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Courtesy Woman Made Gallery

Artist Madelyn Covey's "Pam's Bed" was inspired by the woman she assists.

Living with disability on display in rare art exhibit

by Lindsey Peterson
May 21, 2013


Courtesy Gwynneth VanLaven

Gwynneth VanLaven's "Pity Party."


Courtesy Claire Gilliam

Claire Gilliam's "Whole."

Related Links

Woman Made GalleryGwynneth VanLavenClaire GilliamRiva LeherBodies of Work FestivalCreative Growth Art Center

If you want to go

"Humans Being II" is showing at the Woman Made Gallery, 685 N. Milwaukee Ave., through June 20.


Hours are noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.


Admission is free. 

Dozens of artists’ interpretations of living with and experiencing disability are now part of a rare art exhibit in River West.

The Woman Made Gallery, in conjunction with the Chicago Festival of Disability Arts and Culture, has launched their summer exhibition “Humans Being II” to give professional artists living with disability an opportunity to push a frank discussion about what it means to be disabled.

“What mainstream art people tend to think is that art about disability is exclusively therapeutic rather than including actual art schools and galleries,” said Riva Lehrer, curator for the exhibit.

“For a long time, shows that have been about disabilities have been drawn from two different standpoints.

“Either organizations that dealt with a particular illness like migraines, etc. with varied artists who were not professionally trained and had no gallery or studio practice,” Lehrer said.

“Other frequent direction for shows were organizations that provided art therapy or art studio access for those with mental illness, developmental disabilities and were not pitched toward professional practice.”

And that, she said, made the art less competitive with other gallery work.

Lehrer said finding artists for the “Humans Being I” exhibit in 2006 was difficult, but said an international open call for artists yielded four times more submissions than she could put in the “Humans Being II” show.

There are about 40 artists featured in the current exhibit. And noticeably, women artists make up most of the exhibition’s roster.

“I think women tend to be more comfortable addressing issues just about what it means to live in a body that’s socially challenged,” Lehrer said.

Confronting the perceptions and language surrounding disabilities winds through all of the displayed work.

“This show is taking on impairment and disability. And with ‘impairment,’ I mean what’s actually going on with the body. ‘Disability’ is more a term of the social meaning around it and they don’t quite mean the same thing,” Lehrer said.

“Humans Being II” runs through June 20.

A few of the artists

Gywnneth VanLaven

In 2007, Gwynneth VanLaven was a 27-year-old graduate journalism student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Two weeks into the program, VanLaven, while walking to school on the sidewalk, was struck by a Lincoln Town Car, pinning her against a building and crushing her leg. VanLaven now uses a mobility scooter and a cane to get around.

VanLaven, an artist prior to the accident, said her work changed after the injury.

“[Before], I was working with a lot of imagery of illness and trying to explore what it was like to experience illness. I had things like eating disorders as one of my themes; mental health issues; but those were all very internal, private experiences that I was making public,” VanLaven said.

“Then after the visible effects of my ailments, or disability, I shifted to looking at the idea of wellness. What does that look like from a social, ideological standpoint, and what is presented to us? That was a shift from looking at what does illness look like to what does wellness look like, or what would it look like for someone with an impairment.”

When asking her doctors about what wellness looks like, she said they often stand, smiling, with their arms outstretched in a V above their heads. VanLaven photographed the doctors mid-pose for her collection titled “The ‘Wellness Pose’.”

Despite the heavy nature of the conversation, VanLaven laughs often.

“Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t fit the images of what I was supposed to be aiming for, so I don’t, like, frolic in fields of yellow flowers very well because the scooter doesn’t go off road,” she said with a laugh.

In her photo “No Compromises,” shown at the “Humans Being II” exhibit, VanLaven is in a black leather vest, sitting on her red mobility scooter, head slightly turned, sternly looking at the camera. Behind her, five biker men smirk on their motorcycles.

On the Woman Made Gallery website, VanLaven writes, “In a campground full of bikers, we question how a mobility scooter can be a sign of toughness and virility.”

