know. I drove to New Jersey, Long Island, New York City, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and even flew to California, Arizona, and Nevada to continue discovery more ideas.

What made me start doing this project in the first place? I got an advice from a famous photographer who suggested me to either photograph my family or/and "my Deaf friends." I tried both to see how much I can capture. Slowly I started photographing more and more Deaf and hard-of-hearing individual. My original purpose was to show just sign language. But soon my idea change to more of a fine art of sign language and their life within me.

I became fascinated with their pride, their energy, their most important tools in communication, their thoughts, and their self-conscious of the world outside. It was to show how they define themselves or see themselves in any situation, such as in a small crowded place to a plenty of room space area. Distance and spacing was very vital to our communication need because it was the way it set to communicate with three things such as facial expression (as equal to voice tones), physical expression (as equal to action) and hand gestures (as equal to talk with mouth.) All of those became American Sign Language, known as ASL.

While I continue photographing the Deaf and hard-of-hearing individual, I am expanding my project by concentrating their daily life, daily activities, communities, events, etc. and many more to show that we are like any human being except we only cannot hear.

46. "Catch the Fall"

Dana Simon's painting has become a sculpture in this free- floating mobile. Each body part has become an object in and of itself.

47. "Avenue of Loss"

Robin Taylor's sculpture conveys the inner anguish of losses in life.

48. "The Willow Myth Bench"

This is a model in clay and wax for a bronze garden bench on an estate in Wales The client wanted a bench that reflected mythological themes, yet still would capture the essence of his estate woods. The mythological themes in and on the bench are: Diana, Leda and the Swan, Apollo and Daphne (Laurel leaves), Mercury, a lyre (9 muses), Cupid (dart, bow, and arrows), an old Roman coin from the area, a barn swallow (good luck symbol in Wales) and a robin's nest (a favorite omen in the United Kingdom).