I just think disability is the frontier to keeping shit interesting. It’s so much of the magic especially when you talk about art. —Tommy Carroll (blind musician and band leader)
When I make art I start with an idea in mind and begin to execute it. I create using adaptations and tools because my hands are partially paralyzed. These can include splints to hold paint brushes or mounts for my camera. The tasks I cannot do independently or with the use of adaptive equipment, require one of the most important tools of all, a human assistant that serves as my hands and functional body. Because of all of these variables throughout my creative process sometimes the outcome is different than what I imagined but somehow exactly what I wanted. The process becomes exciting!
For the past couple of years, I have been working on a feature-length documentary in which I have a dialogue with disabled artists Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henri Matisse through letters, journals, and art, while engaging and collaborating with contemporary artists living with disabilities. This film has become a way for me to honour artists with disabilities from the past and the contributions they left to the world. As I researched each artist more thoroughly I could recognize how their disabilities were a part of their work. It also became very evident that although these three artists are so well known, their disability experience has been, for the most part, ignored by society at large. I hope this film will encourage viewers to experience these artists’ lives and work through a different lens.
As a teenager I was in a car accident and was paralyzed from the chest down. Early on I came to the realization that some forms of making were less accessible to me and that included photography and film. It was in 2015 that I was given the opportunity to play with a camera and explore ways that I could be behind a camera. This included apps, phones, tablets, clamps, and more. I have found a variety of ways to make it work for me.
Though my process may include a lot of experimenting, I have always been intentional in that the camera’s point of view is distinctly that of individuals with disabilities. Many times, a camera is attached to the wheelchair through mounts that were designed with the help of a photographer, occupational therapist, and an engineer. Attaching the camera to the wheelchair results in the viewers’ eye level being lower, and when in movement, the wheelchair creates unique sounds, shakes, tracking shots, pivots, and framing. Other times, because my disability limits my ability to pick up a camera and change settings, I rely on my directing abilities to execute my vision through an assistant who takes the place of my hands. One of my early challenges that sometimes creeps back up was that I was holding myself to “able-bodied” standards by wanting to operate a big fancy camera I couldn’t carry or filming “the right way”. A lot of creativity has come from troubleshooting or finding creative solutions to filming from a wheelchair and that has become part of my unique aesthetic.
The Covid-19 pandemic impacted many artists and filmmakers, myself included. My plan was to collaborate with my fellow artists with disabilities in Chicago and also attend their exhibitions or performances to document the amazing work they were doing. Performances and exhibitions were cancelled or postponed. Although this felt like it was delaying the process, in truth it was probably a good thing. This pause in time gave me space to research and develop my themes, and my purpose for making this film became more clear. When slowly the world started to open up again, and my peers had exhibitions and performances, I was ready to document it. The disability community was highly impacted by Covid and so it was reassuring to see artists intentionally creating spaces that felt safe to attend as an audience member, participant, or documentarian.
As I continued to film this project I noticed that I gained more confidence as an artist and filmmaker. It’s exciting to see my fellow artists with disabilities in Chicago increasingly becoming more confident as well and excited to imagine the future of disability arts and culture. Together we have had conversations about disability identity and how it informs our work and is embodied in our artistic process. It feels like collectively we do this work because we are no longer seeking permission to exist and participate, we are creating our own spaces. So, maybe there is some sort of advocacy at the root of it. Yet, ultimately this group of artists create and celebrate one another because it brings us joy, fulfillment, and a strong sense of community.
“There’s a wonderful permissiveness to allowing identity within disability because it’s such a fluid word. There’s a reason we don’t want to identify with it… There’s a reason we want to identify with it.” —Matt Bodett
This strong sense of community has helped us to be proud of our disability identity and hopefully that can be perceived by others who are struggling to identify as disabled or who feel shame. Part of my impact goals for this film is that we are able to reach others with disabilities and continue to grow this community. Additionally, I aim to celebrate the work of artists with disabilities and remove the veil of stereotypes and tropes that can be harmful to people with disabilities. The many layers of this film, from art to history to disability and more, allows multiple entry points for audiences to connect with. As more people can watch and understand the disability experience, especially decision makers in all areas of society, more opportunities will become available and equal access will not be something we can turn our heads away from, rather it will be an important cultural value.
This past year in my art collaborations with artists with different disabilities I have been learning more about the variety of access needs that can come up during the artistic process as well as when presenting our work to audiences. Ramps, captions, audio descriptions, ASL interpreters and more! I have had the opportunity to film more exhibitions, performances, and studios of artists with disabilities in Chicago which has led me to explore ways I can bring accessibility to this film. I’m constantly thinking about having captions that can be artistic and creative (I am an artist after all) without being too much or distracting. Or, how can I have fun with audio descriptions by including it in what is happening on screen or making it poetic or rhythmic? Is that useful or enjoyable for someone who is blind or has low vision?
As I wrap up production I look forward to beginning the editing process, having thoughtful discussions, and showing cuts to my peers to provide meaningful feedback. The process of making a film has been exciting because there are so many things I want to capture and can share with visuals, sound, and accessibility. I am already thinking about other films I want to make and ways I can incorporate film and media into my artistic practice. Being behind a camera has opened up another artistic medium for me that feels new and innovative, and allows me to experiment and have a unique voice and lens.
*Thank you to AXS Film Fund and Arts Everywhere for supporting my vision and that of other BIPOC filmmakers with disabilities.