The title of this blog post is an abbreviated quote from an article written by Katherine Sherwood, a disabled artist.
As my most recent blog post shows, I have become quite interested in disabled artists. As those familiar with this blog know, I want to change how occupational therapy, specifically, and our communities, generally, include people with differences or impairments.
In September 2012, I began painting with acrylic paints on canvas. I had never done that before. I will write about how painting positively affects my life in future posts. Today I want to share quotes from Sherwood who was an artist before she had a stroke at the age of 44. She has continued to be an artist – but in new ways – since the stroke.
I did not learn about Katherine Sherwood through occupational therapy but she has something to say about OT. Sherwood was a right handed painter before her stroke. In an article (for which I will provide a link below) she says “It turns out that my left hand was, in my case, the better painting hand, and that painting in my studio was the most effective occupational therapy there could have been for me.” (p.1). This is a reminder of how important it is to support people to participate in the activities that they love.
“In my practice as an artist, my stroke is a challenge and an opportunity rather than a loss.” (p. 1) says Sherwood. She compensated for the fact that her left hand was not as skilled as her right hand had been before the stroke by working on much larger canvases. She used larger brushes and was freed from what she called “meticulous detail” (p. 1). Due to the weight of the canvases, she began to paint with them positioned flat rather than leaning up on an easel.
The stroke also gave Sherwood a gift. The part of her brain that intellectualized her art was damaged. She is now able to paint more freely without the constriction caused by over-thinking.
I encourage you to ‘go to’ Sherwood’s article “How a cerebral hemorrhage altered my art” to see photographs of some of her art.
I find her ideas very exciting. I understand that many people cannot return to their previous activities due to the effects of a stroke. However, it is nice to hear that disability can sometimes enhance life. I will let Sherwood have the final word – “I firmly know my life has been considerably enhanced and made richer after acquiring my disability.” (p. 5).
I recently wrote the following for a writing course I am just finishing. I wanted to share it because I want to share Judith Scott’s art.
Judith Scott (1943 – 2005) was an American Fibre Artist whose artwork I discovered and fell in love with while researching art created by disabled artists. (I use the term “disabled artists” rather than “artists with disabilities” in deference to disability activists and disability studies scholars. They state that disability occurs when societies exclude the very idea of people with impairments while creating physical and social environments and that living with impairment is part of being human.) I chose to research disabled artists because the disabled community in general, and disabled artists in particular, have much to offer the discussion about expertise; with their life experiences, they bring a very different perspective to the conversation. Scott’s art (and her life) make concrete some ideas about the development of expertise and greatness. Scott and her fibre art also challenge some popular ideas about who becomes great and how they do it.
Judith Scott created three-dimensional fibre and mixed media sculptures (Fraser, 2010) in a wide range of sizes. Scott wrapped yarn and fabric scraps around a variety of objects using many different wrapping techniques. Her work has been exhibited throughout America, in Europe and in Asia. Her pieces are in the permanent collections of galleries all over the world, for example the Musee D’Art Brut in Switzerland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. Some of Scott’s art has sold for thousands of dollars indicating, in our money oriented culture, that the art is very good. Scott’s work is emotional and expressive (American Folk Art Museum, n.d.). Her work reminds many of cocoons (MacGregor, 1999 as cited in Fraser, 2010) though Smith (2002) offers an alternative interpretation. Smith states that Scott’s sculptures could be interpreted as objects turned inside out. The juxtaposition of both possible explanations demonstrates the complexity as well as the emotional intensity of Scott’s art. Looking at Scott’s artwork fills me with awe, desire, and hope. Her sculptures teach me priceless information about myself.
