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De’VIA Elders Reunion Conference • May 2016

June 25, 2016

Note: I originally wrote this in June, but didn’t have all the info and links that I wanted. Then work and life intervened, so I’m posting it now (11/14/2016). —Nancy C.

The Beginnings of De’VIA

That's me in Chicago. We were walking from the gallery to our dorms and Sandi took this photo.

That’s me in Chicago. We were walking from the gallery to our dorms and Sandi took this photo.

Just before Memorial Day weekend, I was in Chicago for the De’VIA Elder’s Reunion and Conference/Exhibit. We elders (signed as “wise artists”) had not been together as a group since the time, 27 years ago, when we came up with a definition of “De’VIA” and a written and visual manifesto.

The 1989 De'VIA Visual Manifesto.

The 1989 De’VIA Visual Manifesto.

De’VIA, Deaf View/Image Art, started with a workshop led by Betty G. Miller and Paul Johnston in 1989 in preparation for, and supported by, the first Deaf Way Conference held at Gallaudet University. There were nine of us who signed the resulting manifestos— seven artists, one art historian, and one video artist who filmed the workshop. The title of the four-day workshop was, “What is Deaf Art?”

Why was that such a problem? Many people who see the term “Deaf Art” know intuitively what it is. Isn’t that a bit like asking, “What is art?,” or “What is air?” But do they really know? The obvious answer: Deaf Art is anything created by a deaf artist.

SignLanguageILoveYouPewterCharm

I love you (ILY) charm.

But who’s a deaf artist? A Deaf(1) person who uses sign language and is a member of the community, who does art. Is that all? What about a person who’s lost their hearing in childhood, as a youth, or any other age? What if they don’t know there is a Deaf community, but knowingly paint their deafness? What about a child with deaf parents (Codas), or parents of deaf kids, or interpreters and others who work with deaf people everyday? What about a hearing company or person who has no connection at all with any deaf people, but makes “I Love You” buttons, jewelry, other items? Are they all creating Deaf Art?

Those are the kinds of questions we struggled with 27 years ago, and are still discussing today. However, nothing comes from nothing and deaf artists had met several times before, these kind of questions were not new.(2) The recognition of art that reflects deaf people’s experiences was also not new. What was different this time was a new name: Deaf View/Image Art, also known as De’VIA from its acronym DVIA; a visual manifesto (a painting); a written manifesto that laid out the formal elements of art that emphasized a deaf artist’s experience; and its introduction at Deaf Way in July 1989. The presentation given by Betty G. Miller and Paul Johnston was attended by many deaf artists from various countries, who worked in various fields.

De’VIA Elder’s Reunion

Jim Van Manen,(3) publisher and author of the first two books in the Deaf Artists series,(4) has been planning to write a book about the framers of De’VIA and made plans to visit each of us to interview us for his book. When he realized that we hadn’t been together, and hadn’t discussed these ideas with each other since 1989, he decided to bring us as a group to a two-day workshop, followed by a two-day conference with us and others in the deaf arts community, with a concurrent exhibit of De’VIA artworks.

Five of us from the original nine were there, along with two others who had been invited back then, but couldn’t come. They are: Dr. Paul Johnston; Sandi Inches; Guy Wonder, III; Alex Wilhite; and myself, Nancy Creighton. Added to the group were Ann Silver and Dr. Tony McGregor. Three of the original group have passed away, all in 2012: Charles Baird; Lai-Yok Judy Ho, the videographer; and Dr. Betty G. Miller. Dr. Debbie Sonnenstrahl Blumenson, the art historian of the group, couldn’t attend for medical reasons.

Sandi (right) and I were laughing about something during the first two days of the conference.

Sandi (right) and I were laughing about something during the first two days of our discussion.

The first day, just us seven, was focussed on individual interviews. Jim’s assistants had two cameras going at once, in different rooms, asking us all the same questions. The focus of the questions was what happened during the four days in 1989— what the process was, and what we thought of De’VIA now. While that was going on, the rest of us were meeting in “the green room” which wasn’t green, but took the name from the room used in television when guests are waiting to go on. However, we weren’t to talk about De’VIA past or present— Jim asked us not to, so that he could capture all our ideas and comments and energy the next day, when we were scheduled to meet as a group and remember the ’89 workshop together, as well as discuss where De’VIA has gone since.

