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Two spaces celebrate access to artists with disabilities
by Kerry Reid

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Accessibility has many shades of meaning in the arts, far beyond the question of "Is this work that people can understand?" For artists themselves, access—or the lack thereof—to time and space for creating work proves crucial to their ability to realize their visions. For artists with disabilities, those issues are compounded. They face the same difficulties as every other disabled person in navigating the physical world and challenging the prejudices of non-disabled people.

Yet, two Chicago institutions are currently showcasing work—new and old—by artists with disabilities this month. High Concept Labs holds its annual Fall Open House on Thursday, Oct. 25, at Constellation, where work by a variety of artists supported year-round by HCL will be showcased. Meanwhile, Gallery 400 at University of Illinois Chicago continues its exhibit "Chicago Disability Activism, Art, and Design: 1970s to Today" through Friday, Oct. 20.

There is crossover between these two institutions. Both currently feature work created by sound artist and musician Andy Slater, who is blind, and Matt Bodett, a poet and visual and performance artist with schizoaffective disorder. Both Slater and Bodett are activists and advocates as well as artists.

In Gallery 400's current exhibit, Slater's sound installation, A Space for the Overactive Ear, combines field recordings he's made as he navigates city spaces. It's accompanied by a book designed by Bodett containing Slater's stories and musings about what it's like to walk around Chicago with a cane. ( There is a braille version available in the gallery. )

In a section entitled Paralytic Transit, the familiar sounds of CTA trains and announcements take on a more menacing quality when juxtaposed with Slater's observations about how disorienting it can be for a blind person to walk underneath the elevated tracks. "The old wise blind mage inside me said 'Face your fears, Andy, go and record the sounds that don't intimidate you and make something beautiful out of them.'"

Creating space and opportunities for artists to create something beautiful is key to High Concept Labs' mission. Founded in 2009, HCL functions as what executive director Steven Wang described as "an arts incubator, supporting artists through four-month residencies twice a year, which is the sponsored artist program. We're an incubator because we provide the support with no financial requirements and no organizational requirements."

He added "We look at all the different obstacles that artists might face when they're developing new projects and finding ways to remove those." The support HCL provides includes, said Wang, "studio support for rehearsal space, documentation support, graphic design support, marketing support. We provide all of that for free."

Sponsored artists can include both individuals and groups. Since 2017, HCL has also partnered with Chicago's 3Arts, which focuses on providing support to women artists, artists of color and artists with disabilities. Artists who have come to HCL through the 3Arts partnership include Jan Bartoszek of Hedwig Dances and filmmaker/performer Rashayla Marie Brown. Wang said "With this partnership, more and more artists who are appropriate for HCL find out about the support we provide."

The four-month Sponsored Artist Program ( SAP ) doesn't place requirements on the artists to do a final presentation or performance. HCL board member Robyn Trem noted "There are multiple residency programs and other programs that will provide similar support, but they are associated with a final outcome, either a public performance or an exhibition. There is a quid pro quo. We do not ask for a final return from the artist."

HCL also offers an Institutional Incubation Program ( IIP ). This provides additional support for artists who have come through SAP and need more time to bring a project to fruition. Unlike the work developed through SAP, those in the IIP do share the final project with audiences.

The Open House is a mix of works-in-progress and finished pieces from present and past sponsored artists. On Thursday, Oct. 25, that will include work by choreographer Brittany Harlin, Opera Butoh Lab, conceptual painter and multimedia artist Shonna Pryor and the contemporary classical ensemble Zafa Collective.

Artistic director Billie Howard noted that sometimes sponsored artists through HCL find each other and begin collaborating. For example, Bodett, who creates performance poetry as well as visual art, worked with composer/sound artist Ryan Packard when the latter needed people to join a choir for a piece he's creating.

In terms of access, Trem noted that it increasingly includes "engaging different geographies in the city and expanding community engagement" by bringing work to different neighborhoods. She also noted that "Serving artists living with disabilities has been a tremendous learning opportunity. Space is always a consideration, and we're thinking more about how to make an inclusive space that can enable all kinds of artists to thrive."

Chicago has been on the forefront of that drive for inclusion, as the Gallery 400 show amply demonstrates. The exhibit also shows how tightly knit the disability arts community has been over the past several years and the collaborations they have developed. A milestone, as noted in one exhibit case, was the 2006 Bodies of Work Festival, spearheaded by Dr. Carrie Sandahl, director of UIC's Program on Disability Art, Culture and Humanities, Disability and Human Development.

In addition to Slater's sound installation, the work in the exhibit includes several paintings by Chicago artist and curator Riva Lehrer, who specializes in portraits of people with disabilities. The exhibit features Lehrer's images of writer/performers Bill Shannon, Susan Nussbaum and Mike Ervin. A T-shirt with an image created by Ervin's late partner, Anna Stonum, hangs on one wall. It bears the legend "Adapt or Perish" from Charles Darwin, along with a humorous look at "evolution" from primates to the familiar sign for wheelchair accessibility. A video of Shannon negotiating busy downtown Chicago sidewalks using a skateboard and modified crutches plays in one smaller room.

Nussbaum, the daughter of longtime Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum, has been working through the nonprofit Access Living for the past few years with a group of disabled young women who call themselves "Empowered FeFes." Portraits of the "FeFes" by celebrated Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey, along with personal statements about how they see themselves, cover one wall. They are the future, and their images form a continuation with the past through documentary images of protests for disability rights and access in Chicago and Washington, D.C., from past decades.

Making visible the work of artists, particularly those with disabilities or who are otherwise traditionally marginalized, provides strong impetus for the work of both High Concept Labs and Gallery 400. The latter invites those with personal experience at "the intersection of disability activism, art, or design in Chicago" to contact them through their website. High Concept Labs is now accepting applications through November 11 for the spring 2019 Sponsored Artist program.

High Concept Labs Fall Open House will take place Thursday, Oct. 25 7-10 p.m. at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets $15 ( includes light appetizers and a cash bar ); visit .

Chicago Disability Activism, Arts and Design runs through Saturday, Oct. 20, at Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria St. It's open Tuesday-Friday at 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday at 12-6 p.m. and by appointment. Admission is free; call 312-996-6114, email or visit .

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