SPEAK Season 2 Episode 10: World Builders

A painting by Ildiko Fejĕs featuring a woman playing field hockey with two other players framing her in the background. Wrapped around the central figure are the words “I have fun on my team with other ladies.”

Rachel: Hi, everyone. Welcome to a special episode of SPEAK. In our last episode, we looked at the history of BEING by examining the work of Irene Beck, an artist who worked at BEING Studio between 2002 and 2012. Today, we’re going to continue this journey into our past to try to better understand where BEING came from and how our history connects to larger histories of art and disability in Canada.

To do this, we’re talking to artists, academics, and former board members. There is so much about disability history that isn’t talked about. And there’s so much about disability arts or what it means to be a disabled artist that feels sticky and murky. Even though these are terms we use all the time at the studio, we’re diving into the complication of these ideas and this history to try to better understand ourselves where we are and where we’re going. Before we get started, I’d like to go through some history.

For a long time, people with disabilities in Canada were put in institutions. They were segregated and cut off from most parts of society. 40,000 Ontarians with developmental disabilities were placed in institutions between 1876 and 2009. People with cognitive disabilities did not get the right to vote in Canada until 1997.

In 1987, the Canadian government announced a plan to transition away from institutions and community-based organizations and services were formed to fill this gap. BEING Studio is part of this transition. It opened in 2002 under the name H’Art of Ottawa.

To better understand the relationship between H’Art of Ottawa and this history of de-institutionalization in Canada, I talked to Michael Orsini, who is a former board member of BEING Studio and a professor of gender studies and political studies at the university of Ottawa.

Michael Orsini: That’s a really complex history and of course it’s related to institutionalization and de-institutionalization.

H’ARt kind of emerged at a time where there wasn’t much of a real strong consciousness around, empowering, again, for lack of a better term, people with disabilities so that the emergence of organizations that provided an outlet for disabled folks to engage in creative expression would be, would’ve been seen at the time as almost kind of radical.

You could also say, like, what was happening around that time too was a kind of transformation in the role that government should play in supporting people with disabilities, kind of toggling between seeing disabled people as a family responsibility and sort of manage that way, versus saying that disabled people should be out in the community. Not knowing sort of intimately that history, I would say that part of what was beginning to happen was that disability was coming out of the shadows.

And that was really an imperfect kind of process. But, I think in the early 2000s, it was more about what disabled people who couldn’t, who would not be necessarily institutionalized, where would they, where would they be? Who could, who would be responsible? And what role can community organizations play? I think what would’ve been prominent was that, an outlet and a place for folks to express themselves in an artistic way was seen as, you know, a really, really positive development and move away from shunning people or disabled people in institutions or in their homes.

So, at some level, I would say, you know, you could say that it would’ve been probably seen as kind of radical and it might explain why it was hard. It’s been hard to shake some of that idea of what an organization like BEING does and is.

And so if you think about it as kind of an outlet for folks, then selling work, promoting the work, treating folks like artists, all of that would be seen as secondary or not even relevant to what was seen at the time, you know, as a primary responsibility.

Rachel: What Michael is describing here, this emphasis on social and educational benefits of art. is really obvious in early texts about the Studio. Here’s a quote from an article about heart in the Ottawa Sun published in 2002: “ H’Art’s educational program teaches life skills like hygiene, clothing, nutrition, exercise, self-esteem, self-control, and self-concept.”

Just as a side note, when we read this, we all thought, ‘What is self-concept?’; let us know if you know. This early version of BEING Studio was focused around life skills and education. Art was not seen as an end in itself.

One thing I find interesting is that there’s such an emphasis in people interacting with the work at BEING Studio to think, yeah, as, as you’re saying, like, this must be so good for the artist to have this outlet, this expression, but there’s not this thought of this is so good for the community to have this input, like to have this voice or to have this knowledge, you know, it’s not seen as knowledge.

Michael Orsini: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that’s the fundamental thing is, this notion of staring, you know, and kind of staring back at people who are disabled. Like historically, you know, think about the freak shows that used to happen in sort of circuses and things like that.

So this idea that people would look at disabled people and say, wow, it’s so great that they have this opportunity versus saying, wow, you know, folks who don’t identify as disabled get to peek into a really interesting sort of world that is not like a freak show or voyeuristic, but just to kind of say that art is, you know, our collective idea of what constitutes art and what constitutes all of those things shift when we take seriously the role of disabled artists.

We need to support artists. Not because it’s a form of charity, but because they’re citizens who have rights, that need to be supported, not just assumed to exist and things like that. So those are, those are political things. Those are political questions, you know?

Rachel: In 2017, H’Art of Ottawa transitioned into BEING Studio to clearly become an arts organization dedicated to supporting contemporary artists with disabilities. Michael and Bucko, who you’ll hear from later in this episode, were both advocates for this change, but what disability art is and what it means to be an organization supporting disabled artists is not necessarily straightforward.