The Conference and My Struggles

Silver framing artwork with Mark McWilliams.

Silver framing artwork with Mark McWilliams.

The two days after our reunion was a conference open to others. There were 33 of us in the gallery, mostly deaf artists and arts administrators. The schedule for both days ended up being just a general suggestion, as most of the presentations with Q & A sessions ran over, and some presentations were shortened or cancelled altogether (due to Deaf Peoples’ Time, DPT!). Much of the time, both days, was spent in the gallery showing De’VIA artwork where the artists who were there talked about their work on display, and all of it was fodder for discussion; and in the larger gallery where student work was displayed and we were all seated in a large circle. Those circle discussions centered on revisiting the 1989 workshop, why the written manifesto was confusing people, the name itself, what De’VIA means today, and what we visualize for the future.

One of the things that Jim got through to me during the discussions is that the meaning of the word “De’VIA” has changed. It took over 20 years, but the deaf community has finally come to understand that De’VIA means “Deaf experience.” The word “De’VIA” is now being used by artists in other fields, such as theater and poetry. It took me awhile to accept this, for two reasons.

First, back in 1989 we were only talking about art. The manifesto specifies that it’s about fine art and lists a number of tendencies, which are all formal elements of art. Things like central focus and high contrast, for example— things we had all learned about in art school.

Sandi and Tony in a quiet moment.

Sandi and Tony in a quiet moment.

During our circle discussions, people kept dropping the word “image” from the name, and the word “fine” when they were talking about the art produced. Those words are in the manifesto for a reason. When we wrote the manifesto, we were thinking of an audience of artists, who understand the specific meaning of the words. Art has many functions— such as illustration, product design, advertising, decoration. Fine art generally has no function. It is entire in itself. It is appreciated for its aesthetic, imaginative and intellectual content, and isn’t limited in its media. Image is a view of the object itself, whether it’s an original artwork or a photograph or other representation of the original work. But those words don’t necessarily apply to other artistic disciplines.

The second reason it was difficult for me to wrap my head around this was because we did a lot of work to come up with the conceptual recognition of De’VIA, and the formal elements that tend to show in the work; and come up with a name, one which is based on visual fine art. To my knowledge, other artistic disciplines hadn’t done the work of analyzing what the criteria was for their field. When I was visiting NTID(5) a while ago, a student asked me why we rejected other disciplines such as theater and poetry when we wrote the manifesto. I was really surprised by that interpretation. I explained that we didn’t reject any other field. We simply couldn’t talk for them. We didn’t know the criteria poets have for expressing the Deaf experience though ASL, nor what criteria theatre people would come up with. We were all trained artists, talking only about what we knew— fine art. For example, if a deaf high school troupe presents “Hamlet” in ASL, is that De’VIA? Not to my mind, but I’m not a theatre person— they need to decide for themselves.

One of the other things I brought up in the discussions is that in my opinion, one of the most important lines in the original manifesto is, “De’VIA is created when the artist intends to express their Deaf experience through visual art.” We may often see deafness in an artist’s work, or we interpret it that way based on our own experiences. But we don’t have the right to label an artist’s work as De’VIA if they don’t want to claim that label themselves. Another line that I think is important states that Deaf artists tend to use specific formal elements in their artwork. It’s not a recipe to follow, and there are many ways artists can express themselves.

Outcomes

As a writer, a “word person,” I do understand that language changes, and in these times, with the speed of internet communication, it changes frequently. So after sleeping on it, I was able to fully accept that the word “De’VIA” now stands for any kind of artistic expression that intentionally conveys the d/Deaf experience. Over time, people may even forget where the word came from, as often happens with words and phrases in English.

This is the document we worked on the final day of the conference. The first part is from the elders, the second part is from attendees of the conference.

This is the document we worked on the final day of the conference. The first part is from the elders, the second part is from attendees of the conference.

