Grand Rapids Art Museum raises awareness of disabled community through ArtPrize exhibition

Mary Dupuis, A&E Editor

GVL / Rachel Slomba
My Dearest Friends, Grand Rapids Art Museum, September 24, 2021

The Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) has collaborated with artist Oaklee Thiele and the Grand Rapids based Disability Arts organization, DisArt, to bring the “My Dearest Friends Project” to Grand Rapids for ArtPrize 2021.

From Sept. 16 through Oct. 31, the exhibition will be displayed on all four sides of GRAM’s exterior in large-scale hand-sewn banners and panels. 

Communications Manager at GRAM, Elizabeth Payne, said the exhibition is meant to bring the presence and struggles of the disabled community to the forefront of the city’s mind.

“This outdoor presentation brings the personal and political presence of the disability community to the heart of the city, visible from Ottawa Avenue, Monroe Avenue, Louis Street, and Monroe Center Street,” Payne said. 

Thiele, who is currently in her second year of art school earning a BFA from the Cooper Union Advancement of Science and Art, described herself as “a protest artist whose work calls attention to the inaccessible structures embedded within our society and addresses the ableist institutions built to keep disabled bodies out.” 

She said with her artwork she works to explore the intersectional nature of disability, more specifically its relation to sexuality. 

“My work serves as a very real testimony to my own disabled experience,” Thiele said. “As my disability continues to progress I am forced to adapt my way of creating.” 

Thiele’s “My Dearest Friends” began at the peak of the pandemic in March 2020, when she said she felt very frustrated with the response to the effects the pandemic was having on the disabled community. 

Family and friends kept saying, ‘It’s only the disabled and chronically ill who will die from this pandemic,’” Thiele said. “They were ready and willing to completely disregard disabled life as if my own life had no value. I cope through art. So, I wrote a poem alone in my studio titled ‘My Dearest Friends.’”

Thiele’s poem went as follows: “My Dearest Friends,/We mustn’t let this be forgotten/The time the world gained/Perspective on a small portion/Of our struggles. We must/Make sure that this moment/Goes down in history so/That we can build a better world/A more accessible world/A world for everyone/A world for us.”

When the co-founders of DisArt, Jill Vyn and Chris Smit, saw Thiele’s poem on her social media, they reached out to collaborate. 

The poem was then shared on more social media platforms by Thiele and DisArt asking disabled and chronically ill individuals to send in their stories in the same format as Thiele’s poem, starting with the phrase “My Dearest Friends…”

Participants were asked to write about their experiences with disability, and sign off with their first name. 

Since the original post was made, there have been over 400 submissions to Thiele from around the world. She responded to each submission by creating a black and white image. Some images incorporate the respondents’ own words into the artwork. 

For ArtPrize 2021 at GRAM, a selection of the illustrations Thiele created have been transformed into the enormous banners and panels displayed on the museum’s exterior. 

In selecting which illustrations to enlarge for ArtPrize, Thiele said they tried to stick with pieces that best portrayed the main themes of the submissions.

“There are some distinct common themes throughout a lot of the submissions — stories of terror, anger, hope, community,” Thiele said. “We tried to select submissions that really spoke to the common themes. After selecting the submissions for GRAM, each illustration was made to be site-specific — drawn to fit the size of the windows and to interact with the surrounding landscaping and architecture.”

Thiele said that seeing the exhibition for the first time was a “surreal moment,” as she finally felt accurately represented by an arts institution. 

“The fact that this was drawn by me, that it had my name on it — none of that mattered,” Thiele said. “What mattered was that there was this massive, bold depiction of a wheelchair user covering an entire window to an art museum. All I could think was, ‘Hey, he looks like me.’” 

Payne said this exhibition has been a unique experience for GRAM and one that the museum greatly appreciates. 

This exhibition has been an exciting and inspiring process for our entire staff,” Payne said. “GRAM has never facilitated an ArtPrize entry quite like this one. To bring disability culture to center stage in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids during ArtPrize has been uniquely inspiring, especially with Oaklee Thiele’s activism and artwork as the driving force behind the exhibition.”

Thiele said it’s her goal that the disabled community will feel represented by the project and that disability culture is portrayed in an authentic way.

“I hope that fellow disabled community members can find representations of themselves within the work — that they might feel represented and celebrated,” Thiele said. “I want this exhibition to serve as an easy introduction to disability culture. It is a strong reminder of the immense value that disabled experiences hold and that disabled stories should be told from the disabled perspective.

Once the exhibition is gone and ArtPrize 2021 concludes, Thiele asks that the members of the community are not so quick to move on from what they have seen and learned. 

“When these stories are no longer displayed in front of you, please do not forget them,” Thiele said.

Although eventually, the artwork will no longer be in Grand Rapids, Thiele’s work with the “My Dearest Friends Project” is far from over. 

The project is currently helping to launch a web-based app, which is currently in its prototype stages, called “Demand Access.” 

With this app, users will be able to take photos of inaccessible locations in their area, spreading awareness of the problem. The app will then take the photos and add them to a geotagged map, building information about the general accessibility of an area. 

“We are so excited to release this to the world,” Thiele said. “The ‘My Dearest Friends Project’ has always been about using the concept of community to fight for a more accessible world. This app is a really tangible step towards that goal.