Gordon Sasaki

Visual Artist and Disability Rights Advocate
man in wheelchair in an art gallery.

Photo courtesy of Gordon Sasaki

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

(Music Up)

Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works—the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed. This week, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act –and to mark the occasion I speak with visual artist and disability rights advocate Gordon Sasaki. Gordon has an acquired disability and for nearly 40 years, he has been working to increase accessibility to the arts for both practitioners and audiences. Believing in the fundamental power of art to advance disability rights, many of his paintings, sculptures and photographs reflect the body and how it is represented, the reality of living with a disability, and the diversity of disabilities, both obvious and subtle. A long-time teaching artist in New York City—primarily at the Museum of Modern Art focusing on disabled and underserved students, Gordon returned to his hometown of Honolulu a couple of years ago where he continues to work as an artist and an advocate. And where I spoke with him last week. Here’s our conversation.

Hello, Gordon. First of all, thank you for joining me. I really appreciate it.

Gordon Sasaki: Hi, Jo. Oh, it's my pleasure.

Jo Reed: Now Gordon, I know you're a visual artist and you work in different forms. Can you describe just, you know, pretty basically your work?

Gordon Sasaki: My work is very autobiographical. It takes many different forms, primarily painting as of late, but I've also worked in sculpture and photography. When I say autobiographical I think the best way to describe the work is that it's very much about how art can kind of touch us as not only individuals, but I feel like the more specific we could be about our work as artists, the closer we come to being universal and kind of connecting us all with each other as human beings.

Jo Reed: I agree. I think it's like the artistic paradox, the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.

Gordon Sasaki: Exactly. Yes.

Jo Reed: You have an acquired disability. You use a wheelchair. Can you tell me what happened and how old you were?

Gordon Sasaki: I was 21 and I was involved in an automobile accident which injured my spinal cord right about at the sternum level. And it resulted in complete paralysis, so I have used a wheelchair since 1982.

Jo Reed: And had you been a painter, a photographer, sculptor and artist before then?

Gordon Sasaki: I actually had. I have always been kind of keen to the arts. It was interesting because being 21 at the time I was kind of at the point in college where I was deciding my major and I knew it would be in the arts but I never really, you know, I didn't want to be that starving artist, that stereotype, right. You know, you're thinking of your future, et cetera, et cetera. But it kind of made me realize the importance of art in my life and, you know, if I were given the opportunity to do something with my life, you want to do something that's something you love and you feel really heartfelt towards. So I decided to commit myself to the arts.

Jo Reed: So the accident, I don't know, shone a light on which way you wanted to go.

Gordon Sasaki: Yeah. Exactly. It kind of narrowed my focus and enabled me to kind of, like, decide, yeah, well, you know, this is my opportunity.

Jo Reed: Now you were born in Honolulu. Were you in Honolulu during the accident?

Gordon Sasaki: No. I was actually in Los Angeles.

Jo Reed: You moved to New York—which is my hometown.

Gordon Sasaki: Yes.

Jo Reed: And New York is a difficult city to live in and I'm wondering how you found your independence there—was it difficult?

Gordon Sasaki: That's very interesting. Because as far as accessibility, the city itself, when I talk about the city I'm talking about Manhattan more specifically.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I am, too.

Gordon Sasaki: It is not the worst place I've ever been. Usually suburbs or places like that where they don't have sidewalks or curb cuts or other kind of physical adaptations can be more of a challenge. The city has, you know, limited subway access but the buses were primarily accessible. So I mean, not at the beginning when I first got there. I mean, I remember when there was a big controversy about even the curb cuts because the curb cuts themselves within the disabled community, curbs were an indication of where the blind would stop and the curb cut itself kind of created a simple flow into the street where if you're blind and you're using a cane, you don't feel that shift. So I mean, in terms of making things accessible, there's always kind of a back and forth dialogue that has to take place. As far as, you know the city itself, you know, it's challenging for all of us. But frankly, I feel like New York is one of the most friendly cities to live in in the world.

Jo Reed: Well, I still think of it as home so I would concur, but <laughs> I also know it can be very difficult.

