This is a project supported by The City of Melbourne Covid Quick Response Grant. I have interviewed disabled and Deaf artists about how their creative practice has been impacted by Covid-19.
Larissa MacFarlane’s is a visual artist, specialising jin lino cuts and paste ups. words are below. Larissa’s pronouns are she/her, and she identifies as disabled.
“I am a visual artist and disability activist. I am based in Naarm and live and work on the lands of the Kulin Nation. My visual art encompasses printmaking, especially linocuts, street art, such as my handstand paste up girls, and community art with my disabled community. I also work in the Self Advocacy movement with my peers with cognitive disability (Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) and Intellectual disability), and the Consumer/Survivor movement of peers with lived experience of mental health/trauma issues.
I became an artist after experiencing a brain injury 21 years ago. I literally woke up and the world looked different. I was also different so there was a long period of learning/practicing new skills to support this new me, as well as learning/practicing new skills around my new passion of visual art.
Much of my art work has been and continues to be informed by my own and others experiences and challenges of living with disability. My work is particularly influenced by my passion for Disability Justice and enabling Disabled led, safe and creative peer spaces. But I see many barriers for people being able to identify with disability, which limits our ability to access strength and knowledge from each other, and undermines our ability to access our everyday rights. Internalised ableism, a big issue for myself and so common for so many disabled people, has been a particular focus. In recent times, this focus has led to my artwork about Disability Pride, which has included leading several collaborative and solo Disability Pride murals since 2017.
Images a series of Larissa, who is a woman with fair skin. She is wearing brightly coloured layered clothes ans has long dreadlocks and a red tartan peak cap on her head. She is making art in every photo.
I make art because I need to. I also do it because it usually makes me feel better and I learn more about myself and the world. I often persist in making art because it gives me an identity, a community and life meaning. But I also make art, because I want to communicate and because I believe in the power of art to make change and make all of our lives richer and more just.
I have faced many barriers, and so many of them have seemed senseless. I started making art in disability services. But getting access to materials and skills/knowledge was really hard. Art in disability services often seemed to be a room to put people in, rather than something to do of value. And more often than not, ‘Art’ was (and often still is) a very poor watered-down version of art therapy.
Accessing mainstream art education was also a real battle. I finally gained a Diploma of visual art (it took 10 years!), but I had to give up on my tertiary education mid-way.
Much networking in visual arts happens at openings, which for the most part is often inaccessible to me. (These are often very busy, loud, bright, with flashing lights and very little seating, up many stairs away from accessible PT). Fortunately, I have my own pretty good independent networking skills to make up for this.
The contemporary art world is also quite elitist and mostly supports those who engage in tertiary education and particular forms of art making. I have found that Disability Arts, as well work by Deaf/disabled artists, and also Community Art, is not highly valued.
I want to add that I have also had lots of opportunities, but I want to emphasise that I recognise that many of these have come from the hard work of so many people around me and before me, who have worked to forge pathways, as well as create opportunities for others. I am literally standing on the shoulders of others who have come before me. Sometimes, these opportunities can look like good luck or my own hard work, but they are also due to the privilege and access that I have, especially as a white, cis gendered, verbal, mostly mobile and educated woman.
Covid has had a huge impact on my life, my health and thus on my arts practice and my creativity. Loss of many therapies, most especially my daily hydrotherapy, has dramatically decreased my physical and mental health and increased my experience of pain and fatigue. Trying to re-establish and renegotiate health care and disability support has been ridiculously hard. This has been made more difficult because whilst these are all service that operate within a medical model of disability, Covid seems to have exacerbated their medical and charity model structure. The accompanying increased ableism within these health services has been very difficult for me to negotiate. I am so much less able now to shut up and be passive, which has led to being effectively excluded from several disability and health services. This is discrimination, but I currently lack the energy, health or support to effectively deal with this. I know that I am not alone in this experience.
The increase in ableist attitudes, that seems to be permeating our culture, our health and support systems and the media, has ramped up my own internalised ableism, which has had an immeasurable impact on my confidence in my art practice. At times is has also led me to feel like Disability Pride is a luxury for less dramatic times. However, at the same time, we need Disability Pride more than ever, as so many of us fight to retain access to our supports and thus connected to society beyond our homes and/or institutions.
The sudden increase of the word ‘vulnerable’ to refer to disabled and other people, has personally been so disheartening. I spent several years and much energy pre-Covid, actively challenging its use. Disabled (and other) people are not inherently vulnerable. It is systems of discrimination and oppression that place us at risk.
The uncertainty about my future heath, especially whilst health services are still gatekeeping and creating access issues for me, has made it difficult for me to plan for future art projects. This has made applying for grants also difficult.
My disability and chronic illness puts me somewhere indeterminable between high and low Covid risk. This also creates extra uncertainty.
At the time of lockdown, I was part of 12 exhibitions that were either cancelled or rescheduled online. Of course, this has been disappointing. A couple of these were quite exciting as they were invitations to be part of some more mainstream exhibitions in well regarded gallery spaces. (Since strongly identifying as a disabled artist a few years ago, it was very disappointing to experience a sudden decline in invitations to exhibit in mainstream, contemporary and non disabled spaces. This weird exclusion was just starting to shift.) These opportunities also had some much-needed payment. I am hopeful that these will be rescheduled at some point.
I have certainly lost some income through Covid. However, I am also fortunate to have access to the Disability Support Pension DSP). (I am lucky to have applied many years ago, before the eligibility requirements became almost impossible to meet). But with the increased costs of health, medication, utilities and food delivery costs, things have certainly been uncertain. It has been disappointing to see the federal government exclude the DSP in the income support packages.
