SPEAK Season 2 Episode 5: Communicating Artfully

Sharlene Cooney: After the Snow

Rachel: I’m Rachel Gray

Debbie: and I’m Debbie Ratcliffe, AKA the Dragon Lady.

Rachel: And welcome to SPEAK, a podcast from BEING Studio.

SPEAK is artists with developmental disabilities telling their own stories.

Debbie: Today on the podcast, we’re sharing a story by Sharlene Cooney.

Rachel: This episode is a little different.

Sharlene is a non-verbal artist. She does not talk. Sharlene communicates through picture communication symbols.

These are albums of images and words she points to to create meaning. Sharlene also communicates through gestures, artwork, and writing.

Debbie: For this episode, we are working with Kim who will be reading Sharlene’s words.

Rachel: In this episode, you will not hear Sharlene talk, but you will hear her voice. This is her podcast. Let’s start by introducing you to Kim.

Kim: My name is Kim Kilpatrick. I am a storyteller. I am totally blind woman and I travel with guide dogs. And I love being with the people at BEING Studio.

What excites me in a way and sort of fascinates me is that we are coming from quite different worlds of experience. Because I’m totally blind, I rely on audio: sound is a huge sense for me. And so to meet Sharlene and to understand that she’s coming at it from a totally opposite view that for her the visuals are so important to her.

Whereas the audio is so important to me, but yet we can still feel that we have a lot in common as artists and also that we can still find a way to communicate and help each other to understand and communicate. I guess that fascinates me.

I also feel a real sense of responsibility that I am the voice that is speaking her words. So I want to make sure that she feels that I am doing them justice because I, as a person with a disability, I don’t like when other people speak for me and it’s not what I want to say, or other people assume something about me and don’t give me a voice. So I want to make sure that I am speaking the words in the way she would like them to be heard by the listeners.

Rachel: Part One and introduction to Sharlene:

Kim: Hi, I am Sharlene. I am an artist who cannot talk. I am electively mute, but I can hear. Art is not just beautiful to me. Art helps me to say things that my voice cannot. Art is a way for me to give my opinion, put something beautiful into the world, advocate, express feelings, and communicate with people.

Art helps when I have anxiety or depression. Art helps me to sort my feelings or ask for help. If someone is really depressed, using art to tell your story can save your life. Art stops people from making you hide your life story, like the Truth and Reconciliation Day or Rosa Parks. People who are scared to talk can draw what happened or feelings; it’s okay. Art is good for your heart. Art is healthy.

Rachel: Part Two: Sharlene, like, love, butterflies

Butterflies and caterpillars are a common subject in Sharlene’s work. In these artworks, the caterpillars are large and green. The butterflies are brilliant. Sharlene is interested in the idea of transformation. When she walks, she is careful not to step on caterpillars, careful to give them that chance to evolve. I asked Sharlene about her interest in caterpillars and, as an answer, she sent me a poem she copied out by hand. This poem is by an unknown author. Here’s Kim reading it:

Kim: Caterpillar is looking glum. I’m feeling sad, you see. No one ever notices a tiny grub like me. I wish I was a poppy red, then I would be proud.

There is no better color. How about bright yellow as golden as the sun? Then again, I do like pink. The roses look so pretty. Instead I’m only dull and green. It really is a pity. Caterpillar hides away until one day she wakes as a multicolored butterfly. Then what a stir she makes.

Rachel: Part Three: Ariel

For this part of Sharlene’s story, we need to introduce you to another voice.

Linda: Hi, my name is Linda!

Rachel: This is Linda who works with Sharlene and supported through this interview process. You’ll hear a lot from Linda in this episode as Linda reads and interprets the images that Sharlene points to in her books.

Linda shares her own thoughts and memories too.

Linda: I met Sharlene many years ago. Sharlene came to Ottawa from another agency. She had been through some very traumatic things as a young woman and they needed to find someone who had some educational experience and a background working with complex needs.

And my job was to help support Sharlene move from that situation to get supports and care in Ottawa and to work with her and learn her communication system. And support her in starting a new life.

Rachel: How would you describe Sharlene?

Linda: Well, I would describe Sharlene as an amazingly strong woman who’s overcome things that I think many people, regardless of their station in life, could even overcome.

So she’s a lot stronger than a lot of people know and very brave and is very gentle. She was very gentle to my father when he was dying. It was very sweet. She’s got a very kind heart and, you know, a bit of an Irish temper every now and again. I’m very lucky to have met Sharlene. She’s been a wonderful teacher for me and of course I love Sharlene. You’ve been a great friend and a person in my life as well as someone I’ve worked with for many years.

What would you like people to know about your Sharlene?

That you’re a nice person. Which is true. And nice? She’s flipping through her books to find a word.

You’re proud! I love that symbol. You’re proud. I wish they could see… it’s okay. You’re proud. What else?

Strong, a woman, yes. In your heart, you’ve got a good heart. And how do you feel about art? It makes you happy. You love art.

Rachel: Here is a description Debbie and I wrote of a drawing of a mermaid by Sharlene: The mermaid is in the middle of the paper. The mermaid looks like a person who was upside down in a cocoon. Maybe she is trying to emerge as a butterfly. Maybe her whole body is a tail. She has red hair. She has two arms. She is smiling above and below her. There is blue. It is the same color as her body.

It is hard to know if she is in the sea or the sky.

And here’s Kim with Sharlene’s words.

