This past Thursday, English professor Brenda Brueggemann discussed and interpreted the art and history of Deaf people in the United States for her lecture titled American Deaf Art, History and Community Talk.
Brueggemann’s talk focused on the impact, history and interpretation of various mediums created by deaf artists—particularly visual arts, performance arts and literature. Brueggemann stated that there were several themes that she had noticed throughout deaf art. “A lot of the art seems to have something with community,” said Brueggemann, “The deaf community, about identity, about language about culture…another kind of theme that I see is about being alone, isolation, solitude, silence and oppression.” She also noted that there seems to be a theme of body as expression among deaf artists.
Professor of American Studies and English Chris Vials was incredibly interested in how deaf artists and writers use their work to speak on their experience “Deaf artists and deaf writers are articulating experiences that in ways are very similar to other groups that have minoritized experiences,” Professor Vials said.
Brueggemann believed that schools for deaf children like The American School for the Deaf and Clarke School for the Deaf were instrumental in the development of deaf artists. These schools were often a place where students would learn ASL or the oral method to communicate, and also helped foster community. These schools, however, were not without their issues.
“The schools were also places of shared community… and culture. They were a way for deaf kids to locate themselves in relationship to others…they were also a location of oppression and abuse,” Brueggemann said.
One of the first deaf artists was John Brewster, who is known for “Francis O. Watts with Bird,” “One Shoe Off” and “Portrait of a Girl with a Bird.” Brewster was one of first students of the American School for the Deaf, and attended after he was well into adulthood. His paintings were mostly portraits, and Brueggemann pointed out the attention in how Brewster painted the arms and eyes of his subjects.
Peter Cook, one of the most famous deaf poets in the United States, was the next artist that Brueggemann had chosen to focus on. Brueggemann pulled up several clips of Cook performing, and each were absolutely stunning. “The United States of Poetry” and “Flying Words Project” saw Cook using ASL as a performance tool, exaggerating his facial expressions and movements to truly invoke a feeling within the viewer.
Moving on from performance art to music, Brueggemann discussed how deaf rapper Sean Forbes works to make his songs and videos accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. Forbes does this by playing with font and utilizing beats for the lyrics flashing across the screen in his music videos.
As Brueggemann reached the end of her talk, she showed those in attendance photographs, sculptures and paintings created by deaf artists. In this last segment, she chose to take a focus on artist James Castle. Brueggemann had curated an exhibit on James Castle and produced a short documentary on the curating process and the artist himself.
After the presentation had ended, Brueggemann opened the floor for questions. Attendees asked questions about the oral training method and what it means to be deaf or hearing. Brueggemann noted that deaf culture and hearing culture are different, and pointed out some examples like the placement of centerpieces and where those who are deaf choose to sit.
“They hadn’t realized there was a hearing culture,” said Brueggemann, “that there was a deep hearing culture, there is a way that hearing people behave.”
Assistant Professor of Linguistics Doreen Simons was interested to see Brueggemann’s perspective on deaf artists and history, as her own experience had differed from Brueggemann.
“I come from a deaf heritage, I have five generations of family members who speak sign language, so I have a certain perspective from my own background on the topic that was talked about today. Brenda has a different perspective on it based on her own background, she is someone who lost hearing later in life… I was curious to see how she would talk about it, what she thinks about it, how she would present it,” Simons said.
Lauren Brown is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.