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Disability Arts Online

Question 1. How does your experience of disability relate to your art?

Leni D. Anderson  Columbus, Ohio, USA 
My disability fuels my creativity because it’s the one thing that I can do to channel the negative feelings into something positive.

As clichéd as this may sound, art for me is a way of life, my life, it is not something I practice; it is like breathing, eating and taking a shit. I just do it because it’s programmed … nature says I must.
Forefront or subtext?   It depends.  In the artwork I’m known for and exhibit, it’s not even a thought, but I have a series of paintings and a number of journals that I keep for myself, and it’s at the forefront.

Additional thoughts. Art plays a vital and important role .. especially in dealing with my disabilities.  Art has allowed me to channel my illnesses into something tangible …. to take my chaos and bring order, chaotic order - but order nevertheless - into my life. (extract from artist’s statement).

Loretta Bebeau
  Minneapolis, Minnesota USA
My disability both fuels and is an obstacle to art production.  Mainly I have a hearing disability, but have an autoimmune disease since 2004. Bouts of pain and exhaustion leave me numb and less adventurous about exhibiting or taking on new projects. But without hearing (since 1988), I've limited employment opportunities. One needs to do some thing to feel alive as a contributor to the world.

The forefront of my creativity has been expressing who I am in the current culture. I've done art for 30 years, before the hearing loss. I was not conscious of doing art about hearing until another artist… made comment about the work. I was concentrating on the lack of communication in my marriage, not lack of hearing - lack of interaction. The subconscious acts in wonderous ways.

After exhibiting with artists in the Deaf Culture. I realized those born-deaf were not commenting about hearing loss in their art. Understandably, I began doing the work. Trying to analyze what aspects of speech are absent to me. Communication is a turn-taking event.

My largest disability is not a disability. I was born with a facial defect and that frightens people. People come to conclusions about one's face before they've spoken. It's a social register; instinctive response.

Allen Bryan
  Brooklyn, New York USA   

For most of my adult life I took pictures… of things that stopped me in my tracks. ….Then in 1988 I was diagnosed with a genetic eye disease: Faced with the progressive tunneling of my vision, as well as distortion of color perception and night blindness, I went to the Southwest to experience its vast panoramas before my visual field was drastically narrowed. The trip awakened my interest in landscapes. ‘Comforts of Home’ came about as I searched for connections between my early, quickly-taken photographs.. and the slower, contemplative landscape work that followed.

Having less than ten degrees of visual field.. I see the world in discrete sections. There is no periphery on the left, right, up or down. …Things appear suddenly or not at all.  In ‘Comforts of Home’ …. I am able to re-examine and reorganize my photographic life, creating pictures that question comfortable reality. (extract from artist’s statement)
Obstacle or fuel?  Other than slowing me down, it’s currently neutral in the creative process.

Liz Crow  Bristol, UK
My work has been very much about disability in the sense of discrimination and people's response to that discrimination  - it has not been about impairment particularly. …It’s about barriers and misconceptions about who I am, and how I and other disabled people function. (Read the full interview with Liz Crow at

Liz Doles   Newburgh, New York, US
Pinhole photography allowed me to make work without the limitations imposed on me by my disability (compromised vision resulting from Graves’ disease.) In one sense it is irrelevant in that there is no theme per se of disability… I don’t think the viewer would necessarily pick that up . . .
Forefront or subtext?  Of course, I’m inseparable from my disability, but also from my abilities...

Joan Fabian
   San Antonio, Texas, US   

I am hearing impaired since about eight years old.  I didn't know what was wrong … my parents chose to be in denial. I wasn't properly fitted for hearing aids until I was 18, and demanded them so I could do better in school.

Being hearing impaired has shaped who I am so it is hard to imagine how my work could not be effected by that fact.  It gave me a sense of self and I was a very shy child. Kids made fun of me and I was often misunderstood.  I probably would not have resorted to working alone on drawing and painting.

I am extremely aware of body language. My artwork helped me see the details that are around us... it was a visual “turn up the volume" sort of thing for me.  Decorative arts is very interesting to me and I often wonder if this has something to do with repetition, like one repeating themselves if I can't hear them.  Also, if the patterns in textile repeating itself refers to this fact.
Forefront or a subtext?  I would have to say it is a subtext because I do not do art that has to do with conveying to the viewer what it is like to be hearing impaired. It is there for me, but not the focus.
Additional statement  Working as a visual artist, I use the internet a lot to meet people because it has always been better for me due to the hearing issue. I have done fairly well I think because of this.

I could do better if I played the art scene at local openings but it is always difficult to hear people so I tend to avoid them…. The political scene that is so important for artists doesn't come natural to me.  People tell me that it is rather a lot of small talk and that I am not missing so much. But it is (through) this small talk that people get to know each other and new shows come out of knowing who and what you do as an artist.

Barbara Freeman Cincinnati, Ohio, US
My ‘disability’ is A.D.D. and it is coupled with depression, not a rare happenstance. In fact I know several artists that fall into this category, and two who committed suicide. This is not unheard of in the art world, but it does illustrate the connection between creativity and brain dysfunction. As far as the effect it has on my work, I believe I create because I have A.D.D., but my subject matter has nothing to do with A.D.D. I do not want to be defined by a disability. I want my work to relate to everyone.   My work is about simplicity and humour. The ceramic medium makes the success rate diminish.

David S. Forbes
   Queensland, Australia  

I am an artist first-and-foremost. I do have a disability, but it does not define my work or my identity.

My work is seldom autobiographical except for the odd self-portrait which is, of course, influenced by the ‘disability factor’… so with my work being driven by issues arising from aspects of site-specificity, disability is more an obstacle to be factored in the design development phase.  Disability is subtext.

