De’VIA Thank Tank

short video on the 1989 De’VIA Think Tank.  English summary below.

From the HeART of Deaf Culture: Literary and Artistic Expressions of Deafhood https://www.ntid.rit.edu/educational-materials/?controller=product&product_id=34
Deaf View / Image Art (De’VIA)
Workshop and Manifesto 1989
Length: 19:07

Note: This is a summary of the signed commentaries made in the video on De’VIA and not a verbatim translation. Text summary by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.

“American Deaf Art”
Workshop was held May 25th to May 28th, 1989 before Deaf Way I at Gallaudet University — Co-facilitated by Paul Johnston and Betty G. Miller

Dr. Paul Johnston:
Betty G. Miller and I became good friends. We were of a similar mind and disappointed about the “unfinished” business from Spectrum. The concept of “Deaf Art” was recently introduced, but it had not been fully examined. I didn’t want to see all that fermentation related to the excitement about Deaf art dissolve. I hoped to see it resurrected again. Betty and I discussed this, and decided to submit a proposal for a workshop and invite several artists. Some artists were unable to attend due to job commitments or other conflicts.

Nancy Creighton:
We sent out emails and asked people to come. Some artists like Ann Silver were unable to attend. Harry Williams (namesign HW) had passed away. No, I think maybe at that time he was still alive, but unable to come. I can’t remember who else we asked. We really tried to reach out to many artists.

Paul Johnston:
The artists worked in a variety of mediums and areas: sculpture artists, fabric artists, those working in realism, scholars, and art historians. Not all of us were painters. We had talked about how we wanted all these different artists to come together for an open dialogue.

The Workshop [Intertitle]
Rare footage of the De’VIA workshop in 1989 shot by Lai-Yok Ho

Dr. Betty G. Miller, known as the Mother of De’VIA:
It was at Spectrum that we discussed “Deaf Art.” I’m not going to go into depth about our discussions during the summer sessions at Spectrum, but as a result of these discussions focusing on Deaf Art, people would leave and these discussions would then emerge in Deaf communities around the United States. Therefore, people were engaged in t-a-l-k about Deaf Art; what they were seeing and so forth. That is how it has been up until now. It has been my dream. Today, in being here it has come true.

Dr. Paul Johnston:
…all these emotions were boiling over wanting to come out. But I kept them to myself focusing more on the aesthetics of art. I put my feelings and heart to the side. These were the two competing approaches. They competed until I saw Chuck Baird’s (namesign CB) painting “The Mechanical Ear.” Really, that work just left me stunned. It really hit me so hard. It really shook me to my core.

Nancy Creighton:
That summer was the 2nd Spectrum Deaf Arts conference. I remember Betty being there and this large circle of people discussing what Deaf Art was. I was very naïve and young at that time. During one of the discussions, one person noticed that there were a number of paintings representing people who didn’t have any ears. Inside I thought, so what? What does that have to do with Deaf people and art? I was so puzzled, and didn’t understand what it all meant. I had never seen art in the Deaf genre. I hadn’t seen Betty’s works or any one else’s; ever As a result, when it came my turn to talk, I said, “There is no such thing as Deaf Art — it is simply art by an artist that happens to be deaf.” So you see I had acquired a “Hearing attitude.”

Chuck Baird:
Some people interpret Deaf Art to mean an artist obsessed with the theme of deafness in their paintings; a “rah, rah” Deaf Power kind of thing or works where there is an over-analysis of the ear. From time to time, I would examine that type of work. But overall my work tends to represent the Deaf experience in some way. This doesn’t necessarily mean it overtly screams DEAF (signs index finger as the sign Deaf, but on the palm of his hand instead), or that it includes the obvious slashed ear. In the future, I may do more work with more overt representations of the Deaf experience.

