Ruth Major has found artistic magic in something the rest of us might find frightening.
One day she was sitting at a computer, examining a series of MRI scans of her brain, with their telltale white lesions revealing her multiple sclerosis. She accidentally hit a button and the tiny images multiplied to fill the screen. The printmaker instantly saw the aesthetic and metaphorical potential of the repeated image. Soon, in the studio, she was creating giant prints of the scans, and superimposing them like white spectres over vintage photos from her childhood, when she would already have been carrying the seeds of the disease.
“You look at your brain and you think your brain is really amazing. It’s like looking into your own creativity. I was just fascinated to see it,” Major tells the Straight over the phone from her Vancouver home. “I believe accidents never happen—that magical things can happen when an accident happens. I also wanted to show people that I have MS and these are images of my brain, but I’m still an amazing person. I’m still a person.”
Her work is now on view with that of 12 other artists who live with various disabilities (from the physical to the developmental to the psychological) in the Kickstart 5 Festival’s juried visual-art exhibit Magic/Realism, at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre. It’s part of a four-day series of visual arts workshops, live performances, and forums.
The media vary wildly, but the message is the same as Major’s: these people are artists first. Bernadine Fox, who cocurated Magic/Realism with Elizabeth Shefrin, has noticed a new attitude evolving since Kickstart launched in 2001. “What I have seen is there is more credibility given to artists who have a disability,” she says during a walk-through of the exhibit at the Roundhouse. “More and more artists are coming forward and saying they have a disability, because their art is not so easily dismissed. So what Kickstart does is bring forward professional artists who have a disability, and the audience gets it that these are professionals. It’s not a hobby, not just therapy.”
For some of the local artists in the exhibit, the pieces are direct metaphors for their conditions. Cat L’Hirondelle, who uses a wheelchair, has painstakingly cut 171 feathers out of metal, stamped and painted them, and then riveted them together into glimmering wings; they hang in her installation Defying Gravity beside a hat and coat on a coat rack. “The piece is about soaring above limitations, and there are a lot of these when a person has a ‘disability’,” she tells the Straight from home. “I chose to display them on a coat hook with other everyday items because I wanted people to see the whole piece as ordinary but also extraordinary—just like people with disabilities.”
The reconstructed Barbies in Persimmon Blackbridge’s “Diagnoses” series speak to constant rounds of psychiatric analysis, “like being shoved into an ill-fitting box (and sometimes being sawn in half)”, as she says in her artist’s statement. Plastic doll parts fuse with wood and metal to form bodies lined up in boxes, while the tops of heads sit separated, probed with other found objects, on a shelf above.
In Geoff McMurchy’s case, he imagines My Assistance Gryphon (instead of an assistance dog) in an assemblage that turns curving table legs and driftwood into a creature that looks like it could take flight any moment.
Some of the works are more of a social statement. In “The Bus Pass Project”, Justina Vanovcan snaps large-scale portraits of nude transit users standing at bus stops and wearing only their disability passes around their necks. It’s a statement about how people should not be embarrassed to show the card. Says Fox: “It’s about the stigma of having a bus pass around your neck that identifies you as disabled. She’s talking about how she’d rather be naked at the bus stop than not wear the pass.”
That attitude of pride over stigma could easily apply to the show itself. Major, who has been printmaking for 15 years and only received her diagnosis 11 years ago, says this is the first time she’s identified as “disabled” with her art.
“I have had a really hard time with that term,” she says, and then clarifies: “For me, it was more about the ability than the disability. People have the ability to do amazing things.”