Author: Courtney Graham

Counter Balance: Dance, Community, and Legacy

Integrated dance may be a new concept for some, but the fierce team behind Counter Balance: The Power of Integrated Dance have been bringing this powerful type of performance to Chicago audiences for years. Co-artistic directors Ginger Lane and Stephanie Clemens, along with Access Living, Bodies of Work, and MOMENTA, presented this 9th annual showcase of physically integrated works by choreographers and dancers with and without disabilities in early September.   The audience, which included families with children, disability community members, and dance enthusiasts, were treated to eleven pieces in two acts. Local choreographers included Ginger Lane, Sarah Cullen Fuller, Anita Fillmore Kenney, Kris Lenzo, Sarah Najera, and the internationally known Alice Sheppard. I had the opportunity to speak with Sarah Najera who not only choreographed the particularly lovely “Duet in C Major,” but also recently took the helm as Executive Director of MOMENTA. As the resident performing arts company of the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park, MOMENTA has been working with dancers and choreographers with disabilities since 2003. In speaking about …

Framing the Body: A Critical Look at Witkin’s Photographic Legacy

“Brilliant and divisive,” those were the words Catherine Edelman, gallery owner and panel moderator, used to describe acclaimed photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. The latest exhibition at Catherine Edelman Gallery, Joel-Peter Witkin: From the Studio, features more than 25 photographs, 80 drawings, as well as sketchbooks and journals, darkroom tools and cameras, letters, and contact sheets. But it was Witkins mission, “to create photographs that show the beauty of marginalized people,” and how he executes that aim was the primary topic of discussion for the ‘Otherness & Beauty’ panel hosted by the gallery on June 1. The panel included painter, writer and disability activist Riva Lehrer, art therapist Deb DelSignore, and art historian Mark B. Pohlad. Witkin, an American artist based in Albuquerque, photographs his subjects in carefully crafted settings and utilizes manual darkroom techniques to produce surreal images. The subjects are often “intersex, post and pre-op individuals, and people born with physical abnormalities.” Lehrer makes artwork depicting similar marginalized people, with one very important difference—she is a portrait artist. Lehrer works collaboratively with her subjects to …

In Our Bodies, Together: Disability Art Showcase and Maker-Space

Creative, connecting, and celebratory—these were the intentions laid out for people at the start of the Disability Art Showcase and Maker-Space on April 16th. The event organizer, Bri Beck, a disability artist/advocate and art therapy graduate student from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, hosted between sixty and seventy participants at Access Living, downtown Chicago’s main Center for Independent Living, for an evening of art-making and community-building.   Systemically divided groups of disabled people, veterans, scholars, art therapists, artists, activists, and more, were invited to utilize the arts “to share the varied story of disability and to bring together those that are disabled and those that work within this community to further grow and define a collective voice and community”—per Beck’s design. Image: Two people, one kneeling and one standing, work together on a colorful wall tapestry made of various fabric strips. Photo by Ryan Edmund. Guests contributed to a group tapestry, created disability pride buttons, wove fibers alongside someone new, participated in a #DisabledIAm photobooth, and engaged with artwork created by disabled artists …

Image: Bri Beck leans into the frame from the right side, looking down at a tan mixed media garment piece on a white pedestal. Other works can be seen in the background. Photo by Ryan Edmund.

Locating Your Practice in ‘Chicago Disability Activism, Arts, and Design,’ with Bri Beck

“I could have never expected this, it’s so exciting. It [makes me] feel like my story has been told for a very long time, and I don’t always have to be the one telling my story,” asserts Bri Beck while discussing the work in Chicago Disability Activism, Arts, and Design: 1970s to Today at Gallery 400. The exhibition is a multi-generational sampling of the disability-centered artwork that has been coming out of Chicago over the last fifty-plus years. Artist and art therapy graduate student Bri Beck and I visit the exhibition to discuss her experience as a part of this rich history. As we make our way through the gallery, Beck points out artists she’s worked with, portraits of people she recognizes, and professors she’s been mentored by. “I love being a part of the Chicago disability community,” says Beck. A close-knit and interconnected community, she explains, “there aren’t very many of us!” The seemingly small circle of artists and activists doing disability work in Chicago is precisely what has made the city an epicenter for advocacy and …

Tellin' Tales Theatre's Young Adult Writers program 2017, courtesy of Chicago Public Library. Image description: eleven people reading from black folders. Three people stand at the back while the rest are seated. Several of the participants are using wheelchairs.