I would like to share some personal information about Scott because I believe that one can not separate a person’s experience from their art (Fraser, 2010). Judith Scott and her twin sister, Joyce, were born in Ohio in 1945. Judith was born with Down Syndrome; Joyce was not. Scarlet Fever during infancy left Judith deaf and non-verbal; unfortunately the deafness was not diagnosed until she was much older. The signs and symptoms of Down Syndrome include intellectual disability. However, Judith’s intellectual disability seemed more severe than it was due to her undiagnosed deafness. Scott’s parents followed medical advice and admitted her to an institution for children with intellectual disabilities. Scott lived in institutions until her twin sister Joyce became Judith’s guardian thirty five years later. Joyce arranged to have Judith participate in arts programs at The Creative Growth Centre in Oakland, California. This centre provides a professional art studio, materials, and assistance/instruction (by artists) for disabled adults. During a workshop with a visiting fibre artist, Judith began creating her distinctive art and continued to do so for approximately twenty years.
Coyle (2009) and Colvin (2006) are popular writers who emphasize the importance of deliberate or deep practice to the development of expertise. Deliberate or deep practice occurs when one works at the edge of their ability, deliberately reaching for the next level (Coyle, 2009). I was struck by the phrase “perform repeatedly” when reviewing online dictionary definitions of practice (versus deliberate or deep practice). Judith Scott wound yarn so many times that her fingers were often covered with bandages (Smith, 2001); she performed art making repeatedly. She created her art on a daily basis for hours each day. In this way, she demonstrated some of the features that Coyle (2009) and Colvin (2006) assert are required for the development of expertise. I will argue later in this piece that Scott did not necessarily practice in the deliberate way described by Coyle (2009) and Colvin (2006).
Judith Scott was a great artist, in part, because she was moved to work for long periods of time creating unique, appealing, touching art. Yes, she practised but I am not convinced that she practised in a deliberate or deep way; she did not necessarily practice to become an expert (Peer 2, 2013). Maybe she did. However, it is equally possible that she practised in the same way I (a new, amateur painter) practise art; doing some of the same things over and over again while frequently adding something new or different to the piece of art. Perhaps she played until it felt done rather than worked until she thought she had reached the targeted end point. Playing allows for the possibility of discovery. Having an end point in mind may actually prevent discoveries of something new and completely different – something innovative. Practising deliberately can stifle honesty. Hernandez (2013) states that disabled artists express clearly and honestly everything inside themselves; they create art naturally, spontaneously and freely. I believe that this is true for Scott and is one of the reasons she was a great artist. Although Scott was very protective of her artwork while she was creating it, she appeared to be almost indifferent towards it once completed. I believe this demonstrates that focusing on the process rather than the goal can also lead to expertise and greatness.
Being great in art and in many other endeavours requires creativity and playfulness. Judith Scott was an artist who created beautiful, innovative, and emotional art. She practised art making for many hours over many years. Our limited ability to understand Scott leaves us only able to speculate as to what she was thinking while she was creating. As an occupational therapist who has interacted with people with intellectual disabilities for many years and as a new artist who has interacted with artists for fewer years, I suspect Scott was not practising deliberately while she was making art. I surmise that she was creating art from a place outside of purposeful thinking (Tolle, 1999). Practising an activity for many years is usually required in order to be great (Colvin, 2006) but it is often not enough without creativity and innovation, playing and discovery.
American Folk Art Museum (n.d.). Untitled (Pink Standing Figure and White Nest). Judith Scott.
Retrieved from http://www.folkartmuseum.org/?p=folk&t=images&id=4416 May 22, 2013.
Colvin, G. (2006). What it takes to be great. Fortune Magazine. Retrieved April 18, 2013 from
Coyle, D. (2009). The sweet spot. In D. Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s
grown. Here’s How. pp. 11-29. New York: Bantam.
Fraser, B. (2010). The work of (creating) art: Judith Scott’s fiber art, Lola Barrera and Inaki Penafiel’s
Que tienes debajo del sombrero? (2006) and the challenge faced by people with developmental
disabilities. Cultural Studies, 24(4).508-532.
Hernandez, O. L. (2013). Retrieved May 24, 2013 from
Peer 2 (2013). Peer assessments. Project 3 Draft: Case Study. Retrieved May 20, 2013 from
Smith, R. (2002). Art in Review: Judith Scott – Cocoon. The New York Times. Retrieved May 22, 2013
Tolle, E. (1999). The Power of Now: A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment. Novato, CA: New World
Library & Vancouver, B.C., Canada: Namaste Publishing
See also http://www.judithandjoyce.com to learn more about Judith Scott’s art and life.