Most of the afternoon of the second day of the conference was spent developing a statement of philosophy about De’VIA and how we view it now, after 27 years. We all had the chance to participate, and I talked more in a group than I had in years! I was thrilled by the fact that we had 33 people in a large circle, mostly deaf people, hashing out a document written in English that all of us could understand, agree with, and sign our names to— even when we didn’t agree about everything. It was a delight to argue about ideas with people, examine concepts and alternatives and not have it fall apart into an emotional pot of crabs pulling each other down.

We also worked on a mural, really a large painting, because that is becoming a tradition of De’VIA conferences. Going back to my fiber artist identity, I worked up gray wool corners that stand in for the enclosing world at large, but didn’t have time to finish what I planned as far as adding in color yarn to represent deaf people.

We all agreed that we want to establish some kind of deaf artists center/guild/museum. Questions regarding what, exactly, we’ll form and where it will be were all tabled for a future discussion because time was running out. It was the last day, and we were having party that night— a closing reception for the conference and the exhibit where we all dressed in our ’80s clothes.

Taken during the closing reception, this shows the De'VIA elders with Jim Van Manen, his assistants, and the 2016 De'VIA Mural. L-R: Mark, Sandi Inches, Paul Johnston, Tony McGregor, Ann Silver, Jim Van Manan, Guy Wonder, Alex Wilhite, Nancy Creighton, Megan Powers, Ethan.

Taken during the closing reception, this shows the De’VIA elders with Jim Van Manen, his assistants, and the 2016 De’VIA Mural. L-R: Mark McWilliams, Sandi Inches, Paul Johnston, Tony McGregor, Ann Silver, Jim Van Manen, Guy Wonder, Alex Wilhite, Nancy Creighton, Megan Powers, Ethan Kjelland.

I had a fabulous time the two days of the reunion and the two days of the conference. We all rekindled old friendships and made new friends. We watched Nyle DiMarco and his partner Peta win “Dancing with the Stars” and were fascinated by their interpretive dance to “The Sound of Silence.” I, personally, am proud of all the work we did, and feel that I understand better what’s become of De’VIA over the past 27 years. Thank you, Jim, for making this all come together.

Notes

(1) Deaf with a capital “D” denotes a person who identifies themselves as part of the Deaf community, and prefers to use sign language, in this case, American Sign Language, ASL. Small “d” deaf is what I used to be, a person who doesn’t hear– a medical distinction in relation to the hearing world.

(2) See Ann Silver: Deaf Artists Series, pages 190-193 for a timeline of deaf artists meetings.

(3) Jim Van Manen is the author of the first two books in the Deaf Artists Series, published by Empyreal Press. He is a Coda (Child of Deaf Adults), teaches ASL at Columbia College Chicago, is publishing a book on fingerspelling, planned and funded this conference— which will then supply the content for the third book in the Deaf Artists Series.

(4) Empyreal Press, publisher of specialty books about people in the deaf community and American Sign Language. http://www.empyrealpress.com/#about

(5) NTID: National Technical Institute of the Deaf, a college of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York.

More reading/viewing

Durr, Patti (2014) https://handeyes.wordpress.com/tag/what-devia-is-and-is-not/

Durr, Patti (April 2015) De’VIA Timeline: https://devartivistunited.wordpress.com/devia-history/devia-timeline/

De'VIA written manifesto 300px

The written manifesto from 1989 with all nine signatures.

Miller, et al (1989) Text of the Deaf View/Image Art manifesto. http://www.deafart.org/Deaf_Art_/deaf_art_.html

Van Manen, et al (2016) Text of the Statement of Philosophy developed during the reunion conference.  https://purpleswirlarts.wordpress.com/devia-statement-of-philosophy-%E2%80%A2-may-2016/

Betty G. Miller presenting about De'VIA in 1997.

Betty G. Miller presenting about De’VIA in 1997.

Gallaudet Video Library. Deaf Artists Series, Betty G. Miller: De Via (stet) http://videocatalog.gallaudet.edu/?video=17244

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