Disabled Artists; Then, Now, and a Time for the ADA 

Disabled Artists; Then, Now, and a Time for the ADA 

“Gene left behind… paintings of a rich inner world, paintings depicting his newfound life and accessibility he created for himself and with the help of his community. Gene left evidence that we the disabled Indian artists have and will continue to always be here and we are still seeking equitable access.”—Osiris Cuen

Still life with David’s Head by Eugene Landry, circa 1962, oil on canvas, 24×36″

 

Last summer, when Chicago-based Osiris Cuen, a Disabled, Mexican Indigenous, QT2 Spirit Artist stayed on the Shoalwater Bay reservation, they became familiar with Eugene Landry’s art and story via an exhibit at the tribal heritage museum. There were discussions about how disabled artists in Gene’s era were sensationalized in news stories, which Cuen calls  “inspiration porn”. Artists with disabilities struggle to create, but struggle even more to have their art regarded for its own merits. Eugene Landry was no exception. Of the news stories in his archive, all except one lead with his disability and then mention his art. We wondered how Gene had  felt about headlines describing him as  “Victim,” “Paralyzed in Wheelchair,” “Paints Despite Physical Handicaps” instead of “Artist”?

 

The lone story that did not mention his disability—a gallery announcement of a solo show of Landry’s art— included a photo of him holding a large painting in front of his body. About that photo, Cuen writes:

“An early [newspaper] article I read about Gene did not mention his disability and in the photo his wheelchair is hidden quite literally behind the body of his work. I stare at the portrait of Gene, wondering what was going through his head and feel the echoes of shame in my own story reverberate through me. That shame haunts me every time I am forced to make a “voluntary” disclosure about my disability. Do I lie and say no? If I choose to list my disability, I am afraid I won’t get the job. I opt for the Prefer not to disclose. The shame crawls up my throat as I muster the courage to ask someone to slow down, remind me of their name, or what I was talking about. Shame that comes from an ableist society which limits accommodations and bars accessibility. If your company deems your request “unreasonable” for whatever reason – they are legally in their rights to deny you access. As long as abled people get to decide what is reasonable or not, disabled people will never have true equitable access needed in public spaces. Our options as disabled people are to become “inspiration porn” or to be the “Evil Angry Disabled.”

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An artist resume tucked behind the frame of a Landry still life from 1964 makes no mention of his medical issues or paralysis. The paper lists only his professional information, education, exhibits, etc. One has to assume that Gene himself directed the input for his resume. It indicates (to me) that he wanted his art to be judged on its own merits. An artist’s work has its own life, once released into the world. How important is its backstory to its future life?

A surrealistic painting by Gene from the early 1960s  suggests the emotional and physical isolation he lived with in a pre-ADA world: The disembodied head of Michelangelo’s David stares at floating, out of reach images: a nude pinup, a travel brochure, a bird missing part of its tail, a dangling pencil. Landry’s relatives recall how Gene kept a pencil tied to a string at his work area so he could retrieve it if dropped. (The dangling pencil would become a reoccurring image in much of his work.)

The painting itself represents a significant accomplishment for Gene. After he started art school, an injury at a care facility permanently disabled his right arm and hand. After a period of recovery, Gene returned to school and learned to draw and paint with his left hand. Whether intentional or not, the story of David, an underdog who used his wits to slay a giant, speaks to the resourcefulness and resilience of Gene.

 

We were honored when Osiris Cuen agreed to write an essay to accompany the exhibit of Eugene’s work at the Astoria Visual Arts Gallery. A panel on the gallery wall displays excerpts, with the full essay printed as a free handout. It is our pleasure to share it here.

 

Disabled Artists; Then, Now, and a Time for the ADA 

By Osiris Cuen 

“We must leave evidence. Evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we survived and loved and ached. Evidence of the wholeness we never felt and the immense sense of fullness we gave to each other. Evidence of who we were, who we thought we were, who we never should have been. Evidence for each other that there are other ways to live–past survival; past isolation.” —Mia Mingus 

 

Hi my name is Osiris, pronounced like Ohseedeez, and I have ADHD. *Gasp!* Have you ever seen one of those cute animal videos, where like the puppies get like a bionic leg or whatever? Cheering loudly and wiping tears of joy when we see their new found liberty. Can someone tell me why we don’t keep that same energy when it comes to people? At the tender age of 18 Gene Landry, a highschool jock, would suddenly collapse! Gene was comatose and his family was forced to drive the two hours to the Cushman Indian Hospital, knowing the general hospital turned away Native Americans in need. This gross medical neglect because of race is an all too familiar story in the lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in the United States of America. It only gets worse as more layers of marginalization are added on throughout our lives. Gene was diagnosed with Meningitis that day and everything in his world changed. After battling for his life for two and a half years in the Cushman Indian Hospital, he lost the ability to freely walk about the world. The second time his life changed is when he emerged from the hospital as a wheelchair user. Brushing the metaphorical ash out of his red hair, turned fiery by the beams of Itom Açai Oo-Oola (old old Father Sun), Gene greets the first day of his new found life; tires blazing! The third time his life changed was when he picked up a paintbrush. This was only the beginning of Gene’s struggles and great triumphs as a disabled artist. 

