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Elements of a Culture: Visions by Deaf Artists

An entire genre of vibrant, eloquent minority art has largely escaped the attention of art scholars and the general public: it is Deaf Art.

Deaf Art is artwork - oils, watercolors, acrylic, pen and ink, video, photography, sculpture - that is an expression of Deaf culture. Deaf Art communicates not the sensory experience of silence but rather the values of Deaf culture: the beauty of sign language and its painful oppression, the breakdown of family life when hearing parents cannot communicate in sign language, the joys of Deaf bonding, the horror of ear surgery on healthy Deaf children, turning points in the artist's acculturation to Deaf culture, such as the discovery of language, and turning points in the history of Deaf peoples, such as the 1880 Milan Congress prohibiting signed languages in Europe and America. In short, Deaf Art is like other genres of minority art (for example, African-American art) in engaging viewers aesthetically while communicating universals of minority oppression and bonding, and a unique vision that broadens viewers' understanding of their humanity. 

Deaf Art has largely escaped general attention in the United States for the same reason that Deaf culture had until recently: the very large number of formerly hearing Americans who are clearly disabled by their deafness - an estimated 20 million - has overshadowed and miscast as disabled the smaller linguistic minority  -- less than a million - that are born Deaf or early become so, acquire American Sign Language as their primary language, marry Deaf and integrate into the society called (in ASL) the Deaf-World. The history of the American Deaf-World (H. Lane, When the Mind Hears, New York: Random House,1986) reaches back to the founding of our nation and earlier to the Deaf-World in Enlightenment France. This is a rich and complex culture with unique mores, values and knowledge. Ever since the Gallaudet Revolution of 1988 and the drama Children of a Lesser God, hearing Americans have been discovering what the Atlantic Monthly has called "the new ethnicity"; but they have yet to discover its art. Because culturally Deaf  people are visual people, there have  always been Deaf  artists, many with world-wide renown. From the 18th Century salons des Beaux-Arts to mid-20th Century, most culturally Deaf artists sought to compete with hearing artists for the attention of the general public and they eschewed themes from Deaf culture. However, following the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., which contributed to a renaissance of Deaf culture, Spectrum: Focus on Deaf Artists was founded in 1975 and brought together 22 Deaf artists, dancers, painters and actors from around the country to celebrate Deaf culture in art. Three years earlier, Deaf artist Betty Miller had presented the first exhibition in the U.S. devoted to art expressing themes from Deaf culture. Growing interest in Deaf Art led in 1985 to creation of Deaf Artists of America. Then, in 1989, the Deaf Way International Conference on Deaf Culture at Gallaudet University presented a major exhibit of Deaf Art from around the world to be followed by other, smaller exhibits, in subsequent years in lesser venues, always addressed to audiences of Deaf people and hearing people connected with the Deaf-World.

It is time for Deaf culture Art to "come out of the closet," to be given an opportunity to win the more general audience that it deserves, and to take its rightful place in the corpus of American minority art. Northeastern University has received initial funding and is seeking further foundation support to bring Deaf Art before the wider American public, art scholars and teachers, Deaf students and adults and their hearing relatives and allies, and hearing students studying the language, history, social structure or culture of the Deaf-World. We plan to accomplish this goal through a carefully designed touring exhibit of selected Deaf Art, coupled with outreach initiatives in each city, and media development for art instruction. We have targeted seven cities for the touring exhibit. The cities were chosen with these criteria: They contain (1) an administrative entity (educational institution, commission on the Deaf, etc.) with ties to the Deaf-World and (2) to the local arts scene, (3) that is prepared to make a financial commitment and is (4) positioned geographically to facilitate broad outreach. As of this writing, we have commitment from such collaborating centers in Seattle WA, Rochester NY, Miami, FL, St. Paul, MN, Boston MA, Lexington, KY and San Jose, CA.

The touring exhibit will come alive through coordinated outreach cultural activities. The exhibit itself will include some 35 to 40 works by recognized American and Canadian Deaf artists addressing Deaf-World themes. The exhibit program will include: (1) A gala opening ceremony designed to draw press and public attention; (2) lectures on Deaf art by national authorities;  (3) A workshop held in the gallery with a panel of artists; (4) guided tours for students from programs for the Deaf in area high schools and colleges; (5) One work of art specially commissioned for the exhibit; (6) Panels in the gallery with text that gives historical or cultural context for interpreting the various works (each work will also have a wall label describing the title, year and artist); (7) an exhibit catalog with full color plates for sale; (8) posters for sale; (9) a Deaf Art instruction portfolio for sale containing slides of the works shown, the catalogue, a brochure with information about the artists, works, and cultural and historical contexts, and curriculum suggestions. Collaborating centers will monitor attendance and press coverage (with the help of clipping services). After the exhibit moves on, the collaborating center will continue to promote Deaf Art awareness and the adoption of the Deaf Art instructional portfolio as part of a local college's Deaf Studies curriculum. Some Centers will commit to undertake regional Deaf Art exhibits in subsequent years, as a result of the local exhibition and the Deaf Artists' Retreat. (10) Deaf Artists from each collaborating center will be invited to participate a peer-led Deaf Artists' Retreat, to facilitate discussion of technique, explore themes related to Deaf culture, and promote the production of works of Deaf Art.

The Touring exhibit will be directed by Harlan Lane, University Distinguished Professor, Northeastern University and Brenda Schertz, Adjunct Instructor of Deaf Studies at Northeastern University. Dr. Lane is a world-renown authority on Deaf language and culture. Ms. Schertz is a nationally-recognized curator of Deaf Art. The exhibit will be guided by an Advisory Board comprised of authorities in the fields of art history, Deaf culture art, and Deaf culture: Prof. Deborah Sonnenstrahl, former chair, Art Department, Gallaudet University; Dr. Benjamin Bahan, Chair, Deaf Studies Department, Gallaudet University; Elizabeth Cromley, Chair, Dept. of Art and Architecture, Northeastern University; Barbara Jean Wood, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; Susan Becherer, Outreach Specialist, Center for the Arts, Northeastern University; Elsa Nunez, Provost, Lesley College, Boston.