Alice Wong interviewed Jennifer Justice for the Disability Visibility Project® at StoryCorps San Francisco on May 21, 2016. Jennifer shares her experiences learning about other disabled artists during art school and the importance of teaching students about artists from underrepresented communities. Jennifer also talks about the importance of disability identity and finding community as an artist.
JENNIFER JUSTICE: When you’re a young disabled person, I didn’t have a lot of good, positive role models to look up to. So, and you know, I didn’t feel like I had a script to go by. I didn’t, you know, I knew I wasn’t gonna live the life of Helen Keller or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and beyond that, I didn’t really know, have any other role models to look to.
ALICE WONG: Not even artists with disabilities.
JENNIFER: Yeah, yeah. I mean and then there was Frida Kahlo, and I was like, well, maybe. [chuckles] But I’m not her either, you know?
JENNIFER: So, I didn’t really have a road map, and I didn’t, I really couldn’t imagine my life as an adult. And I really had trouble imagining what I would do as an adult and how I would make a living. And this was before the computer technology caught up with, I mean before access technology was available to me. So, I really didn’t know. There was a big question mark for me.
JENNIFER: You know, now I feel like really fortunate to be able to talk about other disabled artists that I know, either know personally or have learned about over the years. Because that wasn’t a part of the curriculum. It was primarily white, dead guys, you know, dead white guys that you learn about in an art historical context. So, I really am excited to be able to expose young people to artists with disabilities and artists of color and people that you don’t always find in the canon, that you don’t necessarily get from the canon. And I feel like it’s a responsibility, you know? It feels like a great responsibility to me to do that as a teacher.
ALICE: There are a lot of people with disabilities who wanna be seen as a artist only.
JENNIFER: Mmhmm, yeah.
ALICE: Versus an artist with a disability because they’re often concerned about being pigeonholed or being seen as somehow the artwork is less, I don’t know, cutting edge or whatever.
JENNIFER: Right. Mmhmm.
ALICE: But I guess without being open and embracing your identity, you wouldn’t be able to find that community of other disabled artists. And a simple question, but what is the power of community in terms of finding other disabled artists and being part of this community?
JENNIFER: You know, I wanna write about this, and I wanna think about it more deeply. I’m starting to write about it because I think it’s a pretty important topic. And I’ve heard the term “ghettoized,” you know: disabled artists don’t wanna be ghettoized. I feel like those are terms that are bestowed upon us by the able-bodied, like what you called GLAM [galleries, libraries, archives, and museums] arts establishment. And I feel like I’m a disabled and/or artist, you know? It’s pretty central to who I am, and it shapes.
You know, when I was in art school [Art Institute of Chicago], I took a lot of performance art classes with Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish and other people, and it really helped me open up my concept in my body as sort of a holistic instrument instead of just being like an eyeball or a hand, eyeball-hand kinda [laughs] machine!
ALICE: Or the mechanics of artwork.
JENNIFER: Yeah, exactly! And so, I felt like oh, you know, I have all of these tools to draw from, and I have a whole body here [laughing] to work with.
JENNIFER: I didn’t wanna be, I felt like there was a little bit of a cult of Helen Keller in Alabama. There’s a little bit of a cult of Helen Keller. [laughs] And so, I felt like you know, she was this, there was a little bit of her ghost kinda haunting me from being a partially-deafblind girl growing up in that state who’s creative. And I just didn’t wanna have that kind of reified miracle child persona.
JENNIFER: Yeah, exactly. I just wanted to be part of a group. I didn’t wanna be, I didn’t want that reified position of the genius artist who suffers in a attic somewhere and never marries and never has sex and is treated like sort of a, well, she really did do vaudeville, right? She did have to perform her disability for people, and so I was really afraid of that, that history. And so, I just wanted to be part of a group. I wanted to be part of a community. And so, I think I knew that intuitively from a pretty young age, so I think it’s a part of our history, and it’s important. And so, it’s something I think about a lot.
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Disability Visibility Project®. (2018, December 4). DVP Interview: Jennifer Justice and Alice Wong. Retrieved from: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2018/12/04/dvp-interview-jennifer-justice-and-alice-wong/
On the left, Alice Wong an Asian American woman wearing a black jacket and black scarf with little white daggers. She is wearing a mask over her nose attached to a gray tube which is connected to her ventilator. On the right is Jennifer Justice, young white woman with very light long blonde hair. She is wearing a heather gray scoopneck shirt. She is smiling at the camera.
Produced for the Disability Visibility Project® by Alice Wong. Interview recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the story of our lives. For more: www.storycorps.org and www.disabilityvisibilityproject.com