Gordon Sasaki: It's so true.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Now I know you did not want to be a starving artist, but I have an ex-husband who is an artist and I know a career in the arts, the visual arts-- he's a painter-- is not easy. I really would love to hear when you were first able to support yourself through art and how that happened.

Gordon Sasaki: Gee, I still am working on that, Jo.


Gordon Sasaki: It's just the ongoing process. Part of it is is kind of being flexible and understanding that my practice specifically is not just putting paint on canvas. It's very much about engaging individuals and trying to better the community. And in that kind of broad sense being a teaching artist is very, very much about my practice. So I worked at MOMA for a long time as a teaching artist

Jo Reed: And that’s the Museum of Modern Art.

Gordon Sasaki: Yes…and a lot of other institutions throughout the City and I felt like, you know, through that process of giving I was getting as much back from the people that I was working with. I was working specifically with disabled and under-served populations within the five boroughs and kind of taking things from a different perspective and beginning to understand the inequities and the challenges that we all face.

Jo Reed: Well, as you mentioned you’re an artist and you’re an advocate. And I wonder when you began your advocacy for people with disabilities.

Gordon Sasaki: You know, I've been advocating since really my accident because at the point, you know, I mean, immediately after I got out of the hospital I kind of realized that I didn't really know anybody with a disability. They were basically invisible. And I began to explore that fact and why is this so and, you know, the infrastructure itself is so subtle in terms of not exposing the fact that people with disabilities weren't getting out because they couldn't get out. There was no means of them to, you know, mass transit, et cetera. So that kind of compounds the issue of disability. So at that point I was beginning to work with different organizations that were arts and disability focused and later on I began to kind of expand on that. And we developed an awards program, the Wynn Newhouse Awards for individuals with disabilities for professional artists. And that is still ongoing and it's been a wonderful thing. It's basically cash grants awards to artists with disabilities.

Jo Reed: Now, and I don't mean to age you, Gordon, but when you had your accident, the ADA hadn't even passed, Americans With Disability Act hadn't even passed.

Gordon Sasaki: Exactly. I mean, I was ten years before that, the implementation. And in actuality, I have seen significant changes. I mean, we're obviously not there yet and it's an ongoing process just like any work of worth, [ph?] but it has made a huge impact on my life and many of us.

Jo Reed: How would you say your art intersects with your activism?

Gordon Sasaki: Oh. I think part of it is just being an artist. I think just the practice of being an artist is a significant fact that we don't see many people with disabilities in our society. I mean, the thing about art is that the art itself is never disabled; it's so what I've been doing is I've been painting these wheelchairs, more specifically my wheelchair, through a series of paintings that kind of involve visibility and invisibility. and they're very straight forward. Nothing special about them. But the reason why I started was because I didn't see anything that was talking about disability in a positive light. I mean, I was really thinking about can a painting of a wheelchair be beautiful. Can disability be seen in a different frame? So, I started these works.

Jo Reed: I'm jumping ahead because you participated in the inaugural year of the Art and Disability Institutes in cooperation with Art Beyond Sight. And I think that was 1917, 1918-- excuse me, I mean 2017--

Gordon Sasaki: Wow. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Oh, it's been a long week, Gordon.


Gordon Sasaki: That's okay.

Jo Reed: I think 2018, 2017?

Gordon Sasaki: Yeah. It was around there.

Jo Reed: Yeah. And you've showed "Gold Wheelchair," which is a stunning painting.

Gordon Sasaki: Thank you.

Jo Reed: And can you describe that for us?

Gordon Sasaki: It is a life-size painting of my wheelchair in three-quarter view. It is 70 inches by 42 inches. It's just basically a red wheelchair, a bright, bright red wheelchair on a gold field and the gold field is actually gold leaf. So I wanted to bring a preciousness to the work and it's very highly physical. It almost glows in the dark it's so bright.

Jo Reed: It's really stunning. And in terms of what you were saying in playing with the wheelchair paintings and visibility and invisibility, this obviously is the very visible. one.

Gordon Sasaki: Yes.

Jo Reed: And beautiful.

Gordon Sasaki: Thank you.