Kim: Ariel is a Disney hero that cannot talk. Ariel is beautiful. She loves animals, dogs, fireworks, seashells and pretty things. Ariel’s voice is beautiful. Sing beautiful. Ursula mean, steal’s Ariel’s voice. Ariel cannot talk. I understand. Ariel is scared.

Prince Eric falls off the boat. Ariel saved Eric’s life. He does not know. Ariel is strong and good people do not know. Ariel’s sister cuts her hair to help Ariel. Sharlene, little girl, you cannot talk. Steal voice. You cannot tell. I am strong. I like animals. Swimming, fireworks, seashells, make jewelry, Sharlene Cooney.

Rachel: Part Four: Sharlene, like, love, rainbows

Sharlene loves rainbows. This is one of the first things I learned about her work. Rainbows are a part of so many of Sharlene’s drawings. Sometimes the rainbows are small. Sometimes they fill the entire sky. When we were all together on Zoom, Kim asked Sharlene about these rainbows.

Kim: I’ve never seen a rainbow, so I don’t know if there’s any way you could describe a rainbow to me?

Linda: A rainbow. How would you describe a rainbow? would you, what word would you use? What, what kind of rainbow do, if it wasn’t a picture, what would a rainbow feel like, Sharlene? Would you maybe think of that? How would it feel?

It comes from God, or the sky. It comes from the sky, it comes from the sky. It comes from the sky.

It’s usually after it rains, so the sun usually comes out. Maybe it’d be warmer?

How does it make you feel when you see it? Like, is it just really excited or do you feel peaceful or what do you feel?

Linda: Do you feel excited, charming, or peaceful or something, just happy or peaceful? You feel peaceful because maybe the storm is over, right? There’s no lightning when there’s a rainbow.

That’s true. There’s no lightning when there’s a rainbow. Yeah, it’s safer to go outside when there’s a rainbow, that’s true.

Kim: Are the colors bright, are the colors very bright?

Linda: Are they bright? Yes. Yes, that’s right.

And, and different, different layers of bright, like, um, Hmm. How would we describe it? You could have maybe a cake that has one flavor, but if you had a cake that had multi different flavors on it…

Kim: Ooh, it’s like that ice cream! What do you call that ice cream?

Rachel: Oh, Neapolitan?

Linda: Yeah, you could have colours and it would be like different flavors in an ice cream or a cake. That’s true. That’s really nice.

Kim: Thank you. That’s really nice to hear about the rainbow.

Rachel: Here it’s a description Debbie and I wrote about three of Sharlene’s rainbow drawings:

A thick rainbow bends below the yellow sun. There is a second rainbow. This rainbow is like a bridge over the ground. It is like the sky rainbow and the earth rainbow are trying to reach each other. Between them there is dark, dark blue.

Debbie says the rainbow is an image of itself from a lake’s point of view.

Debbie: Three moons and a sun. A cave with a red rock on the inside. The rock is three layers thick: brown, black, and brown. There’s a red rock emerging, half a bit in the sea. There is blue water all around it. In the sky, there is red, yellow, and red again. There is blue.

Rachel: The rainbow comes from the bottom of the earth to the top of the sky. There is a sun and three clouds and a green sky pressed into the top of the page. The bands of color bend.

There are layers of purple, green, yellow, blue, peach, yellow, orange, and pink. It’s like a river or the sea, the waves are coming in, but they’re coming in gentle, coming in like the rhythm of a heartbeat, or like when you breathe in and out.

And here’s Kim with Sharlene’s words.

Kim: Sharlene, like, love, beautiful rainbow

God makes sky rainbow. Rainbow Bridge in heaven is where our animals are angels. Paige, Sparky, Willie and Toby cats on the rainbow bridge, safe in heaven. The galaxy hugs, a group of stars and planets. Our son is one of billions of stars in a galaxy called the Milky Way.

A rainbow is art in the sky. Maybe our animals say hello in a rainbow. I don’t know.

Cloud: a mass of water droplets floating in the sky. Rain falls from the clouds, the sun peeks out from behind a cloud when a rainstorm ends, a rainbow can come. This means there is no more lightning. A rainbow is safe and beautiful. If you cannot see a rainbow, it looks warm and cool. A rainbow has lots of colors together in the sky. To people who cannot see a rainbow, it’s the same to your eyes ike a big layer cake is to eat and lots of different flavors. Kim says like an ice cream cake. Rainbows come in the spring and summer when we eat ice cream cake the most. I really like ice cream cake from Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins.

I like to draw rainbows in the sky. You see art. Some parts of this come from “The mysteries of the universe” by Will Gator, PenguinRandom House, 2020.

Some parts come from collaboration with Kim in my BEING program class. Thank you for helping me, Kim.

And from Kim to Sharlene, thank you for your beautiful, beautiful words, and trusting me to be your voice for SPEAK. I feel very honored about that.

Rachel: SPEAK is hosted by:

Debbie: Debbie “The Dragon” Ratcliffe,

Rachel: produced and co-hosted by Rachel Gray.

Debbie: Theme music by Jesse Stewart

Rachel: Music for this episode by King Kimbit.

Debbie: Our consulting editor is Allie Graham.

Rachel: We want to thank Erin Flynn for all her incredible work on SPEAK. Erin mixed the first season of SPEAK and the first half of season 2. She’s been involved with the show from the start and it wouldn’t exist without her. So a huge thank you, Erin. We also want to welcome and thank Jamie McDonald who mixed this episode.

You will not hear Sharlene speak today, but it is her voice and this is her podcast.

This episode is scored by King Kimbit.