Advocacy and Accession: Chicago Public Library’s Disability Awareness Month

There’s something about a library that makes me feel at home. The seemingly endless options of well-worn books are a welcome sight for anyone who grew up spending hot summers cross-legged on a public library floor. During July, that innate sense of welcoming is highlighted further with the Chicago Public Library (CPL)’s Disability Awareness Month. With a fierce desire to make the disability community feel more at home in the city’s library spaces, the CPL’s Diversability Advocacy Committee is in the midst of its second annual celebration of people with disabilities—both as guests as well as creatives. Evelyn Keolian, co-chair of the Diversability Advocacy Committee and a Children’s Librarian at the Edgewater Branch, took the time to tell me a little more about the library’s Disability Awareness Month. Courtney Graham: Last year was the Chicago Public Library’s first observance of Disability Awareness Month, how did this initiative begin? Evelyn Keolian: At CPL, we have different heritage and cultural committees that take on the responsibility to facilitate programming to celebrate their respective heritage months.  Some examples …

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight. Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

“Radical Hospitality”:
Relaxed Performances on the MCA Stage

Chair or floor cushion? I decided to make myself comfortable in a chair on the corner of the stage—in the midst of the action, but removed enough to observe much of what was happening at the edges of the space. This performance of Claire Cunningham & Jess Curtis’ The Way You Look (at me) Tonight was certainly relaxed. Escorted to stage level, the audience was invited to sit directly on the stage in clusters of chairs and cushions, and prompted to make themselves at home, even remove their heavy winter boots if they were so inclined. After explaining what to expect, Cunningham and Curtis—acclaimed international theatre and dance artists—set into motion a “collage of dance, song, and text.” For roughly 100 minutes, the audience was treated to a show pendulating between humorous yet poignant moments and more classical performance segments of dance and song. (You can see a clip here). Though classical might be the wrong word, as Cunningham and Curtis’ work itself questions what we consider classic or traditional, playing with romantic ideals, gender …

Image Description: Image of a very dark room, three faint windows can be made out. White text on top of the image says "Black Out Dinners" with a small fork and knife graphic. Photo courtesy of 6018North.]

6018North’s Black Out Dinners with The Chicago Lighthouse

Black Out Dinners are not the dining-in-the-dark, date-night novelty you may have seen offered on Groupon. 6018North, an Edgewater nonprofit for experimental arts and culture, takes the experience far beyond a trendy meal. In partnership with The Chicago Lighthouse, Black Out Dinners are presented by fully or partially visually impaired servers who guide guests in the pitch-black setting. The first two courses of the delicious vegetarian meal (Giuseppe Catanzariti of Midnight Kitchen Projects was the chef, with Sonia Yoon, when I attended) are enjoyed at communal tables in the dark, with only minor bumps and air-grasps. Dessert is served back in the light, and includes a discussion with the servers and meeting your fellow table-mates.   As dinner guests, we were placing ourselves in the unknown, trusting someone for whom the dark is not unknown at all. This trust, the ability to lean on one another’s strengths, makes Black Out Dinners about far more than food. I had the chance to speak with Tricia Van Eck, Artistic Director at 6018North, as well as Elbert Ford, Job Placement Counselor …

Interpreting Faye Driscoll’s “Play”: The Art of Audio Description and ASL Interpretation

None of the typical rules of a play apply here. Then again, when you come to a performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, you aren’t really expecting typical, are you? Play is the second performance in a series called Thank You For Coming, created by Bessie Award–winning director and choreographer, Faye Driscoll. This performance “uses the ritual of storytelling to explore our reliance on stories to relate to one another and form identities as individuals and citizens.” What begins as a communal audience-participation on stage quickly delves into a parody of an absurd theater act. Employing multiple meanings of the term “play,” the cast performs a drama but an allowance for improvisation leaves room for the actors to engage in the more fanciful version of “play” as well. Play is also atypical in its breaking of the fourth wall. Not only does a sound engineer remain on stage, occasionally being called into the action, but Driscoll herself joins the cast. At times she is grabbing props or directing the actors, as if it were a rehearsal …