Like many before him, Gene took to painting when his legs lost their mobility. I would like to think Gene began painting because art granted him access to a world that he once thought lost. Later, the literal US of A($h0l3$) would decide that his family was not giving him “adequate” care. They ripped him from his family and placed him into an institution for disabled people. This is not the first, nor was it to be the last time that Indian (and disabled people if we are being honest) Children have been taken from their homes and families. While he was institutionalized, during a routine wheelchair transfer, Gene was dropped- resulting in the loss of mobility in his dominant hand. Furious after hearing what happened, his family showed up at the Indian Hospital and demanded his release; another rebirth came in the form of rescue. I was shocked to see the amount of access his family and community created to meet Gene’s access needs on the Shoalwater Bay Reservation. They built ramps for him, a geodesic dome art studio; they provided all of his physical care. “It becomes a priority to look at Indigenous ways of perceiving and understanding disability…” -Leah Lakshmi (pg. 22, “Care Work; Dreaming Disability Justice”) 

What he found after these metaphorical flames left him scarred, was that life was about to get a whole hell of a lot harder. Here, Gene began his struggle for accessibility, not just in the art world but in the world at large. When access to the outer world seemed lost, Gene was forced to turn inward and around him for inspiration. Gene was an artist first and foremost. Even with destiny painting his way, Gene struggled for physical access to the world he once knew. When he started art school, Gene was carried up two flights of stairs on a daily basis simply to attend class! Later, to buy art supplies he was forced to navigate the steps at the store entrance. His struggles with accessibility are reflected in his paintings. Three years after Genes’ spirit left this plane of existence, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be passed and his paintings lost in a void. The world of his paintings would be rediscovered and revitalized thanks to Writer and Creative Judith Altruda. Gene painted his destiny into the stars and because of Judith, ever the star seeker herself, his work has been revitalized and brought back seemingly from the dead (another rebirth). 

An early article I read about Gene, they did not mention his disability and in the photo his wheelchair is hidden quite literally behind the body of his work. I stare at the portrait of Gene, wondering what was going through his head and feel the echoes of shame in my own story reverberate through me. That shame haunts me every time I am forced to make a “voluntary” disclosure about my disability. Do I lie and say no? If I choose to list my disability, I am afraid I won’t get the job. I opt for the Prefer not to disclose. The shame crawls up my throat as I muster the courage to ask someone to slow down, remind me of their name, or what I was talking about. Shame that comes from an ableist society which limits accommodations and bars accessibility. If your company deems your request “unreasonable” for whatever reason – they are legally in their rights to deny you access. As long as abled people get to decide what is reasonable or not, disabled people will never have true equitable access needed in public spaces. Our options as disabled people are to become “inspiration porn” or to be the “Evil Angry Disabled.” 

“Leaving Evidence” is a blog by Mia Mingus, a fellow disabled writer and educator. As well as a Disability Justice Activist, she is a community organizer known for coining the term “access intimacy”. As disabled people we are currently kept in poverty. Did you know it’s still legal to pay disabled people less than minimum wage? Then if we get approved to be on disability, which is grueling and filled with rejection; we cannot legally get married- lest we lose their life saving insurance. In the early pandemic, remote work and the world wide web created access for disabled members of society that are still not granted equal access despite the ADA. What we have now is just separate but equal and it baffles me that people cannot see this. 

Through the mouldy air and under rat droppings, Judith found the evidence that Gene left behind. He left paintings of a rich inner world, paintings depicting his newfound life and accessibility he created for himself and with the help of his community. Gene left evidence that we the disabled Indian artists have and will continue to always be here. and we are still seeking equitable access. In July, I turned 33 years young. I am one year older than the ADA and disabled people still do not have access to all public spaces or transportation. Stairs didn’t stop Gene and they sure as hell aren’t going to stop me.

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Bio:

Osiris Cuen is a Disabled, Mexican Indigenous, QT2 Spirit Artist, that goes by many names. You may have seen them performing Drag as Pinky & The Brain Damage, or reading books to kids during “Hora de Cuentinflas”; their Spanish Immersive Drag Storytime. Osiris was the inagural SPARK 2023 artist in residence at the Filament theatre in Chicago; “STACKS!: An Immersive Art Experience about Libraries”. You may know them from their Solo Show- “The Rebirth of Osiris” with Haven Theatre Company, their role as “Gabby Orozco” in Arizona Theatre Company’s production of American Mariachi, or their 5 years of work with Childsplay, a professional Theatre company for Young Audiences; Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventures in Wonderland, The Yellow Boat, Smartest Girl in the World, Girls Who Wear Glasses, Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle. They graduated from Arizona State University; !Bocon!, The Tenement, with a bachelor’s degree in Theatre. You may contact them via email: cuenosiris@gmail.com