I talked to Eliza Chandler, a professor of disability studies at Ryerson University and a supporter of BEING Studio about this.

For someone who doesn’t know what disability art is, how would you describe disability art?

Eliza Chandler: I think that’s a really interesting question.

I think, you know, we talk about disability art being made by disabled people and to me that’s sort of the most basic definition of disability art. But even that, even as basic as that’s full of contention and because not everyone identifies as disabled for political reasons, for personal reasons, because it implies you might have to sort of identify with perhaps a colonial framework, or maybe it’s an urban framework.

I think it’s just sort of this thing that we practice and political commitment to making work accessible, to centering disabled leadership, in whatever way that looks like. It could be a commitment, well, this is my bias, a commitment to anti-assimilation rather than inclusion.

So creating culture, not as a way of being included into norm and of culture, but creating our own kind of culture.

Rachel: Creating culture, not as a way of being included into mainstream culture, but creating our own kind of culture, creating new worlds. This is something that feels very familiar to me. World building is a huge part of many artists’ work at BEING Studio. It’s a big part of this podcast. Art can help us make our internal worlds accessible to other people.

Often we use our art to make the spaces we want to see in the world real. Through art, they become real and become tools for changing the world around us. Art is a building block of culture. It is how we share our dreams and experiences with one another.

Another building block of culture is history. Understanding where we come from. This is one reason why we are doing this project, looking into BEING Studio’s history and archive. Often when I talk to people in my own city about BEING, they think it’s a new organization: the two decades of art history the Studio contains is invisible to them. There are many reasons for this, including the segregation of people with disabilities.

We talked about earlier in the show. It’s one reason why sharing the archive at BEING Studio is so important. I spoke with Eliza about the importance of accessing disability arts histories.

Eliza Chandler: I went to art school. And, at that point, I wasn’t “out” as a disabled, as they say. Obviously I was disabled, everyone knew it, I certainly knew it, but I didn’t talk about that. You know, I didn’t seek out accessibility services, these kinds of things. And so when I went to make art I would always sort of have this idea and then attenuate it or limit it based on what I independently could do physically. So that really affected the art that I would make.

I remember when I was in sculpture, I really wanted to make this big artwork and instead I would make a small prototype out of clay, or something. Even though all around me like these big macho cis men were collaborating with each other, because I couldn’t make a big angel with wings, or whatever it was, because I needed help, was somehow off limits. It was seen as me taking away something from my artistic voice or something. If I can’t do it myself then, is it really my artwork?, that’s what I thought. Obviously, I was working through some stuff, you know, I didn’t know if it was internalized ableism or what, but I was working within a culture where disability was unexpected and my way of dealing with that was to mitigate the disruption of that disability, the disruption that my disability made as best possible.

And actually, right now I’m thinking like, maybe that’s fine to draw into like the disruption that disability makes, because for so long, I would like one whole MO, my whole, like, way of being was how could I be as discrete and undisruptive as possible.

I think if I had access to knowing about disability, even that disabled artists existed, even though that was the category that I, even if I wasn’t comfortable with it at that point, I might someday come into. Or even if other people were making work through collaboration or via asking for help, or you were making artwork that didn’t look like everybody else’s, how, what a template that would have been for me and how I think it would have encouraged me to do very simple things, like ask for help. Or bold things like make artwork about my disability, or think about, you know, asking philosophical questions of “If somebody else makes the sculpture that I have in my head, is that still my sculpture?” It worked for Andy Warhol, so why, why would that be different for me? But all of that was limited and therefore my experience and what I was producing was also limited because I didn’t have access to a disability archive, for example. So I think, I mean, that’s a very personal response. I think that there are so many other reasons to know our history, to see how aesthetics developed, to see even what tools people were using to make our work.

I think there’s also public benefit as well to knowing that the history of disability isn’t just one of institutionalization and intense violence and oppression. It is that, but all along disabled people have been resisting and agentic and telling different kinds of stories and then [muffled] a key way to showcase that resistance is to highlight the art that was being made, even at the same time that other not so great things were happening.

Rachel: We’ve talked a lot about the power and importance of disability art, and culture. The wonder of building alternative worlds. I sometimes think of BEING like this: passing through the door is like passing through a portal. A glimpse into what could be. We can invest a lot into building these worlds for ourselves, but is there a point where these alternative spaces can become isolating, like an orbiting planet separated from everybody else?

Bucko is an artist and a former board member of being talked about this tension with our assistant producer Fin.

Bucko: I mean, for me as an artist, it’s a difficult balancing act between… I just want people to like my art, enjoy my music or my performance. So it’s a bit of a struggle in a sense of like, is my disability being the thing that pulls people into my? Art or is it like the disability is a component of the art, you know, like , I wanna be seen by anybody, like regardless of their ability and I don’t necessarily want to be, I don’t want them to sort of stop at the disability.

