From Chuck Close to Sunaura Taylor: Disabled artists pushing public perception
Sunaura Taylor’s work, like Chicken Truck, seen above, is striking and haunting: rows of battery hens in cages and downed calves speak to her commitment to animal welfare activism, while detailed and intimate oil portraits bring people to life on the canvas, and self-portraits depict her disability and connect it with a larger social context. She has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that causes joint contractures, and uses a wheelchair for mobility. To paint, she uses her mouth to hold the brush, and her work has made quite a mark in the art world; she’s received a number of awards for her painting and her work has been displayed in some distinguished places.
Taylor is an activist in addition to an artist; she cares passionately about animal welfare and advocates for animal rights not just with her art, but at protests and at other events. She’s also involved in disability rights activism, particularly when it comes to organizing around people with disabilities caused by military pollution, the cause of her arthrogryposis. As a highly visible person with disabilities, she pushes the boundaries when it comes to public perceptions about what people with disabilities can, and should, do.
Some of her work explores the social connections between animals and disabled persons, looking at how both are devalued by society. Her self-protraits of herself as an animal are particularly chilling, as they place a human being in a context where one isn’t expected. As a person with a disability, she’s viewed as lesser, and she argues that there are clearly parallels between the treatment of animals and people with disabilities. Confronting those in her work is both a personal and political act.
Sunaura joins a long line of disabled artists who come up with innovative ways to put their work on canvas. Chuck Close, for example, acquired a disability midway through his art career and had to learn to work within his new body to continue creating work. Peter Longstaff paints with his feet. Other artists work with disabilities like visual and cognitive impairments or fatigue.
For people with disabilities interested in the visual arts, there can be a number of barriers, from difficulty accessing training to patronizing attitudes from bystanders. These disabled artists highlight the fact that stunning, visually powerful work can be created by anyone with a fire inside for art, and that there are a number of ways to produce works of art, for those who are willing to think outside the box.
Passionate artists combining art and activism, like Sunaura, present a dual challenge to social attitudes. They don’t live sedentary, lonely, or miserable lives, instead taking to the street to fight for causes they believe in while taking studio time to keep producing amazing work that can be judged on its own merits, as art first and foremost, not a charity project.
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