Jo Reed:: And I think that beauty was also key to that painting.

Gordon Sasaki: And another issue that I was dealing with, I mean, or another aspect I was dealing with with my own identity is my Japanese heritage. Using that kid of gold leaf background kind of reminded me very much of these kind of folded screens that I had seen in Japan.

Jo Reed: Another set of works that you did was New York Portraits and it's an exhibit of photographs that you did that looked at working New York City artists with disabilities. And I'd love to have you talk about that. It also became a book.

Jo Reed: Yes. that's a photo book that is currently available still, I believe. And it was self-published. I guess the Genesis of it was was that I started taking photographs of friends and friends asked other friends and told other friends, so within the network of disabled artists that I had, we just started kind of sharing stories and shooting each other and taking the opportunity to record each other so to speak. So that's really where the book kind of started and I realized that I had all of these photographs of artists that I knew. And part of my process is kind of bringing my aesthetic, my, I guess, visual sensibilities to the canvas of photography. So, in essence, I don't really view it as anything different from a painting or sculpture, it's just a different took, that's all.

Jo Reed: Did you find the book or the exhibit, "New York Portraits," did you find that it generated useful discussions or interactions about artists with disabilities?

Gordon Sasaki: Yes, it actually did and that was part of the intent. We had several presentations surrounding the book but one of them was at, it was at La MaMa at the time, but which is a small theater in the Lower East Side. There was a program called "Artists Talk on Art" which has been going on for many years and the public is invited and some of the artists came and we had a panel discussion. And one of the things that I really emphasized was that we would have panel discussions in regards to this because I think, I mean, I can't speak for the artists themselves. Even though they may be my friends, I thought it was best that I act as a panelist/moderator and we just have a discussion about the project and their work. So, we not only talk about the images themselves but we also get to meet and understand the artists and individuals which I think is really key.

Jo Reed: Yes, I would agree. Let me ask you this: Will you talk about the role art has in advancing disability rights, in advocating for disabled people?

Gordon Sasaki: I think art has the potential to change society. I mean, I certainly believe that in my heart or else I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I know that it has within my own life, so all I can do is kind of bring that experience to a larger framework. And I feel like in so many ways it kind of touches on who we are as essential individuals as well as social beings. I mean, basically, humans. Thus, I feel like it continues regardless of all the other things that we may be challenged with at this time.

Jo Reed: And I wonder how you think about disability art—as a term and as a concept?

Gordon Sasaki: I don't know that I see art in that sense. I feel like art can touch on different kind of issues and sometimes multiple issues simultaneously. Because obviously it's always the individual who brings meaning to the work-- the viewers, I should say. So when we talk about disability art or art that kind of focuses on disability, I think it's another way of kind of addressing something that the artist is kind of reflecting on. One of the things that I think is problematic with I guess a general view of disability as that becomes all-defining of the individual. "Oh, that's the guy in the wheelchair. Oh, that's the blind girl," et cetera, et cetera. And those aspects may be relevant and are very pertinent to that individual but they are not all-defining. There's so much more to that person; it's just a matter of getting to know them and understanding them as we would any individual.

Jo Reed: Tell me about your work practices.

Gordon Sasaki: Oh, I treat it as a job. I get up in the morning and I work. I find my most productive times in terms of writing to be in the mornings and then I begin to work in the afternoons depending on my own schedule. And currently I have a service dog that I have to take out or walk every day so that becomes another issue, so. It's a good break from the studio practice and then I come back and I work some more.

Jo Reed: Do you like to paint with oil, particularly acrylic? What medium do you prefer to work in? Or does it depend on the project?

Gordon Sasaki: Exactly. It really depends on the project. Even in terms of, you know, whether I use sculpture or well, something else. I feel like the materials we use say so much about what it is that we're looking at or what we're experiencing that I think to limit one and say that oh, I'm a painter, I think kind of narrows it a little bit too much for myself.

Jo Reed: And do you like to begin with sketches or do you prefer to go straight to the canvas?

