Vincent Van Gogh said that brushstrokes are like speech. And if an artist is disabled and cannot make art, they are silenced. Anyone who knows about We Care Arts in Kettering knows that they burst these confines and help hundreds of people with disabilities to create on canvas, in clay, with cloth, and more. Last year, some 1,300 people took classes or worked in their studio.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
Mallory Holler is a 25-year-old painter who has Brown-Vialetto-Van Laere Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that has severely damaged her sight and hearing, and left her quadriplegic. Mallory can’t lift her arms, so a team of therapists has devised a special form of sign language: Mallory’s interpreter holds her hands and makes gestures. Mallory then responds verbally, and her interpreter speaks for her.
“I am legally deaf and blind,” Mallory says, “so my vision is part of the challenge as an artist. I can see well enough to do painting, especially if it’s up close to my face. Also, I learned that it works best for me if I paint the light colors over the dark colors.”
Vision isn’t the only problem. Mallory can’t hold a paint brush in her hands, and she didn’t have any luck painting with her mouth, a technique that has been successful for other artists. She had to get creative.
“I can’t use my arms very well,” Mallory explains. “We attempted to try to put a paint brush—and we attached it to a visor—and I painted with my head, and it was easy to do and also very much fun.”
One of the first things you notice about Mallory is that she doesn’t travel light. She has a motorized wheelchair that allows her to move and a ventilator that allows her to breathe. She also has an entourage: There’s Dawn, Mallory’s interpreter; Erica, Mallory’s nurse; and Sparrow, Mallory’s service dog. He’s a 50 pound golden-doodle.
The group takes me into We Care Arts’ studio, which is humming with artists at work, and Dawn and Erica prep Mallory for painting.
The Process of Painting
Dawn holds Mallory’s hands and signs to her, letting her know what’s happening in the studio, while Erica sets up Mallory’s canvas and art supplies. Then, Erica puts on Mallory’s visor, which has her brush attached, and Mallory goes to work.
Once her visor is on, Mallory is surprisingly agile. She dips her head down to put paint on the brush, then centers up on the canvas and makes smooth brush strokes from left to right, right to left, up and down, at angles.
But the process is far from perfect. The visor that Mallory wears—the one that holds her brush—can also cause problems.
“Sometimes with the brush and the visor on, I can’t get close to the canvas to see the small white spots,” Mallory says. “But when we take the visor off, I can see.”
This means that Dawn has to take Mallory’s visor on and off, over and over, so Mallory can see what she’s painted, memorize where she’s at, and then go back to painting.
It can get sloppy at times, but the team has fun.
Dawn takes Mallory’s hands and signs to her, “you sometimes paint your interpreter.”
And Mallory shoots back with “That’s the best part!”
Rediscovering Art after Two Decades
“My disability has gradually been progressing over time,” Mallory says. “My health has declined. When I was little, before I was two years old, I was able to use my hands a lot—a lot better. So, I would do some painting, just like little kids do, using my hands. And then after that, as I got older, I continued to lose the use of my hands, and I was not interested in art work because I didn’t think I would be able to do anything anyway. But coming here to We Care Arts really encouraged me to do some art.”
Mallory didn’t come to We Care Arts as an artist; she came as college intern with set goals. She researched wheelchair ramps, interviewed contractors, and wrote grant letters. She also wanted to prove that people with disabilities could still paint, and once she started painting, she couldn’t stop. Now, it’s become a mission of sorts.
“I enjoy describing how I paint,” Mallory says. “It will help other people with physical challenges, so that they can learn that it doesn’t matter what their challenges are. They can still try painting.”
It looks like Mallory has been successful in this regard. There are over a dozen disabled artists in the studio on this day. They’re painting, making jewelry, weaving scarves.
At one point or another, every artist stops what they’re doing to watch Mallory paint.
Since she’s blind, Mallory doesn’t notice this, and perhaps that’s a good thing. The stares can’t distract her from her work. On the other hand, it seems unfair, as she’s never fully aware of how much she inspires her fellow artists.
We Care Arts is hosting an “Arts & Drafts” fundraiser and art auction from 4 to 10PM on Saturday, August 1. This event will feature tattoo artists, live music, food trucks, local microbrews, and a steam punk arts and crafts station. The We Care Arts Gift Shop, which features hundreds of works by local artists who are disabled, is open weekdays from 9am to 4pm and Saturdays from 10am to 2pm. For more information, visit WeCareArts.org or call (937) 252-3937
Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series about arts in the Miami Valley. It's made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.