Guy Wonder:
I’m trying to remember how I began to get interested in art. My beginning is kind of vague, but I remember my parents did encourage me to do art: painting, hammering, and creating. They encouraged and supported art as a HOBBY, not as a profession. They would say, “Think about it. You can’t really succeed as a Deaf professional artist. We’ve never seen Deaf people in that type of profession.” Even though I had Deaf parents, there were arguments about this. You need to understand that my parents were from the generation that had experienced a number of wars. They were born during a war, they married, and then I was born during a war. I was a war baby, and my parents were working in factories at this time. So, all their thoughts were about job security that would allow them to afford their home and to budget their money.

They had a sense of huge responsibility. They encouraged me to go to college to be a teacher, a printer or a carpenter. They definitely did NOT send me to college to become an artist. Because they were not aware of any Deaf people who were self-supporting artists, we fought about my ambitions as an artist the whole time I was growing up.

Alex Wilhite:
I learned about Arabic / Muslim art and how it was different from Western art. Arabic/Muslim art was non-objective art, whereas Western art tends to be personal. Western art includes many portraits unlike Muslim art. In my analysis of this work, I noticed a strong use of geometric shapes. Also, I looked at architecture. My father is a contractor, and I liked architecture and construction as well. My father had a lot of left over steel, industrial scraps, and so on. I would sculpt and weld using these materials.

Dr. Deborah Sonnenstrahl:
This teacher/counselor said, “Debbie, I’m very disappointed in you.” “How was my test?” I asked. “Your test was fine,” she replied. “Never mind that. I don’t mean to talk about that.” “Well, what did I do?” I asked. “Why didn’t you major in art?” she asked. “ME? ME? You’re asking ME? ME?” I was so shocked. Someone suggested I major in art? No. Not me. I haven’t shown any of my art in ages. She really specified that I was better suited for art history, but at that time there wasn’t a major in art history. NONE. Art history is good for understanding how artists face problems, solve problems and their struggle. Art courses contribute to understanding. So, I thought, later I could go for my Masters in Art History. I decided to mull over this career path.

Sandi Inches Vasnick:
Deborah Sonnenstrahl’s great influence on me was due to her tremendous LOVE of A R T. I was in awe of her. She would say, “WOW, ART is beautiful! Oh, how I wish I could draw. The beauty of ART!” She’d explain, “See how there is history in this art? Why? Because it communicates CULTURE.” “Right,” I thought with wonder. She would continue, “See how the Greeks showed us their history in art, the Egyptians, and so on.” She would explain everything in the work. “Look at this ear here…” she would say and then explain away. I ran home and started to look at my own artwork and appreciate its beauty.

We are here together so I am able to start to identify with this experience, discover and see how I’m not alone. I can see what each has to offer. It inspires me. I especially appreciate meeting Betty Miller and the discussions of her work. Betty would say, “Yes my work has Deaf themes. There they are.” I could then turn to my own works and see that my work has them too and feel a sense of affirmation. It was a new idea to feel it’s not bad. I don’t need to accept criticism for that. I remember when I was young, my mother and sister would spit on my work because it showed the ugly side of the Deaf world and Deaf education. They’d hide it. I just looked at it and saw it for what it is –“the truth.”

End of vintage footage from De’VIA thinktank 1989

Dr. Paul Johnston:
People brought their works, their slides and we all looked at them. They’d share and present about their work. They were so thrilled to be able to come together and have space to talk about art collectively. Before when we would try to share our perspectives with friends, they would not respond favorably, because they were not from the art world. They didn’t understand. They found it to be overwhelming, whereas all of us immediately and instinctively GOT IT!

We started to note down common motifs and symbols. We noted what they tended to represent. We talked about the motivation behind particular artworks, the type of materials they were interested in working with, and connect these ideas to the artworks.

“Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.” — Alfred North Whitehead [Intertitle frame]

We looked at slides. Everyone brought slides of their works and other people’s works and we projected them up on the screen. Slide after slide after slide — thousands of slides. Looking at them one after another, we started to see a pattern. Slide after slide, “Oh strong use of colors” and “focal point tends to be centered.” We as a group saw this pattern. We discussed it, recognized it, and remarked on it. “Oh no ears, no mouths, or oversized mouths, oh hands oppressed and locked up.” We could see this pattern becoming self-evident before our very eyes.

