Interview With Artist Adrean Clark
WG: I love the question that you pose that sets your most recent series in motion: "What kind of art would we inherit if our country had an American Sign Language-centric heritage?" What were some of the thoughts that went through your mind as you considered this?
AC: When I learned written ASL some years ago, it made me examine the structure of American Sign Language and my relationship with it. The process of learning laid open the "bones" of ASL for me. It was like unscrolling blueprints to see a long list of influences and intertwining structures with the language. The more I became fluent, the more it became clear that ASL depended too much on English for its existence.
For example, when a new concept comes along – like "email" – the English word is fingerspelled before the community reaches a consensus for the ASL word. Sometimes it never happens, leaving us to depend on English for semantic ASL. That is a travesty to the language and our cultural heritage. We need to disconnect the chains between the two languages and allow ASL to have its own space in order for it to have full linguistic rights.
Those personal revelations led me to advocate for ASL's rights as a language. One action was a White House petition that garnered over 37,000 signatures with the help of the community ( http://wh.gov/9Amm). Through advocacy it became clear that people have a hard time supporting something that they've never seen or experienced before. Not everyone has the same experience I had, nor will they have the opportunity to make the same conclusions.
So, as an artist, I want to show people both within and without our community what can be. The artwork I create is intended to create an emotional experience that makes the possibilities more real. Art Deco came about during an era where the strength of common workers were celebrated – to motivate them in building a future that is better for everyone. Our country had crashed into the Great Depression from the excesses of the 1920's and WPA artists had the task of uplifting their spirits through powerful visuals.
Today, the culturally Deaf community is fighting active, insidious efforts to withhold ASL from families with deaf children by EHDI and pro-oral (LSL) advocates. Their proponents are tearing down deaf education state by state so that a grossly disproportionate amount of funding becomes available for medical intervention rather than natural, accessible solutions. It is essentially a corporate takeover of deafness, one that intends to starve out the opposition.
In the middle of this bleak political landscape, I wanted to step back and imagine if there had been a simple shift of perspective when our nation was founded. What if, instead of being sequestered as a "mode for disabled people," our young country had taken pride in ASL and preferred it over spoken English? There are nations in the past that had elevated their national forms of sign language, kings that decreed aural silence in their palaces and preferred the company of signers. Why not us, and why not now?
It's a shift in perception and mindset, one that I hope that viewers will catch on to through the Artifact Series and other artwork.
WG: Are there other Deaf artists that you look back to in considering what to do with your own work?
AC: There's a very long list of Deaf artists that could be named as influences on my work. For a concise answer, I will share the first and most recent people.
Back in my preschool years, a Deaf family would occasionally babysit me. The father of that family happened to be William Sparks, a Deaf artist well known for his portraiture. I remember the unique scent of his mysterious basement art studio. Years later his artwork would pop up in random places, and without seeing a signature I'd instantly recognize the way he portrayed expressions and hands. There was a living, animated aura around the people he painted, especially in their face and hands. That "Sparky" touch of giving a visual experience is something I want to emulate in my work.
This month (February) I'm doing a near-daily challenge inspired by Nancy Rourke . She is probably one of the most prolific Deaf artists in our community, and a very involved one. Her work has been tremendous for supporting activist causes within our community. Nancy is always finding new ways to portray our collective experience – even bringing in some influence from mainstream artists to create fresh perspectives.
I would be amiss to not mention Ellen Mansfield , the third person doing the challenge with us. Ellen's art comes from a spiritual perspective, borrowing imagery from myth and religion to create cultural artifacts in ceramics. She also does paintings that remind me a little of Miro and Picasso.
The last person I want to mention as an influence is Cynthia Weitzel. She is not only an excellent artist, she has a great knowledge of the inner workings of the arts community. She's taught me a lot about grants and other aspects of the industry.
WG: You mentioned the influence of Art Deco on some of your latest work. Can you elaborate on this?
AC: American Art Deco came about during a time when a lot of people were hungry and struggling with the effects of the Great Depression. I think it's in the nature of artists to provide images and work that project their hopes – something that can impart visual strength during times of weakness.
Our signing community is going through a rough time right now, experiencing a Great Depression of sorts with language deprivation. The US government hasn't taken steps to recognize and protect ASL in law as being equal to English. As a result, the medical establishment whispers to vulnerable parents that depriving their deaf children access to ASL will make them a better success with the cochlear implant.
On the opposite side, we are seeing even more hearing people than before learn ASL. Those numbers would be wonderful if the language wasn't used as an economic tool at the expense of deaf people. It used to be that interpreters were deeply involved with the community fabric. Today many hearing-owned corporations have moved in and continue to conduct business with little to no input from Deaf people. We are unable to find jobs or gain income from the very same people making money off of us.
That's why I chose Art Deco elements in my artwork – to make a strong, hopeful future tangible and within reach.
WG: You mentioned the importance of taking steps to protect ASL in laws as being equal to English. If I'm not mistaken you we're heading up a petition to try to get the government to do just that. How is that going so far?
AC: Yes, the ASL petition successfully gained over 37,000 signatures. You can read the official response from the White House at http://wh.gov/9Amm – It recognizes ASL's importance, but falls short of giving equal status in the eyes of the law. We still have two more obstacles to overcome: the misperception of ASL as a "language of disability" and a Congressional lack of motivation to enshrine protection of languages in the law. Perhaps the federal government prefers to completely avoid the matter and leave it to the states. That is sad because our country has a plethora of cultures with rich languages – that ought to be protected and encouraged, much like our European allies do.
WG: I'd like to close by asking what projects you have in mind for the future and also ask you if you have any additional comments on things you think that we might have missed.
AC:I'm currently working with a group of deaf artists in establishing a guild that will support us and our community. If readers are interested in helping out, we have a brief survey available at http://tiny.cc/deafartsurvey. We especially want to see comments from the hearing community!
There's a lot of good things ahead for my artwork, including a few upcoming books! If readers want to keep in touch, they can visit my website at http://adreanaline.com/blog and click the Subscribe menu option for email updates. Thank you for the interview