by Sam Walsh
As someone who studies Sociology and has a visible disability (I use a wheelchair), I have always been interested in the relationship between culture and the individual (the body). I would suggest that my body falls outside the expected norm. I am often aware of strangers staring at me. I know people watch me get in and out of the car. I have had people come up to me at times and comment on things I am doing, things that I feel other people would go unnoticed for. I am also continually asked if I need help when out in public. I often wonder about how this frames my position and my body in society. As a bit of a hobby, I find ways to subvert or disrupt how my body is read or how people interact with me. I wear a lot of interesting shoes, because I feel it draws attention to a part of my body that makes people uncomfortable. Often when people ask if I need help, they will assume I want a push. My wheelchair doesn’t have push handles (specifically for this reason). I often get people to do things such as hold my coffee or purse while, I push myself. Someone once asked if I needed help while getting out of my car. I said yes and asked them to throw out my empty coffee cup. This interest in subversion and performance lends itself to a love of art and larger than life persona. I am fascinated by the work of Frida Kahlo. I appreciate contemporary art and performance. A recent fascination of mine was Body Painting. The idea of living canvas, inspired thoughts of Marchesa Casati. I applied to be a Body Painting Model for New York Body Painting Day. The application required a short paragraph about why you wanted to be a model.
I have become interested in body art and body painting as a way of reclaiming and redefining beauty. I am a woman with a disability. I have had the opportunity to do some modeling for a painting class. It is through this experience, that I have been able to understand my disabled body as both worthy and beautiful. I see participating in the body painting parade as a way to explore and shift the taken for granted understanding of the disabled body. I want all who see me in the parade to stop and think about how, the juxtaposition of art or a disabled body disrupts the taken for granted notions of disability as sickness or weakness.
I was ACCEPTED!!!
On July 14 2018, I got my chance to be living art as it were. I was a model for New York Body Painting day, held in Greenwich Village. The event was hosted by Human Connection Arts. The artist who painted me was Lisa Fried a painter and photographer from New Jersey. The event for me was about being living art. As mentioned above, I was really interested in disrupting the tensions between staring and disability. I was also curious about the tension between disability and beauty. The reactions from people were incredibly diverse.
The day started with being painted in Washington Square. This process was surprisingly interactive, because there was a crowd of onlookers for most of the day. It felt very avant-garde. I assume this must have been what the art models of the impressionist period felt like. This was my favourite part of the day. The artist painting me was very friendly and interested in hearing what I liked. She took inspiration from my mermaid tattoo. I explained that if mermaids were on land they would need wheelchairs. Additionally, the crowd for the most part seemed really engaged in watching the artistic process. Most people who were watching seemed embarrassed when I waved or smiled at them. For a lot of the process, I was naked, so I am curious if my acknowledgment that they were, there made salient that I could see them and they could see me. Lots of people both hired by human connects arts and random people took pictures. Interestingly I don’t think I am very good at having my picture taken. I tend to look directly at the camera if I want my picture taken and down or away if I am not consenting to the photo. This lead to a lot of very forced looking or posed photos. I wanted my image captured by all the body painting day photographers. However, I was less comfortable with the people at the park taking photos. It was a very Derridean experience. I wanted people to read and appreciate my image (story) one way, but really had no control over what on lookers or by standers thought.
Following the painting there was a photo shoot in the park which was largely inaccessible for someone who could not walk. All the models were asked to climb into a large fountain. This was frustrating because, I wasn’t included in the photos and by extension either was Lisa’s art. It was an interesting experience that in an environment that included so many people, and bodies a disabled body was unimagined. I brought my good friend Elisabeth Harrison with me who facilitated much of my access for the trip. I am very please to have such a good friend and ally.
After the photo shoot there was a parade and a bus ride through Greenwich Village. This was noteworthy, because it was a time, when I got to interact with both the public and the other painted models. Continuing with the theme of a Derridean experience, I elicited shock and awe from on lookers (the reaction I wanted). I had lots of people tell me how awesome I looked. People called out they wanted be painted too. However, I was also surprised how many people read me as needing help, or out of place. Lots of people asked if I needed help. Another, painted model explained he knew someone who used a wheelchair (they weren’t there; he just wanted me to know, he knew someone). There was however, another model there who used a wheelchair, she seemed very nice. An on looker called out “hey there’s a wheelchair”. Lisa the artist who painted me asked if I felt people were hesitant to look at me; when ironically, I might get looked at when not painted. I thought this was a good question and interesting observation. I am not sure if the reaction would have been different or more pronounced if I was walking vs. rolling. I appreciated the opportunity to experiment. I feel that for many on lookers I did disrupt the social position of disability, beauty and art. As with most art it goes out into the world. The arts has a story an interpretation. It lives within its time and context. I was living art. I had my goals and intentions for the day. I have my perceptions and readings of peoples reactions. I will never really know who was inspired; who was horrified and who was moved. Everyday I put my ideas and thoughts out into the world and everyday I have no control over what comes back. On a sunny Saturday on the Lower East side of New York, I put not only my thoughts and ideas out into the world but my body; and had no control over what came back. I will never forget the time I was living art. I am grateful to all involved including Lisa Fried and Human Connect Arts.
Samantha Walsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology. She also works in the Not-For-Profit Sector.