Spotlight on the Anderson Center Deaf Artist Residency

By Samra Khawaja
The five residents sitting around a coffee table communicating using ASL.
In this photo the residents are being taught the basics of by Adrean Clark. Photo source: Cynthia Weitzel.
With over 500 artist residency programs in the United States, and over 1,500 residencies worldwide, only one of these art programs was considered “deaf-friendly” prior to 2014. That program was offered by Siena Art Institute, located in Italy. In 2014, with support from the NEA, The Anderson Center, located in Red Wing, Minnesota, opened its doors as the first and only Deaf artist residency in the United States. Through the program, deaf artists from across the country were given the opportunity and space to collaborate, grow, and learn from each other. The residency, now in its second year, welcomed five deaf artists this summer—two visual artists, a writer, and a scholar. As program coordinator Cynthia Weitzel, who is also deaf, shared with us via e-mail, “the residency has been so stimulating and rewarding, both personally and professionally. Artists from 2014 and 2016 have said, ‘I never knew this was possible.’” With the 2016 residency still ongoing, we got the chance to get in touch with Weitzel to learn more about the unique residency program, the current challenges facing the Deaf arts community, and what needs to be done in order to break the barriers in the arts for deaf artists. NEA: Could you tell us about the Deaf Artist Residency Program at the Anderson Center? CYNTHIA WEITZEL: The Deaf Artists Residency Program first launched in June 2014 (supported by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts). It is a program of the Anderson Center at Tower View—a multidisciplinary artist community and residency center. It is a month-long residency involving a mix of visual artists, writers, performers, and scholars. The common thread among them all is that they are deaf, with American Sign Language (ASL) being their native or adoptive language. Currently, the program is being offered every two years with June 2016 being the second round. With demand being high, we hope to soon be able to offer the program annually. NEA: What prompted the need for this residency? WEITZEL: I realized there was a need and strong interest for a fully accessible residency program after being invited to join the Anderson Center artist community back in 2011. Having a year-round studio practice within a residency center is a blessing beyond measure. I’ve been exposed to the work and perspectives of artists from all over the world, experiencing these rich cultural exchanges on a regular basis. Realizing the benefits from this, I began checking to find if there were any other residency programs in the U.S. or abroad, that were fully accessible to Deaf artists and found there were none. By fully accessible, I mean the ability to experience and truly benefit from the space, dialogue, and comradery that develops through cultural exchanges during most residencies. This can only happen through first-person interactions and during all hours or activities throughout their stay, especially during shared meal times. I also checked in with many of my fellow colleagues in the Deaf arts field and found that most, if not all, were starving for such residency experiences. Knowing how much I had already benefited by just being within the proximity of a residency program and seeing how beneficial it has been for the careers of past Anderson Center residents, I approached the director with the idea of a multidisciplinary residency program for Deaf artists made fully accessible through shared language and culture – American Sign Language and Deaf culture. The idea was met with much enthusiasm and a great deal of support from the Anderson Center community and community-a- large. From there, we submitted our proposal to the NEA and again it was met with full support to get the program up and running. NEA: What do you hope comes out of this program? WEITZEL: Our hope is that each Deaf resident coming through the program is able to benefit from the gift of uninterrupted time and space in which to create. This is the same as other residents of any other program. Also, we want them to benefit from the rich cultural exchange that occurs during shared time or activities among residents, especially meal times around the dinner table. The new perspectives or knowledge gained often influences their work or how they go about their work. Likewise, seeing the community—both the Deaf community and the general public—learn and benefit from this exposure to Deaf artists, writers, performers, and scholars and their work. The local Red Wing community… is already becoming more knowledgeable and Deaf-friendly since learning more about our language, culture, history, and future directly from our Deaf artists-in-residents and through their perspectives. The Deaf community has benefited tremendously from this exposure to Deaf creatives and scholars from all parts of the country. For them it’s a chance to view or interact with Deaf art not found in local galleries or museums. It’s a chance to view or interact with ASL Deaf theater, primarily only found in just a few locations on the East or West Coast. It’s a chance to be able to ask Deaf scholars questions about our language, history, literature, etc. not readily explored or published by mainstream producers or publishers. In general, for our Deaf community, it means the rare chance to identify, connect, influence, and engage. NEA: What has the feedback been like from the participating artists? WEITZEL: Overall, the residency has been so stimulating and rewarding, both personally and professionally. For those completing their first residency, they’re really surprised by how the Anderson Center environment has fed and fueled their level of motivation and creativity. There are already several collaborations being planned for the near future. One thing that stands out most, to which they all agree, is how the Deaf Artists Residency Program means more than just uninterrupted time and space to work on their own self-directed projects. What they didn’t expect would be of greatest value is the meaningful time together—the cultural exchange within a culture and being able to converse naturally in their own native visual language. They are given the gift of being themselves, being able to focus on their work, and feeling productive without the distractions of having to problem-solve or go without equal access communication.
