Photos by Kyle West
In the lobby of L.R. Wilson Hall, human figures constructed of wood carving and found objects are fastened to a series of nine panels. At the bottom of the panels are phrases chronicling the thoughts that the artist, Persimmon Blackbridge, had while making the work. The figures come together to question the way in which society frames disability as a fracturing of life rather than an expected part of it.
Blackbridge’s Constructed Identities exhibit will be set up in L.R. Wilson Hall from Jan. 16 to Mar. 15. The exhibit is part of McMaster University’s Socrates Project and put on in partnership with Toronto disability arts gallery Tangled Art + Disability, for which Constructed Identities was the opening exhibit in 2015.
On Jan. 16, Blackbridge came to McMaster via video chat to have a conversation with Eliza Chandler. Chandler is an assistant professor at Ryerson University, founding Artistic Director of Tangled Art + Disability and a practicing disability artist and curator.
Blackbridge chronicled her disability art practice, which began in 1977. The Canadian sculptor, writer, curator, performer and editor told the story of her life and its entanglement with her art practice. She cites art as something that has helped her in dark spaces and in her daily life.
“I’ve been an artist for 48 years. I’ve had a psych diagnosis for 31 years. I’ve had a learning disability for 68 years. Had kidney disease for 15 years. Some of these things work better together than others,” said Blackbridge in the opening of her talk.
Blackbridge recalled starting art school not long after experiencing her first breakdown. She counts herself as fortunate to have found a community of artists and activists in art school who understood her experiences.
Blackbridge’s history of making disability and mad art has put her on the forefront of these movements, which are only now being publicly funded and programmed. She likes the idea of having this exhibit shown in a university because she sees universities as spaces where disability is beginning to be discussed in new ways.
The pieces in Constructed Identities bear similarity to figures she created for a preceding series that explored her diagnosis. It was in that series that she began cutting off the tops of the figures’ heads and she has continued doing that in this work.
“[I]t really represented how some of us have [multiple] diagnoses and every shrink you see gives you a new diagnosis and expects you to act in a different way depending on that… [I]t’s [also]… a way of representing invisible disability… [S]ometimes we don’t get to speak with all of our identities together, sometimes we get fragmented into different, different pieces,” explained Blackbridge.
The first phrase in Constructed Identities is “what she taught me.” “She” refers to Tempest Grace Gale, a singer, artist and Blackbridge’s friend who was murdered in 2009. Gale combined doll parts and collected junk in her art practice, items which Blackbridge inherited after her death. The series begins with a reference to her because she influenced all the pieces in the exhibit.
There are others in Blackbridge’s life who influenced the work. SD Holman insisted Blackbridge carve more in this series than she did in her previous one. The wings in panel 4 are a tribute to the death of Blackbridge’s friend, Catherine Holman, who passed away in a plane crash. The words, “soft stroke” refer to the small strokes that Blackbridge’s partner, Della McCready, has as a result of her mysterious brain disease. McCready also helped to install the exhibit.
Some of the figures in the exhibition were made since it first showed in 2015, all entitled “his bones.” These pieces are made with bones that once belonged to Geoffrey McMurchy, a disability artist and activist who died suddenly in 2015. McMurchy was a founder of Vancouver non-profit Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture, which supports and promotes artists with disabilities.
“He and I shared a junk aesthetic and often traded… in bits of trash to inspire each other’s art work. I was sent beautiful bones he’d collected over the years and that formed the basis of these new pieces. His work, his style, his energy and his hot sly humour helped so many of us along the way,” Blackbridge said.
Blackbridge is not done with Constructed Identities. She still has McMurchy’s bones that she is working with. His death was also the catalyst she needed to create more seated figures, as she realizes that the floating figures could be perceived as standing.
Constructed Identities has been on tour across Ontario since it opened up at the Tangled Arts + Disability gallery in Toronto. Next year it will be going to Vancouver where Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture Society will showcase the exhibit as it continues to inspire audiences to think deeper about disability.