Thursday, October 12, 2006


I don't really want to think about what is going on right now at my alma mater, Gallaudet. My walk on memory lane goes instead to the Gallaudet Cafeteria, of all places, back when I was a freshman. There I look at a painting that Chuck Baird (I believe) painted to symbolize deaf culture, hanging up high so it is best viewed from the second floor of the cafeteria; looking at it from the first floor creates a danger of neck strain or being run-over by somebody with a tray.

The etch-a-sketch in my head tells me it had roughly 8 humans without skins whatsoever. No clothes, hair, no ears, no skins. This is the new level of nude painting.

Those humans were visible from the waist up with amazingly anatomically correct and well-drawn muscle striations. One feels that a med student could easily study over dinner just looking at the painting.

Every human was painted a different bold color straight from a child's paintbox--- purple, green, brown, blue, orange, with eyes in similar artifical and clashing colors. Hapless freshmen when they first saw this painting over a meal would visibly shudder, gag, and then turn their back on it. 
But for those who had the intestinal discipline to study the painting, their paradigms would shift; for every single one of those skinless humans in the painting had something to sign to the viewer.
One major movement of the painting was the line formed by the arms of a human tapping a person bent over in prayer with his outstretched left hand while signing "Look" with his right to a glow surrounding a pair of disembodied hands in the upper left corner.
The hands could be saying "book", "open", "close", "here", or "ask". To figure this out would require scholarship above and beyond what is in the Da Vinci Code. 
The mere mortals are much more easily readable, exhibiting various emotions of ectasy, startlement, anguish, and so on, with accompanying signs.
The second major message of the painting is how the painting left a gap in the middle for a conversation between an smiling adult signing "Me too" to a yellow child's open-eyed and open-mouthed question-- "Deaf you?" The expressions were perfect, and adorable. You almost forget they are skinless escapees from anatomy texts.
Over time, many freshmen started getting used to the garish colors and often would spend some time reading the painting. Many openly compared their gradual attitude change to the painting to the process of becoming comfortable with their own deafness and deaf culture.

Was that painting was placed out of sight in the cafeteria on purpose because it was so disgusting and disturbing that it could not be shown elsewhere? Because it was the only open, empty wall big enough for the painting? Because it could not be so visible to the student body elsewhere? The answer may long have been lost.

As far as I know, that painting is still hanging in the cafeteria to kill students' appetites.
Now, another art memory I have from my freshman year is of the christmas cookie party at the president's house on campus. I did not know what to expect, but the first floor, which was obviously used for receptions, with the living quarters upstairs being cordoned off, wasn't it.

The walls were coated with a medley of artworks, mostly small frames no more than 10-14 inches square, studding the walls so there was more surface covered by art than was empty.

In a small side hall, there were lots of Lincolnia, very apt since Lincoln signed the charter for Gallaudet University. Nice breath of history what with the photographs, papers, and paintings, but with irrelevant paintings enroaching somewhat. American Indian sketches and Lincoln? Looking carefully, I recognized the signature of George Catlin, a 19th century deaf artist who had travelled and sketched Indians out west. I suspected those were not his best work. I kept looking and more and more artworks seemed to be unpleasant neighbors to each other, marring the walls. Many of them were by deaf artists, but not particularly about deaf culture, merely portraits and musty relics from the 19th century.

It looked like a museum's backroom of "rejected paintings", except they were not discreetly draped.
The piece de resistence that revolted me was an exceptionally large painting of "Drowned Ophelia", as I call it--of a moaning woman in shimmery blue-green. I disliked it because of poor anatomy with extreme distortion of the limbs, arms, and head. Not to mention the plain fact that hair is not neat or straight underwater, and that the "white dress" didn't hang right either.
I automatically analyzed it as a fault of not using models rather than prurient imagination for such a large painting, then trying to cover up the mistakes by painting blue all around to make it look elegant. It failed. Amateur art gives me worse chills than the skinned humans ever did.

I wondered at that moment, exactly how it would feel to walk past that painting of Drowned Ophelia everyday on the way out of the house? Or to have so many tiny portraits coating the walls staring out at oneself. Surely a college president with a Ph.D. in psychology would be more sensitive to the effects of his environment?

My eyes found blissed relief from the horrors of heritage art in two tiny watercolors of pretty pink flowers in the asian style. I asked President Jordan about them. It turned out to be the only 2 paintings they themselves had bought-- in Hawaii, incidentally.

--Wilbrod the Gnome


Read/Think/Live said...

Wilbrod, I have been looking at George Catlin's Indian depictions all my life and I never knew he was deaf. Thanks for that information, and keep up the great work here on the wilbroblog.


Wilbrod The Gnome said...

Yes, I made a typo. Yes, George Catlin became rather deaf.

I blended his name with John Carlin, another artist deaf from birth. Will amend that in the post.