By Caitlyn Rose
BEING Studio is a non-profit arts organization that supports artists with developmental disabilities interested in visual art and creative writing in Ottawa. Found in 2002, the organization provides studio space, merchandising opportunities, and professional workshops for artists to learn new skills.
The second season of SPEAK, a podcast produced by BEING studio, is a delightful romp through time. Hosts Debbie “The Dragon” Ratcliffe and Rachel Gray take us on a winding journey that spans BEING Studio’s humble beginnings as H’ART of Ottawa to its present as a thriving community of artists and its dreams for an even brighter future. Along the way, listeners are invited into the world of BEING Studio artists who teach us about the strength of community, the power of art and storytelling, and the incredible possibilities and sticky tensions of being both an artist and a person with a disability. There is something here for everyone, from jokes told by “funny guy” Doug Garrow in episode 8 to heartwarming tales of carrying on the artist tradition from Claire Nedzela in episode 7 and deep dives into what it means to be a “disability artist.”
Listeners are invited into the world of BEING Studio artists who teach us about the strength of community, the power of art and storytelling, and the wonderful possibilities and sticky tensions of being both an artist and a person with a disability.
In her book Crip Kinship, author Shayda Kafai writes about how tight-knit disability communities are like communities of trees, with “their expansive network of connectivity and their intertwined root systems.” The artists behind SPEAK are not just part of Ottawa’s disability community; they are also part of another community made up of all disability artists and artists more broadly, in Canada and beyond. How we think about and label ourselves is influenced by our personal history, experiences and opinions, as well as outside forces like the time and place we live in. What it means to be a disability artist in Canada, for instance, is shaped, as Gray reminds us on SPEAK, by “larger histories of art and disability and Canada.”
Gray describes a dark part of Ontario’s disability history, from which BEING, then called H’ART of Ottawa, came to be. She speaks to Dr. Michael Orisini, a BEING board member and University of Ottawa professor, about what people generally understood as the role of art in the lives of people with disabilities during that time. Art was appreciated for its therapeutic benefits for the artist rather than being considered culturally significant in its own right, as it was for non-disabled artists.
In the final episode of the season, a conversation between Bucko, an artist and former board member, and Fin, SPEAK’s executive producer, highlights how this history continues to shape the experiences of disabled artists today as they share their feelings about labels like “disability arts.” Bucko says this label can feel limiting, and he wants people to appreciate his art on its own merit, but it feels like many are attracted to his art solely because he is a disabled artist. This can be patronizing and repeats the assumption that art made by disabled artists is inherently less skillful and therefore, less valuable. Referencing the history of struggle and resistance connected to disability arts, Bucko says, “It’s important to acknowledge that journey and struggle, but also it’s important to build the bridges that allow people with disabilities to be on the artistic stage as anyone else.”
SPEAK is artists with developmental disabilities telling their own stories.
I think much of the power of SPEAK can be summed up by the phrase Gray uses at the beginning of each episode: “SPEAK is artists with developmental disabilities telling their own stories.” Listening to the podcast, it is clear that the hosts and artists are committed to challenging the typical dynamic within which non-disabled people, especially “experts” like doctors and psychologists, tell disabled people’s stories for them. For example, the 6th episode, “Communicating Artfully,” focuses on Sharlene Cooney, a non-speaking artist who makes bright portraits of butterflies and rainbows. Kim Kilpatrick, a storyteller, reads Cooney’s words to the listeners, becoming her voice for the episode—but is careful not to speak for Cooney. “I don’t like when people speak for me and it’s not what I want to say, or other people assume something about me and don’t give me a voice. So I want to make sure that I am speaking the words in the way she would like them to be heard by the listeners,” Kilpatrick says.
Many of the stories in SPEAK demonstrate how the past shapes our present and future lives. In episode 10, Gray, Ratcliffe, and Fin deep-dive into the history of BEING studio through the story of Irene Beck, a former artist with a decade’s worth of work in the BEING archive. They share how Irene’s legacy highlights the power of art and storytelling, and of looking to the past to better understand our present. As Kafai writes, “Oppressed communities reach into their pasts, their presents, and their futures to tell stories of their bodyminds as survival and reclamation, as a way to, as Kayhan [Irani] reminds us, ‘remake the world.’”
Often, we use our art to make the spaces we want to see in the world real. Through art, they become real, and become tools for changing the world around us.
This closely echoes what Gray says in the final episode of season 2, “World Builders”: “World-building is a huge part of many artists’ work at BEING Studio. It’s a big part of this podcast… Often, we use our art to make the spaces we want to see in the world real. Through art, they become real, and become tools for changing the world around us.” By proudly sharing their stories and claiming their identities as artists, the artists of BEING studio are contributing to a cultural shift that will ultimately change how we make art and who counts as an artist.
Listening to this season of SPEAK is like connecting with more than a dozen new friends: there is much to learn about the artists, their practices, and their collective histories. As you listen, think about our future and how bright it can be: as long as we have the BEING artists and their world-building creativity to dream it into existence.