And, just like, I dunno, crudely, like the cute kinda thing that’s attached to what I’m doing. Like, to expand on that thought, I think it’s always important to try to bridge beyond just disability arts. So, you know, I would hope that there will be BEING, and there are BEING artists that people just remember their art and it’s not like we’re not just grouped into a niche of artists with disabilities. So it’s always a, it’s a struggle as an artist to know how to navigate that.

There’s lots of focus now on giving money, grants, to artists with disabilities, it’s such wonderful to have that access, but I don’t wanna just be showcased just because of that, you know?

Fin: I think like everything you’ve said is, it is really important stuff that makes me think about how it can be, yeah. It can be really complicated in communities where you feel like the work and the inclusion, the acceptance, the safety exists within that community. But then outside of that community, it sometimes feels like you can be a bit lost and there’s no longer that kind of seeing one for who they are and for all that they do and their artwork.

I think it’s something that I, as an artist, also struggle with just like not knowing when I am maybe, maybe like losing my voice by closely aligning with other people’s categories of disabled, disability or transness or whatever it may be. And I think that, I feel like sometimes it can be pretty easy to fall into this idea that your lived experience is so essential to your work. And so that, that is like the focus and the topic of a lot of your work.

And what I found recently is that I am wanting to branch out and focus on the actual elements, artistic elements of my work that are not talking about transness or like politics or disability. It feels like there are a lot of different barriers in place that then make it seem like I need to, I don’t know, like, bring it, bring it back, I guess.

Bucko: Yeah. It feels like if you’re not doing that,then like outside interests won’t pay attention, right? They want you to share that aspect of you even like…To put it in a brutal way, like, I mean, what if you, you just want to like, explore a certain aspect of color theory and just make a certain kind of painting, right? Like what, why does it have to be linked? Like why, why, in order for it to be interesting to others, like they expect you to like, get to other parts of your life, you know, like it’s like,

Like artists should have agency over when they want to express certain vulnerabilities. But it feels like at times the world only values you, if you really open that side up, which I don’t think it’s really fair. Do you? So I think it’s tough as, as an artist with a disability to make. The struggle is real.

And so it definitely is important for a part of our community to always build upon reference document the, the history of it, whether it’s locally or nationally, right? Or on a world scale, like it’s, it’s important to acknowledge that journey and struggling, but also it’s important to give, uh, I guess, to build the bridges that, that allow people with disabilities to beyond this sort of artistic stage as anyone else and not have to be labeled as like, “Oh, you’re an Artist with the developmental disability” or, you know, “You have a physical disabilities, so like, wow, it’s amazing that you’re painting kind of stuff”. I think there needs to be space for both.

Rachel: There is a voice that is missing because of COVID. Debbie was not able to host this episode, but we do have a way of including her thoughts about art and history. 10 years ago, H’Art of Ottawa did something similar to what we’ve been doing in this episode, reflecting back on their history and thinking about what they wanted to become. At that time, the Studio organized a major exhibition in a series of events. Included in this exhibition was a bound book of the brown paper artists placed beneath their paintings. This paper collected traces of paint for over a decade. Debbie gave a speech about these brown papers at the power for the arts national forum.

We’re going to end with this speech, this past version of Debbie.

Debbie: Good morning. My name is Deborah Ratcliffe. I am an artist from H’Art Studio. My nickname is Dragon Lady. I’ve been an artist for 10 years. Some of the artists at H’Art of Ottawa have Williams syndrome and others have disabilities such as autism, Tourette’s down syndrome, cerebral palsy and others. Turning the page means to me people with disabilities can do anything that they set their minds to. The brown paper collage is a holy grail for us because it has all of our emotions in the paint swipes.

For me, I looked at the paper and all I see are the emotions. And it’s like a passage through time where we are, where we have been and where we are going as artists. It is an open book that allows us to see what we are and who we are. Every time a painting gets sold, it takes a piece o four hearts, but it stays on the brown paper too.

It is our trademark. It’s our, like our territory. It is like leaving your scent, your own marking. It is other, it’s other marks too. It’s like our continuation of our story. We have put our own marks on our paper and the history on the paper. The feelings on the paper include love, fear, frustration, disappointment, and laughter.

Our souls is in the paper and our canvases, a little bit of our hearts are there as well. What a beautiful journey I’ve had so far, I am an artist and proud of it. My art means everything to me. It’s who I am.

Rachel: SPEAK is hosted by

Debbie: Debbie “The Dragon” Ratcliffe

Rachel: produced and co-hosted by Rachel Gray

Our assistant producer is Fin Sun.

Music for this episode by King Kimbit.

Debbie: Or a consulting editor is Allie Graham

Rachel: Our mix editor is Jamie McDonald.

If you like SPEAK, please rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. It helps other people find the show. Thanks for listening.