In another photograph titled “Pity Party,” a pouting VanLaven is in a purple birthday hat, birthday cake in hand, sitting under hanging pendants that spell out “PITY” (adorned with green streamers, of course).

The misguided “buck up, kid,” mentality of others, VanLaven said, can be hurtful and disingenuous. Through art, she said, humor can transfer an understanding of the error of their ways without her explicitly calling them out.

“Some of my work makes me feel down and I think it’s hard for people to leave with some sort of carry away, the takeaway, light enough to carry with them,” VanLaven said.

“In that sense, maybe somebody can chuckle about the pity party … but then there’s something that they carry with them. That’s my hope with those -- it’s sort of laughable in a painful way,” she said.

“I wish I could just carry a portable portfolio instead of talking to people and just hand them the work.”

VanLaven teaches in the School of Art at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Madelyn Covey

California artist Madelyn Covey, 27, began working with people with disabilities soon after graduating high school. She works at Creative Growth Art Center, an art organization helping people with developmental, mental and physical disabilities in Oakland, Calif.

A long fascination with what she calls “extensions of the body” fuels most of Covey’s work.

“Everybody has extensions of their body that they use in their everyday life. They all have tools that make their lives easier and make their bodies go further than they otherwise would and I think that’s a lot more pronounced in the disability community. And so I wanted to make some work that was about that,” Covey said.

One woman Covey assists, Pam, is the inspiration behind her featured piece in “Humans Being II.” The painting “Pam’s Bed” shows vibrant, patterned pillows and blankets tucked, rolled and propped purposefully on top an empty bed.

This balance of placing objects with purpose alongside and under a person with disabilities helps ease pain, increase mobility and create comfort.

But Covey said, occasionally, sadness is the overwhelming feeling for people looking at a bed like Pam’s. She said some say it looks more like a deathbed – and Covey wholeheartedly disagrees.

“Pam has a great sense of color, she has a great collection of every color of sweater you can get at Lands’ End. The pillows and bedding that she uses are all these really fun colors that she picks out,” Covey said.

“It’s to hold her body in place so she’s comfortable while she’s in bed, it’s not about being sad and limited; it’s using the things that you have around you in a creative way in order to be comfortable.”

Covey has also used performance to explore other extensions of the body. In one piece, she uses ostomy wafers – wafers that attach a small section of a patient’s intestine to a colostomy bag outside their stomach.

“I made all of these roses grow out of these wafers stuck all over somebody. It’s like a part of your body that’s attached afterwards, still something that is helping your body to function,” Covey said.

Madelyn Covey resides in Emeryville, Calif.

Claire Gilliam

England-native Claire Gilliam doesn’t remember a life without disability. A car accident as a baby left Gilliam with permanent brain damage causing hemiplegia, or, paralysis on her right side.

Now she resides in Warwick, N.Y. working as an artist/photographer. Pieces from her latest collection “This Is You, This is Me,” are on display at the Woman Made Gallery.

Gilliam said her disability is only noticeable to others when she walks, but sitting across the table from her, a person would be none the wiser.

“My work’s kind of triggered from that, really,” Gilliam said. “I’ve been making this work for a number of years and it’s kind of my inspiration about my personal feelings about my body in conjunction with society’s feeling about my body and what’s normal.”

Gilliam is naked in her work, making the photographs not only incredibly personal, but visually descriptive, showing scars across her right hip and down the side of her right thigh.

Gilliam said she started taking photographs of herself long ago, starting at a more vulnerable and confusing point in her life.

“I was at the age where I was beginning to want a relationship and I just didn’t feel like, people saw me in that way. So it started off as kind of a vague exploration in sexuality and desirability,” she said.

“It took me a long time to start sharing my naked self in my work, but I think, I’m married now and I’m in a very happy relationship with my husband and I’m very comfortable with my body, so I think it’s OK to show your body,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam puts quotation marks around the word “disability” when writing about it on her website.

“I don’t really like the word ‘disability’ -- there’s so many negative connotations to it. I put them in because I wanted to indicate that I don’t really feel disabled and it’s all in the mind of others,” she said.