Artist sitting in front of her easel painting with a paint brush in her hand.
Jennifer Nelson at work in her studio. Photo source: Cynthia Weitzel.
NEA: What are the challenges in bringing together the Deaf artist community? WEITZEL: Deaf artists aren’t looking for more of the same. Most aren’t looking for quiet or solitude while working. What’s desired more than anything is access and stimulation—an opportunity to be and work with “others like us” [in a] much deeper, more meaningful, and thoroughly gratifying way. One of the more challenging aspects has been the lack of familiarity among Deaf artists as to what residency programs are or are not. To date, Deaf artists have rarely applied for artist residencies because it often means “more of the same” of what they already experience on a regular basis such as: isolation within non-signing creative community; inaccessible opportunities for increasing knowledge base or artist career/skill development due to there being no budget for interpreter costs; or the focus being on how we communicate or navigate life differently, rather than about our skill, knowledge, and work. On the flip side, there is also the lack of familiarity within the general creative community or among artist residency centers about the needs of Deaf artists or that Deaf arts even exist. There is so much energy that continues to be spent on raising this awareness. Another significant challenge is the fact that we’re spread out throughout the country and around the world without a central meeting place or clearinghouse. Without this central go-to place for career development resources or information fully accessible, it’s difficult and time-consuming to get the word out in a manner that’s consistent, while reaching out to all groups within the Deaf creative community. A national Deaf Arts Guild is in the very early stage of development to address this challenge. We’ve also noticed that because so few Deaf artists have self-sustaining studio practices, it’s been a challenge for artists interested in applying for residency awards that cannot afford the time off their day jobs or don’t earn enough to cover expenses while away for long periods of time or can’t afford to hire interpreters on their own if none are provided. The Anderson Center provides interpreters, as needed, and works with interested applicants towards finding opportunities or solutions enabling them to afford the month away from home. Lastly, not all deaf artists are culturally Deaf or communicate visually. For example, there are artists who lost their hearing later in life. The number one disability among returning veterans is hearing loss and many of them are artists. They need a place, too, and for all the same reasons. It’s about creating choices enabling artists to connect in places where they identify and relate. NEA: What do you think we, as a wider cultural community, can do to break the barriers in the arts for deaf artists and artists with disabilities? WEITZEL: First, we need to listen to Deaf artists or artists with disabilities about what they already know they need or don’t need or what works or doesn’t work. There is no one solution fits all. Inclusion is not always inclusive. It seems to work best when all are sharing the same language. Inclusion also should be a choice, not a given. Sometimes what’s needed is to simply have access to others like us. There’s great value in connecting with and strengthening our own community before attempting to do the same with the wider cultural community. What’s lacking are the opportunities for this Deaf artist community-building to happen. We are not centrally located within one geographic area. Our community is connected through language, not place. Yet most opportunities or funding resources are becoming more and more “place-based” or centered on various geographical parameters. The culturally Deaf ASL signing community is already very diverse, a microcosm of the wider cultural community. The cultural Deaf community identifies more with other cultural linguistic minorities. The life experiences, needs, and desires run parallel. Yet, we are often only seen as a people with a disability. Interpreters or captioning may resolve communication barriers on the surface, but does not resolve the deeper issues of connectivity. As a wider cultural community, we all stand to benefit from a shift toward universal design. Arts administrators and program managers need to get into the habit of including a line item for accessibility needs in all budget planning. It’s much more cost-effective when addressed on the front end rather than post-production or just prior to an event or program start. Sometimes the most effective, efficient, meaningful approach to full accessibility for members of the Deaf creative community is to create and support an environment where they are free to simply be together and be themselves. NEA: What has been your proudest moment so far as part of the project? WEITZEL: It is when the Deaf artists, writers, performers, and scholar first arrived to the Anderson Center at Tower View. The director noticed there being an immediate connection and bond, different from other residency months where it normally takes a couple weeks or more for the residents to fully bond if they bond at all. The other moment is when more than one of the Deaf residents in both 2014 and 2016 said, “I never knew this was possible.” NEA: Complete this thought. The arts matter because… WEITZEL: The arts matter because in content or context, the creator and/or participant are given opportunities for unplanned intersections of parallels.