Chappelle Letman Jr. (Detail), Original photo by Don Snyder
After Megan Alves, the marketing and program manager at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, was diagnosed with Scleroderma, a rare and progressive autoimmune disease that impacts organs and connective tissue, she began to pay attention to how many other artists were dealing with chronic health issues.
"I started looking around. I realized how many brilliant artists I knew who were also living with some form of disability," she said. "These challenges make their art more powerful because it addresses the complex realities of living in a human body. It is fearless, and ultimately, about us all.”
In her first dip into curating, Alves conceived an exhibit which she built with Executive Director Mindy Tousley around those artists and their work — "W/O Limits: : Art, Chronic Illness, & Disability," which opens on Sept. 22 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the AAWR, and which will remain on view through Nov. 12.
Sponsored in part by a grant by the Cuyahoga Board of Developmental Disabilities, the exhibition features artists Sarah Brown, Kristi Copez, Chappelle Letman Jr., MANDEM, Meg Matko, Arabella Proffer, Nate Puppets, Andrew Reach, and Kate Snow. There will be a variety of mediums explored including, painting, video performance, touchable sculptures, and interactive digital installations.
“As an art historian, I was drawn to artists who not only demonstrate technical skill, but also fearlessly address disability in their practice,” said Alves. “W/O Limits shares the moving stories of artists who are also survivors. Though their situations vary, they are united by their talent to explore, share, and rise above their physical limitations using the power of visual art. The artists were also selected because of their incisive ability to communicate the experiences through a wide array of dynamic media, including painting, photography, performance art, digital compositions, sculptures, textiles, ceramic, and assemblage. Viewed as a whole, the exhibition provides a unique window into a world rarely considered by able bodied people.”
Cleveland artist Arabella Proffer’s work in 2010 began to steer away from Renaissance-inspired portraits with a punk edge and moved towards biomorphic still-lives. After her diagnosis with terminal cancer, Proffer began to appreciate that the shapes emulated the tumors that wrapped around her kidneys and spine. As Proffer described, “My work has increasingly gone into a transcendental direction with these organisms and shapes acting as guides, or perhaps signals and prophecies. My visual vocabulary is now about the universal love of beauty, because making it beautiful is the hard part.”
The exhibition also features a posthumous display of work by Chappelle Letman Jr., a successful painter and printmaker who at the age of 41 lost his sight to glaucoma just days after his mother’s death. Letman persevered and turned to carving stone and said, “I was not a blind artist, I was an artist who was blind. Making art puts me in a state of mind where my disability is not an issue.... I’ve always been an artist since day one. I didn’t let a disability interfere with my life’s calling.”
Letman’s work will be archived in the museum’s permanent collection after the exhibition closes.
“Ultimately, interaction with these artists has had an unexpected impact on my life,” continued Alves. “Their steadfast example has allowed me to transform my own relationship to disability and illness. How could I extend heartfelt compassion to these amazing souls and not extend that same compassion to myself? This is the true purpose of the exhibition. Not to alienate able-bodied people across an ocean of challenge, but to show how much we share in common. If just one person walks away with more compassion for themselves and others, then the exhibition is a success.”
According to the press release, W/O Limits also features a variety of accessibility measures including braille text, a wheelchair friendly layout, and a selection of touchable sculptures for those with sensory sensitivities and visual impairments.
W/O Limits and AAWR will host a free, virtual artist panel discussion on Oct. 12 from 7 to 8 p.m. which will provide deeper insight into the artists’ work as well as a platform to discuss issues of accessibility in the arts. This digital event will include a community Q & A period. In addition, there will be a broadcast of the show’s mission outside the gallery walls for those who are unable to attend in person.
Additional programing will feature a puppet-making workshop led by exhibiting artist Nate Puppets with facilitation by Clinical Social Worker Chris Richards-Pagel, BFA, MSW, APSW. During the free, two-hour session, participants will be encouraged to create an “identity puppet” that represents an aspect of themselves using an easy-to-follow template and an exciting array of props and materials.
“To accompany the exhibition, our entrance gallery will feature the work of Archived Artist Marilyn Szalay, who passed away from complications from Scleroderma in 2012, the same progressive autoimmune disease I was diagnosed with several years ago,” shared Alves. “At first when Archives Executive Director Mindy Tousley and Collection Registrar Kelly Pontoni suggested the pairing, I thought the experience would be difficult, or perhaps painful to look at her work every day, given the disease’s challenging prognosis. They were both wonderfully concerned about my feelings, and ultimately, we decided to display the work. To me it represents a graceful embrace of my physicality, and a way for autoimmune diseases to gain visibility. I’m looking forward to being surrounded by those works as a source of inspiration, and for the important conversations it will facilitate.”