Please share if you know of disabled artists that I and other readers would like to know about.
Here is the rest of the paper from the previous post.
This image exemplifies expertise generally and in disability arts specifically. Austin had a vision – a “mental model” (Colvin, 2006, p.3) – of the freedom she gains from using a wheelchair and made the vision tangible by drawing together expertise in a variety of areas. Engineers modified a regular wheelchair so that it could be used underwater. Austin learned how to scuba dive in the modified wheelchair. In addition to creating still and moving pictures of diving in the ocean, she created and performs a dance (using the underwater wheelchair) in swimming pools. Austin and her team create exotic, liberating images to confront – indeed to shock – many people’s conventional views of wheelchairs and of people who use them. She frees us from preconceptions while demonstrating how using a wheelchair has freed her from some of the limitations faced by people who use wheelchairs for mobility (Kinross, 2012). Austin asserts that using a wheelchair allowed her to move freely (Kinross, 2012). Her artistic expertise allows viewers to experience that freedom of movement. Movement is depicted in this particular photograph by air bubbles above Austin’s head, her hair floating behind her, the swimming fish and by the position of Austin in the wheelchair.
Geoffrey Colvin and Daniel Coyle are two popular authors who write about talent, expertise, and greatness. Colvin (2006) hints at the importance of vision and innovation as parts of expertise or talent. Coyle (2009) does not discuss these noteworthy components in chapter 1 of his book The Talent Code. I chose to present the stunning photograph of Austin, in part, because it demonstrates how imagination and creativity are essential for greatness in many fields. This in no way implies that practice, as advocated by these authors, is unimportant. My argument is that their claims exclude factors that are necessary for greatness in many fields; therefore, I chose to present an image that reflects the importance of innovation and new ways of thinking as parts of talent.
The image of a woman scuba diving in a wheelchair is an example of how excellent disability art is able to offer a unique perspective to our culture. The picture shares the practical truth that for many people, wheelchairs are freeing. Austin, the performance artist, saw and recreated this freedom in an original way with beautiful and interesting light, colour, movement, and composition.
Austin, S. (2013). Deep sea diving … in a wheelchair. Ted Talks. Retrieved April 15, 2013 from
Colvin, G. (2006). What it takes to be great. Fortune Magazine. Retrieved April 18, 2013 from
Coyle, D. (2009). The sweet spot. In D. Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown.
Here’s How. pp. 11-29. New York: Bantam.
Ware, L. (2008). Worlds remade: inclusion through engagement with disability art. International
Journal of Inclusive Education. 12(5-6). 563-583.
I am taking a free online writing course from http://www.coursera.org
Below is my second paper for that course. It uses a photograph I shared in a post in September 2012. It seemed like a good way to re-activate this blog.
A definition of disability arts can be as elusive as is a definition of expertise. Nonetheless, this paper will present a photograph that I believe represents expertise in disability art. Ware (2008) describes the creative process in disability arts as interrupting “conventional interpretations about disability” (p. 573). Colvin (2006) includes the concept of “mental models (…) pictures of how the elements fit together and influence one another” in his discussion of expertise (p. 3). The image, I describe below demonstrates the artist’s mental model or vision; it also challenges viewers’ possible perspectives of disability.
The setting of the photograph on the following page is underwater. The blue background, the bubbles floating upwards from the woman’s breathing device, and the fish swimming in and around the coral provide this information. When I first saw this photograph in September 2012, I almost gasped and then said “Ohhh!!”. The light shining on the coral and on the woman’s arms that are held up and away from her body in what looks like joyous freedom contributes to the stunning beauty of this image. The silvery colour of some of the fish looks lovely against the blue of the water. The wheels of the woman’s wheelchair are the same silvery colour.