The Name
De’VIA is created when the artist intends to express their Deaf experience through visual art. [Intertitle]

We came up the term De’VIA. Really, originally we decided that the term would be forged in ASL first and the written second. If we came up with the word in written form first and then came up with a sign for it, it would weaken it. Translating from English would diminish it. We wanted it to be stronger. We spent several hours discussing how to sign it. “Deaf Art” would not do. It would not have a big enough impact. It would be too general, like “Deaf education” or “Deaf sports;” too broad. To me, Deaf Art can get distracted to focus on folks who are interested in painting flowers, still-lifes and such. That is not what we were after. We wanted to shift the focus over here. So I raised the question, “What is the difference between Women’s art and Feminist art? What’s the distinguishing difference, the conceptual difference, the boundary?

We discussed all of this and thought of the sign “Deaf Power” art — oh no we felt that would be too much – would seem militant – so we improvised with signs “Deaf view,” “Deaf expression,” “Deaf perspective,” “Deaf, Deaf” (we always had Deaf), “View,” “View what?” Palm hand — an image “Art.” We all looked at that and said YES. Remember we said finger-spelling it out would be forbidden. We decided it would be a signed name first and foremost; “Deaf View/Image Art,” “Deaf View/Image Art.”

Nancy Creighton:
I think Paul (used P on palm of hand — namesign) was strong about the word “view” — we are talking about our point of view, our Deaf experience, how Deaf people view the world. That defined our focus — the Deaf view. Deaf people can do any kind of art but THIS art will show the Deaf View. “Deaf view on palm of hand as the image / artwork” That is how we came up with the name. We did it in sign first.

Deaf De’ View/Image Art VIA De’VIA [De’VIA]

Paul Johnston:
We wanted to thank the Frenchman, Laurent Clerc, for bringing to us French Sign Language (which became ASL here). In memory of his bringing this language that gave birth to our Deaf American culture, we thought of De’ to give it a French feel. De’VIA — a beautiful term.

So we thought, “De’VIA — Why not?” What about the accent ague? We thought it would add to the impact and curiosity; be a hook and people would want to know more. If we had just the term Deaf, some people would see the word and run in the opposite direction. In all honesty, many people don’t respect it. For example many people run from the term Very Special Arts (VSA). Many people see the word deaf and only see disability. De’ is closer to culture.

The Manifesto [Intertitle]

Betty Miller and Nancy Creighton had the concept of writing a manifesto like other art movements have done, such as Dada or surrealism. The artists brought those concepts forward and we saw parallels; to declare, make an announcement, raise the banner, to make it recognized and seal it with a stamp. So our manifesto — remember we only had four days together — was made on a tight schedule, from discussing, to putting into text, to revising to making a large mural representation of De’VIA. Only four days. Wow, when I think of it I really can’t believe it. We really tried our best.

[Image of the original De’VIA manifesto with signatures]

From the De’VIA manifesto (1989)
“De’VIA represents Deaf artists and perceptions based on their Deaf experiences. It uses formal art elements with the intention of expressing innate cultural or physical Deaf experience. These experiences may include Deaf metaphors, Deaf perspectives, and Deaf insight in relationship with the environment (both the natural world and Deaf cultural environment), spiritual and everyday life.” [intertitle]

I want to emphasize to people that the manifesto is not a rule binding, legal document; nothing like that. It is really a seed to see what will grow from it and see what happens.

The Mural [intertitle]

[image of the mural — large painting, black background, several varying sized subtle blue bubbles, Mask / face center image with three primary colored hands coming out of the top of the head, young child with puppet jaw cut into three sections top left next to the word DEAF, smaller Deaf child with puppet jaw and body aid right center above the word WORLD, hand crocheted? piece curving from the jaw of the centered masked face to the bottom of the artwork to a horizontal piece, five hands outstretch across the piece from left to right reaching out to the crochet­­ stream, multicolored triangle frames the center piece of mask / face and crocheted stream with two hands, bottom line of triangle is pure yellow, four threads run from top of frame diagonally across the canvas to bottom.]

