When the body fails, how do artists respond?
New course looks at the meeting place of art, medicine, disability

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs


tibetan painting

In the 17th century, a scholar and regent of Tibet, Sangye Gyamtso, created the Tibetan Medical Paintings — a series of detailed illustrations designed to help explain the Tibetan system for understanding and curing illness. These works, among others from a variety of cultures and eras, serve as objects of study and discussion in the art-history segment of Professor Katherine Sherwood’s class, “Art, Medicine, and Disability.”

20 November 2002 | The art world and the media have exhibited, honored, and profiled painter Katherine Sherwood in the years since the stroke that left her partially paralyzed at the age of 44. But it was not until this fall, five years after that life-changing event, that the art-practice professor spoke to students in a classroom context on “How a Cerebral Hemorrhage Altered My Art.”

“I felt it would give them the appropriate context to approach the subject,” says Sherwood of her opening remarks to students in a new interdisciplinary undergraduate course, “Art, Medicine, and Disability.”

An account of Sherwood’s transformation as an artist since her stroke — how she taught herself to paint with her left hand, creating work that became larger and looser and incorporated new subject matter — serves as a natural segue to a semester-long look at artists’ responses to illness, disability, and the specter of death.

With physical vulnerability as a lens, there is no culture and no era — from the age of the pharaohs to that of PET scans and AIDS — beyond the scope of Disability Studies/Art 160. Ethiopian medicine scrolls, Ghanaian coffins, 16th-century Tibetan medical paintings, and representations of lepers, cripples, and beggars — before and after bubonic plague reached Europe’s shores in the mid-14th century — serve as objects of study and discussion.

So do the exquisite flower paintings that Manet created while dying of syphilis; the “black paintings” made by Goya when he was deaf and ailing; Monet’s renderings of his garden at Giverny, France, as he lost his sight; Frida Kahlo’s surrealistic expressions of physical suffering; and the award-winning “Kaddish Series” created by the late Berkeley painting professor Wendy Sussman as an elegy to her parents.

‘Ability’ as a continuum
It’s tempting when looking at art in this context to theorize about disabled artists and the effects of adversity on their work. Sherwood has resisted the impulse, she says. “I was clear about not having any overarching theories. It was important for me to present the art work first and the artists’ words about the work secondly. I have emphasized that it’s all part of the human continuum, that disability is something that affects all of us.”

“Art, Medicine, and Disability” is the result of a year and a half of research, supported by several grants. Sherwood says that in naming the course she was “apprehensive” about putting the words “medicine” and “disability” together. In disability studies, she says, “there’s a tremendous effort to de-medicalize disability, to take it away from the arena of medicine, because it’s been put there by our culture.”

In the end, her personal interest in images of the brain used in modern medicine, and the wealth of artwork on the subject of illness and healing, won out. She also designed the course to appeal both to art students and to those from other disciplines, including disability studies and premed.

Senior Adinah Curtis, an international relations major, has been doing research for the class, both in the library and on the Internet. Her subject: African paintings about the AIDS pandemic in Africa and the response of Western nations. Having a disability herself, Curtis is particularly interested in conceptions of disability that don’t equate it with deformity. “In some countries in Africa, they don’t have a word for ‘disability’ at all,” she says. “Blindness or deafness, yes, but the don’t have an overall word.”

Community internships
To Sherwood’s surprise, more the half the class has opted to do internships in the community rather than a research or creative project. Students have been assisting at two East Bay arts organizations — the National Institute of Art and Disabilities, in Richmond, and the Creative Growth Art Center, in Oakland. At both of these venues, clients with developmental and other disabilities work with professional artists in studios chock full of paints, looms, drying racks, sewing machines, textiles, and bins of recycled art materials.

“I don’t have very much background in disability, so it’s enlightening to me,” remarks senior Levente Sulyok. Like virtually all his fellow interns, Sulyok says he’s drawn inspiration from the freshness and vitality of the art produced by his clients — a few of whom are prolific artists represented in professional art galleries, and virtually all of whom are unencumbered by notions drawn from art history or by the idea of getting it “right.”

“It’s influenced me in many ways,” says Sulyok, whose own paintings incorporate planetary objects and cellular forms. “I’ll probably come back and volunteer.”

In the past, Sherwood has seen undergraduates flourish as a result of experiential learning in the community; the feedback from her Art 160 students has been no exception.

“The internships have proven to be a perfect accompaniment to our classroom work,” she says. “The added benefit of learning about the intersection of art and disability in a real-life context has been immeasurable for my students.”


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