Gordon Sasaki: I usually just start and I develop a dialogue with the work and sometimes it becomes a monologue where it's just not working and you know it, I mean, you know it yourself what doesn't feel right. But other times it's just, like, it clicks. So through this process of creating these minor catastrophes, the work develops. And then it just ends.

Jo Reed: I was going to say, is there a part for you that's really the most challenging, whether it's the beginning or getting it through? Or stopping and saying, okay, I'm not overpainting this, this is finished?

Gordon Sasaki: It took me a while to kind of get to a point where I felt like okay, this is done. Because every day as I change as an individual I bring new insight into the work and I look at it and I feel like okay, I could do this, I could that, I could do this. But I think moving forward is the key and understanding that the work becomes a document of history, of where we've been as an individual, of where I was at the time of its creation. I think it makes it more valuable to me. It's almost like a diary.

Jo Reed: I had heard you were painting portraits of dogs or at least your dog. Is that still something you're doing?

Gordon Sasaki: Yes. Yes, I just finished a commission. That is something that is kind of like a labor of joy for me. <laughs> Just simply because I started actually with my dog and then same thing with the photo project. Somebody else said, "Hey, will you paint me this?" and then it kind of has snowballed from there.

Jo Reed: What's your dog's name?

Gordon Sasaki: Maki, M-A-K-I.

Jo Reed: Maki. That's a nice name.

Gordon Sasaki: Well, the reason why I named her that because when she was a pup, she's a black Border Collie-Lab mix and she when she was a puppy, her black coat was, like, so black it was almost purple, like the color of seaweed that they wrap the sushi in.

Jo Reed: Oh, yeah.

Gordon Sasaki: Yeah. And that's they call that Maki sushi and her chest is all white and she has white socks on and the tip of her tail, so it reminded me that this white central body is wrapped with this black fur and so I called her Maki.

Jo Reed: How much has changed since you've gotten a service dog? Which is not off topic, if you knew me, since I have two dogs sleeping at my feet even as we speak.

Gordon Sasaki: <laughs> It's certainly helped me become more independent. So we basically go out shopping almost daily. Our routine hasn't changed to much from the City of New York. You know, just basically doing the rounds, making sure-- making sure she gets her exercise and that I guess part of it is is, you know, this acceptance of dogs in all society. I think that has been a huge thing. I mean, sometimes there is questions about whether some dogs are service dogs or not and I think there's a difference between a service dog and a therapy dog. But those are gray areas and I think we as a society need to kind of work them out.

Jo Reed: Is the dog in the studio with you when you paint?

Gordon Sasaki: Yes.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Gordon Sasaki: She is with me all the time.

Jo Reed: You're back in Honolulu.

Gordon Sasaki: Yes.

Jo Reed: And I'm curious, how's Honolulu in terms of you getting around and being independent, especially compared to New York.

Gordon Sasaki: You know, New York has its challenges, the weather being one of them. But in Honolulu you're not dealing with really the weather. Part of it is is that you're dealing with the infrastructure, access. I mean, it's a very car-oriented city. There is some attempt to make things a little bit more accessible. Like the buses have lifts now which they didn't previously. But it's still, you still got to have a car here which to me is kind of a bummer because I really never had a car in New York, so got, you know-- I just feel like no matter where you are, no matter where you go, there are different issues that you have to kind of deal with. There's always pluses and minuses.

Jo Reed: Of course. I'm curious about the art world, Gordon, and I realize that's such a broad brush. But I'm curious about the changes you've seen in the art world and how it’s evolved over the years in terms of its diversity and inclusivity, especially regarding artists and audiences with disabilities.

Gordon Sasaki: I think like much of society things have become a little bit more open for people, you know, outside of the center. So as far as inclusiveness, I mean, obviously there is clearly a long way to go. Part of my issue has been is that, you know, many galleries in New York I wasn't physically able to even get into, so how could I possibly show in a gallery like that. These are kind of really fundamental things that need to be addressed and can easily be switched if there's kind of a motivation behind it. But clearly the mindset or the idea has to come first. I think that is the most difficult thing, that kind of attitudinal shift where people begin to realize that oh, yeah, you know, there are other ways to do something.

