Faculty member challenges art world to address ableism

When Vessel opened in March 2019, Thomas Heatherwick’s honeycomb-like building featuring a lattice of staircases was greeted with equal parts criticism and acclaim.

Some publications described Vessel as a bold addition to New York City’s landscape, and drew parallels to the Eiffel Tower or an M.C. Escher drawing. Others called it a gaudy monument, and pointed out controversies over the budget and its role in the area’s gentrification.

Among those criticizing Vessel was Emily Sara, a disabled, interdisciplinary artist, designer, and faculty member in the VCUarts Art Foundation program and Department of Graphic Design. In an article for Hyperallergic, she argued that the structure’s 154 stairways—intended to bring people together and interact with the work—actually prevent people with disabilities from doing just that.

And Vessel, she wrote, is hardly an exception within the art world—a field she says is otherwise known for being welcoming and accepting. Sara challenged artists, curators, museums and institutions of higher education to look beyond making spaces ADA-compliant and instead evaluate how to make their facilities truly inclusive.

She noticed that her article hit a nerve, particularly among online communities for people with disabilities.

“There’s a lot of disability advocacy that goes on that you don’t see,” Sara says, “and the majority of it is online in support groups and on health blogs and sites like that.”

Discussions online revealed that people are not looking for earth-shattering changes. For instance, one recent conversation denounced a wheelchair with large tires that could be over-inflated and de-inflated in order to climb a flight of stairs.

“All of disability Twitter was like, ‘No one wants this,’” Sara says. “We’re ostracized enough. No one wants something that makes us seem unapproachable and scary when, at the end of the day, they just could have built a ramp.”

Instead, she says, designated parking spaces and multiple accessible building entrances, chair-height tables with enough chairs, and awareness of people’s sensitivities to temperature and smells can go a long way.

“It’s not just making [a space] accessible,” Sara says. “It’s about how disabled individuals feel when they come into a building. Are they actually welcomed?”

Still, Sara argues one of the biggest steps an organization can take is ensuring representation—something she’s keenly aware of as an artist and educator at VCUarts.

Sara describes herself as disabled and chronically ill, with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. She frequently explores the human body and chronic illness in her work, which was recently on display at the Anderson, an exhibition and program space for the VCUarts community.

This image is a picture of three sculptures which is a saltine with dangly earrings. The saltines on the end have beads on them. The saltine in the middle has earrings with E’s on them.

Her exhibition, Compression Socks, draws on imagery from childhood sick days—cartoons, crackers and salty chips, for example—to reclaim ideas around illness. Images of girl groups also instill a feeling of collective power against the doctors and family members who often don’t believe the pain experienced by young women with Ehlers-Danlos and POTS.

“The cartoon language feeds into this repetitive bombardment,” she says. “They’re always being blown off a bridge or jumping off a building or stretched beyond belief, and they always bounce back. I think that it’s a good vehicle for talking about the human condition.”

This image is an install shot from the show Compression Socks. It comprises of two framed illustrations on the left—both in black and white. And a third illustration on the right which is a vinyl cut out of an illustration of a door. A shower chair is available for seating in the foreground. Saltines with earrings are hanging on the wall on the right. Images of hearing aid stickers (from batteries) dance along the wall in front of a thick blue strip that runs behind everything.

She brings the same diversity of work—rooted in her background in advertising, graphic design and props construction—to her Art Foundation and graphic design classrooms. But tucked among lessons about theory and composition, critique, two-dimensional design and fabrication, she’s also showing what it means to be a disabled artist, teacher, or curator, hoping to inspire others to do the same or, at the very least, be aware of otherwise overlooked audiences.

“There are not a ton of disabled artists. There are not a ton of disabled curators. There aren’t a lot of disabled professors, especially full-time,” she says. “Articles are one thing, but hiring disabled professors or having disabled curators, and trying to work with students who have disabilities are going to make the improvements. And that’s something we really need to work towards.

“But it starts with education; if we make these spaces accessible, then [those students] grow up to be artists, and then those artists become professors and it cycles into itself.”