If you were reading this description without having the photograph available to view, the word wheelchair may have surprised you. Sue Austin, a British performance artist, is the woman in the image using a modified wheelchair to scuba dive. A scuba tank is attached to the backrest of the wheelchair. The seat belt is positioned a little differently than one used on a standard wheelchair. The belt goes around Austin’s waist, the backrest of the wheelchair and the scuba tank rather than across her hips. There appears to be a Plexiglas platform under the wheelchair foot rests that reaches around to both wheels in the shape of a denture plate. I have since learned that the apparent platform is really two acrylic hydroplane fins (Kinross, 2012). The wheelchair and the scuba diving gear are combined in this photograph. Generally, these pieces of equipment evoke opposite feelings and thoughts in people (Austin, 2013). The word wheelchair often appears with the word confined. Scuba diving is often described as exciting, adventurous and expansive (Kinross, 2012). The juxtaposition of these two types of equipment is significant.
Today Harold Feddersen* suggested seeing the perfection in things just as they are. During discussion about how to do that, it became clear that Harold didn’t mean accepting things as they are. He meant more than mere acceptance.
When I imagine seeing perfection in things as they are, I see wholeness. When I imagine seeing perfection in things as they are, I see celebration.
Maybe a few statements about perfection will clarify the intention of my most recent post “Labeling as Dividing”.
The children with whom I work are perfect just the way they are. I don’t just mean that I accept them as they are. I mean I see them as whole. I see them as little beings worth celebrating. Occupational therapy is available to them and to their families if brainstorming is required to move forward. However, my goal is never to “fix” the child. The child does not need fixing. We brainstorm solutions to problems from a place of believing that the child is perfect as he or she is.
Please feel free to share how you see the perfection in things just as they are.
*Harold Feddersen www.unleashingyourpotential.wordpress.com
Yesterday I was rude. I referred to someone’s non-impaired arm as their good arm. As if the arm that is affected by a disorder is “bad”. I am an occupational therapist who has worked with disabled people most of my 30 year-long career. I would like to consider myself an advocate for disabled people. And still that statement came out of my mouth. First, I need to apologize. I am sorry. Then I can’t help but wonder about the implications of that occurrence.
Is this an example of our left brain’s power to categorize our experiences and our observations? I have been meditating regularly for almost two months now. When I’m meditating, I see the thoughts that flow through my mind. I also see the qualities I apply to those thoughts: good, bad, happy, sad …. It is difficult to see something and not label is as pleasing or displeasing.
I believe that this tendency leads us to divide people into groups like able people and disabled people. As if we aren’t all able and disabled. This tendency also leads us to divide ourselves – I am intelligent but ugly or I am athletic but stupid or in the case above, I have a good arm and a bad arm.
I just read a book by a woman who is an activist removing barriers to full participation by women with impairments like cerebral palsy. This respected, educated, successful woman continues to categorize aspects of herself as faulty and undesirable.
I don’t fully understand how I ended up labeling part of a beautiful child as “bad”. I do believe that this tendency to label in the first place is definitely a part of the problem. What do you think?
PS: The book I refer to above is “Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back” by Harilyn Rousso.
I was inspired by a Fringe episode to write this post. In this episode, one character talks about how scientists (imaginary – this was a TV show, remember) gradually eliminated emotions from people to increase intelligence. In the TV show, it is obvious that this has led to no good.
In real life, it seems that many of us are trying to increase intelligence – of ourselves and/or of others. We never seem to question the “goodness” of this activity. So, I am going to ask. Why is being smarter better than being dumber?
I do not know the answer to this question. So I will ask myself, would being smarter than I am be better for me and/or for others? I find that I have to ask another question. Smarter in what? Smarter in understanding what I read? Yes, that would be better for me but only if I chose important things to read.
How do I choose what is important to read? I believe that I need more than intelligence to make this type of decision. I need to know and live by my values to know what is important. How do I know if I am living by my values?
I would argue that emotions help me to understand if I am living by my values. For example: asking myself “Does that “feel” right?” Unexpected tears in my eyes may show me that something said by a friend is true for me. Feeling angry may tell me that I need to act on this issue.
Let’s stop de-valuing people whose intelligence appears to be lower than average (or lower than ours). Let’s see if we can connect emotionally with a wider variety of people. I think all of our lives will be richer if we do so. What do you think?