Jo Reed: We've seen during the pandemic museums, for example, are putting more of their collections and exhibits online. In theater, there are performances going on online. And I've heard from arts’ administrators that they are hearing from folks with disabilities-- and not just folks with disabilities, other people as well—that the ability to easily access this art work is a wonderful boon to them and administrators are saying even when they reopen, they just don't want to lose that and they're really rethinking how an online presence can help to broaden their accessibility.

Gordon Sasaki: That is wonderful news. I'm so happy to hear that. I mean, it makes sense, right. And unfortunately, I guess it's taken this kind of, like, this crisis for people to realize that there are alternative ways to invite different audiences who traditionally may not at all have gone into museum settings or galleries and that may have nothing to do with disability.

Jo Reed: Right. It definitely may not. It just has opened, it's just made accessibility very, very easy.

Gordon Sasaki: Exactly. It seems like a no brainer, doesn't it?

Jo Reed: Kind of to me but… I wonder, when you're painting, you said you have a dialogue with the canvas. We're talking about painting right now, but I assume it's true with photography too, dialogue between the camera and the subject. Do you ever think about audience?

Gordon Sasaki: Yes, I do. I mean, that's part of why I kind of began these paintings of wheelchairs, otherwise they basically are pretty boring objects. I just feel like that they're so loaded. The images themselves are so loaded with meaning and while it means something to me, I know that it means something different to other people. And historically I never see any wheelchairs in paintings or elsewhere that were portrayed as something that was beautiful or empowering. So very much I was considering, well, how will people view this and how can we kind of shift their thinking about what beauty can actually be.

Jo Reed: , I'm always curious about when you're commissioned to do a work versus when you can go to the canvas and paint what you want. How, is there a different feeling that you have for one rather than the other? I mean, how do you approach it differently or do you not? I'm just curious.

Gordon Sasaki: I think-- Yeah, no, that's a really good question. I mean, I've never really thought about it but I think for me it's the genesis of the work, where it begins. And I think the commission works, a lot of that initial inception, the work is done for you. You basically, what I'm doing is I'm starting with photographs and then kind of beginning from there, but from that point, the dialogue is the same. I'm just kind of responding to what I see, what I do and just going back and forth and back and forth with the work. But, yeah, I really think it's really just the beginning that's different.

Jo Reed: And I would love, if you don't mind, just in closing, I would love to have you just reflect on the 30 years since ADA and not just what's changed, because obviously a great deal did, but sort of take a moment to make an assessment of where we are now and where we still need to go.

Gordon Sasaki: Well, you know, the change in my life has been huge and significant as I know that it has in other individuals. But obviously, we just need to kind of continue and not backtrack so to speak. I feel like, you know, in terms of access, physical access, it's really again the attitude. It's exposing individuals to difference and that difference again doesn't necessarily have to only be about disability. It could be any kind of difference. Thus I feel like inclusion and diversity are one and the same; we just need to kind of begin to kind of open our minds and think that there are other possibilities, other ways to do things.

Jo Reed: And that's a good please to leave it. Gordon, thank you for giving me your time. I really appreciate it. And pat your dog on the head for me.

Gordon Sasaki: Thank you so much, Jo. I will, absolutely.

Jo Reed: That is painter, sculptor, photographer and disability rights advocate Gordon Sasaki. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

And don’t forget to subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple it helps people to find us. And follow us on twitter @NEAarts.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Stay safe. Stay Kind. And thanks for listening.

Last December, the Office of Accessibility held a webinar in which three successful artists discussed how they navigated their careers working with a disability. To no one’s surprise, one of the invited artists was Gordon Sasaki. For nearly 40 years, visual artist Gordon Sasaki has been working to increase accessibility to the arts for both practitioners and audiences. Believing in the fundamental power of art to advance disability rights, many of his paintings, sculptures and photographs reflect the body and how it is represented, the reality of living with a disability, and the diversity of disabilities, both obvious and subtle. Today’s podcast celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with an interview with Gordon Sasaki about his work, navigating the art world and the streets of New York, the changes the ADA has brought to his life, the work left to be done and his service dog Maki.