Ju Gosling  aka ju90  London UK
Obviously the disabling barriers in society pose obstacles – I have written about these further at length in my own work. No one likes to be constantly discriminated against and denied the opportunities they deserve. But of course it provides a rich source of material as well.
Forefront or a subtext?  It all depends – some work is overtly political, but elsewhere it may simply be that I reject the Western colour palette which results from the Cartesian belief in a divided body and mind, and the importance of a restrained body and mind.

Busser Howell 
Troy, Ohio, USA
I am a painter first of all.  I have been working … for over fifty years.  I was sighted but lost most of my vision as a teenager, and then all of it twenty-five years ago.  I don’t think my disability has changed my sense of self, I will always consider myself an artist. 

Forefront or subtext? Disability is not the driving force.  I don’t think it enters into a conversation about my work at all.

I view myself as on a path.  I allow my work to evolve in a natural progression and although I see alterations I have made to accommodate my decline in vision, it feels more like my art drives my work and not my lack of sight. 

So is there any relationship between the very textured surfaces in your work and blindness? (via email conversation)
The move in my work to my heavy, hand-applied texture - was not a blind thing.  I use meditation before working and often follow what direction I am taken. However, what I believe is happening here is that we-the blind and low vision artist- move in directions that are feasible for us  -  I  think this is more of a subconscious direction.. 

To me, form follows function.  Each artist is on a particular path.  The disability is a part of the direction chosen but not the driving force.  The technique is adjusted to fit within certain desired paths.   The result is a culmination of many factors - the disability not having more sway than the rest of the artist’s make-up.  Clear as mud?

Simon Mckeown   North Yorkshire, UK
Disability fuels me and my work.
Forefront or subtext?  It occurs at both levels. (Read the full interview with Simon Mckeown at

US Artist (quoted anonymously)
Forefront or subtext? Never think about it until I need to move 50 lb of clay.

Pedro Luis Mejia Granja Guatemala, Central America
Our Guatemala culture is full of flavours, colors, odors, and textures; it is a culture that stimulates our senses one hundred percent, but at the same time it is a culture where disabilities are still seen as something strange, out of context. The road to integration is still very narrow. (catalogue statement quoted with artist’s permission).

Amy Miller   Florida USA
I have Tourette’s Syndrome.  I have facial tics, thought tics, O.C.D. etc…  When I can’t express myself, frustrated mad, sad, I express it in creating a chair.  It relieves stress, it saves my sanity.   It’s my at home therapist.   When there are no words there is always a chair to create.

The symptoms of Tourette’s fuel my creativity.  The creativity helps me push through the hard times.   It keeps my mind on creating and not having tics.
Forefront or subtext?  It is a subtext.  My art work is my creativity work.

Janet Morrow   Bedford, Texas US
Sometimes the physical constraints of my disabilities (hearing loss, disequilibrium and vertigo) are quite limiting. I am usually able to find alternative ways to accomplish tasks, but it can be frustrating to struggle to do what used to come so easily.

Forefront or subtext?  Right now it is at the forefront. Currently, I am focusing on themes of hearing loss, disability and otherness in my work. At other times I have created art that is not so concerned with disability.

Isaac Powell   Richmond, Kentucky, US
It fuels my work. However, I don’t rely on it solely for creativity.
Forefront or subtext?  Subtext. I use personal iconic imagery that takes the place of imagery or ideas that relate to my disability.

Additional statement. My art making process is based upon the conflict and the problem solving of visual equations… I was born without my right hand.  It is important that I displace this physical handicap by creating highly crafted hand made supports and structures for my paintings and drawings.

Janet Yagoda Shagam Albuquerque, New Mexico, US
I have epilepsy which makes your question an interesting one. There is some research that indicates that epilepsy and creativity are indeed related. I have participated in a neurobiology of creativity study - and I do have the brain anatomy associated with increased creativity.

Okay. How does this relate to having epilepsy? Who knows? And does it matter?  ‘Creative Sparks’ Art & Epilepsy Study website.

Obstacle or fuel? It was the return of childhood seizures that brought me back to making art. So not an obstacle, but also not a thematic focus.
Forefront or subtext? I guess a subtext.

I do want to add that there are times when I feel that epilepsy gave me art. The return of seizures about 10 years ago made me evaluate who I am. Actually, the 10th year anniversary is December 8th. I consider it another birthday.   (additional statement via email)

Bill Shannon
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US 

I have a physical disability that limits my work in physical ways while simultaneously opening up new physical directions. My work is also conceptual in nature and can be absolutely irrelevant to the disabled experience I have lived.

Neither an obstacle or a fuel, disability is a cultural and personal influence on my life among many others of equal, lesser or greater significance. Disability spans the gamut from being the focus to being inconsequential.

Katherine Sherwood 
Rodeo, California, US 

I had a cerebral haemorrhage 13 yrs ago though I had been working with brain imagery a full 6 years before.  It took a while for my life to catch up with my art.  I continue to make art using brain imagery although of late the brain imagery stands in for body parts.
Obstacle or fuel?   It definitely fuels it. 
Forefront or subtext?  It might not be apparent, but to me it is in the forefront.

Rhonda Zwillinger Pauldren, Arizona US
At the height of an international career, I became disabled with multiple chemical sensitivities.   Now everyday chemicals cause life-threatening reactions, causing me to switch from traditional art materials to glass, pearls, and gems.   No time for sorry feelings – instead, an opportunity for aesthetic reinvention.

I am a cargo cult collecting rusty objects, bones, pearls, jewels, glass, in order to create totemic maximalist altars to ‘culture’. 
(Quoted with artist’s permission from ‘Revealing Culture’ catalogue).