Nancy Creighton: [subtitle — Process of creating the mural]
That was a difficult process for us because artists normally work in isolation and independently. In addition, we did not have a lot of time. We started with exercises, which Sandi led (uses the name sign of “pinky finger waved back and forth for Sandi”). Really she did these everyday, but we started with these exercises to get us moving around and interacting. Then we had a paper in which we drafted ideas, and they started to come together. (Pointing to Betty G. Miller who is off screen) Betty got some of her old paintings and cut them up. She cut up her old paintings for the boy with the body aid. [detail image appears]
Sandi had batiks. She cut up some of those and put them up. [detail image appears]. I crocheted the middle textile in the middle. Chuck Baird saw me crocheting and was impressed, as he had never seen that before. [detail images appears] And the crochet added meaning to the work. I’m not at all sure what this means. It needs to be reworked. Chuck Baird added hands traveling across the work. He had cut those out and added them. Guy and Alex worked together mostly on the background triangle, adding the colors and Paul did the bubbles and the blue spheres. [detail image]

We put it all together. Not all at once. It was one or two people at a time going up to the piece and working on it. We were all in the same room but we’d go up and work a few at a time due to space. We couldn’t all be up at the canvas at the same time.

[image of the full mural]

Reactions to the De’VIA Manifesto [intertitle]

We had this concept of a big painting created as a team, and we called it our big “signature,” like a statue to display. Unfortunately someone stole it. It was hanging in the Washburn building. Why was it stolen? There are two theories: for its value or because they hated De’VIA. It’s anyone’s guess. There’s a bit of a legend there.

We brought our manifesto to the Deaf Way I conference. We showed some of our new works via slides — Betty G. Miller, CB (Chuck Baird’s namesign), and a few other people showed their work. The audience’s jaws dropped; people were overwhelmed. Remember we only had one hour; that’s all. People kept raising their hands, discussing, and becoming inspired. We just planted the seed and took the first few steps. One person stood up and said, “This is POLITICAL art.” We said, “Whoa, we have a range from political to silly to humorous. We are just introducing it here.”

I remember when we first established De’VIA, people were like, “I want to join. How do I become a member?” I said it’s not an organization. People would ask, “Can I become a De’VIA artist?” There was a bit of misunderstanding, some myths, “Its all political…” Really it was so new. Some thought Devia was a word but it is really an acronym. It took a lot of time and explaining. Some people were immediately resistant, whereas others were supportive. One artist in the group confided, “I feel we have made a mistake. We shouldn’t have set up De’VIA.” “Why?” I asked. “Because we are getting such a negative reaction from some people. I feel like running away,” the artist replied. “Stay firm,” I told her. “Do not give up. The first few years there will be backstabbing but eventually people will open up to it and it will become more accepted.” Some appreciate it. Some don’t get it. It takes time – years and years – for it to be appreciated.

Clips of Chuck Baird from the 1989 De’VIA thinktank — rare footage
“I had this dream, similar to Betty’s. Maybe we were under this larger spirit that sent down this blessing, which reached out and touched each of us around that time; 1971 around then. And we met each other and started to influence each other and this was all under someone greater than us — their plan. For Deaf View / Image Art. For A-R-T. Deaf, their A-R-T.

Clip of De’VIA artists who coined the term, created the manifeso and the signature mural of De’VIA in 1989 signing “Deaf View / Image Art” then stepping away to reveal the mixed media work.

Scrolling text:
The signatories were:
Dr. Betty G. Miller, painter;
Dr. Paul Johnston, sculptor;
Dr. Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl, art historian;
Chuck Baird, painter;
Guy Wonder, sculptor;
Alex Wilhite, painter;
Sandi Inches Vasnick, fiber artist;
Nancy Creighton, fiber artist;
And Lai-Yok Ho, video artist.

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