Also, of impact to me, has been the loss of studio space. At the time of covid I was undertaking a residency and had a lovely studio. This was cut short. I was also making plans to take up a new paid studio space, to continue the larger artworks that were in progress. These plans were also halted. Although, given my current health and finances it is possible that I would have needed to exit any paid studio that I set up. But I am still missing have a space to continue works in progress on days that I feel well enough.
I have also lost access to my regular weekly shared studio space. This is located in a disability service that has not communicated if/when they will reopen. This loss of access to a supported peer community has surprised me in its huge impact upon me.
It has been difficult and interesting to notice the ongoing pressure I have felt to apply for grants and make new exciting work. I also feel less connected to community and the wider world. I think this makes me less sure of myself, and questioning of my judgement about things.
Due to my ABI, I normally have to limit my use of screens. I also find many websites and much social media is problematic. (hint. Please stop using gifs or flashing or unnecessary moving parts in your websites and social media posts. These can trigger things like migraines and nausea, for those with photosensitivity, vestibular and neurological sensitivities). So, the move of everything online, has not been super welcomed by me. In terms of art events online, I have found it often too difficult to navigate to either find it or register to attend.
Sadly, I have found the bigger galleries are presenting exhibitions online using methods and software that are inaccessible for me. They trigger a lot of vestibular symptoms like nausea, dizziness and headaches. Some galleries have put more work on their websites as images, which I have enjoyed, although this is of course inferior to the real thing.
But there have been some highlights. And I have definitely seen art that is highly unlikely I would have seen if it was not online.
For example, I got to see disabled musician Liz Martin perform a live set. My ABI doesn’t process music and there is also an overlay of grief/loss, so I would never normally attend a gig. But for the first time in 20 years, I was able to attend a pub gig, by being able to have control over the sound levels and by limiting my exposure to 10 mins.
I also got to see disabled artist Leisa Prowd in an online burlesque performance, which is unlikely that I would have seen otherwise.
I have had increased access to disabled artist voices from around the world, mostly US and UK, which has been great. One of these is the new Mad Covid blog, which comes from the UK and features many voices and artforms.
I was blown away by attending the Platform Live, an awesome line of Australian disabled artists, curated by Daniel Savage and Hanna Cormick.
I have also been able to attend a few professional arts workshops and artist talks, because they were online, as well as being free or low cost. This has been great as these are not normally available to me.
There are so many challenges for artists right now! But different challenges for different artists
I mostly have heard on mainstream and social media that visual artists are valuing this time. And I think if I was able to access the disability support and health care I need, then I too might be appreciating this time of isolation. However, this generalising of visual artists experience has led me to feeling very invisible and my experiences minimised. I have also found myself having to defend my position, after being told several times by (mostly non-disabled) friends and peers, that “I must be enjoying this time to make new work”. I wish!
Covid presents an enormous challenge for those many disabled artists who predominantly practice within community settings. Without being able to attend support programs or access support staff or communicate with peers in community settings, their art practice (and thus their wellbeing) has been severely curtailed. It is of great concern to me that a number of disability services that coordinate art programs have been very slow to set up digital online alternatives if at all. There also appears to be a failure by these same services to provide support to people who lack devices or internet connection or knowledge. As I said earlier, there seems to be a shift towards enforcing a much more medical charity model. The subsequent gate keeping of these disability service organisations is excluding not just current disabled artists, but those who are now finding themselves in health crises due to the effects of Covid and in need of support.
Since Covid has upped anxiety for everyone, people living with trauma and mental illness diagnoses, are really struggling now. I have noticed that this as well as non-person communication is making our communications harder.
I also think that the overall increase in ableism everywhere, has and continues to have a big and often unseen impact on disabled artists. It certainly has had on me. It has been very hard, particularly at the beginning of the Covid crisis, to be hearing messages through the media, about how some lives, such as the disabled and elderly are less Important. Such ableist and ageist attitudes, has certainly impacted my confidence.
For visual artists, a challenge is going to be finding new ways to exhibit and have openings, especially as in my experience, most of my income and sales are generated at openings.
As a printmaker, I also require access to shared printmaking studios. There are only a few of these in Melbourne and most are still closed to members.
For community artists, whose work often involves in person connection, there are some challenges ahead.
I haven’t had the health to be doing any street art. But my heart has been happy to see an increase of graffiti and tagging. I don’t normally enjoy seeing tagging, but at the moment I do as I like to see my streets alive!
The increase of access for homebound and chronically ill people has been amazing. I am also hopeful that this will lead to new art being presented by people we don’t often hear from.
I am also hopeful that Covid is leading to more disabled people getting skilled up to use the internet. People with intellectual disability as a group have generally had little access to the internet. However, some of my work colleagues at the Self Advocacy Resource Unit have been working extra hard to provide devices, internet data and skills for people with cognitive disability in self advocacy groups. However, this is only a few and there are many other groups of disabled people that are faring less well.
My tips for better accessibility are:
I highlighted before, the need to stop using gifs, and creating websites with unnecessary moving parts.
A really important step to making art accessible online for the long term, is to connect with and involve disabled people in your community and arts practice. If you are an organisation, you need to be employing disabled artists and making space on your boards. You could start by getting some training from places like Arts Access Victoria or Voice at the table (VATT).
I have many for the future. A world where the arts is recognised as integral and valuable in creating healthy and strong communities and economy! And where Disability Arts is recognised and given space.
I am hopeful that the bans on international travel, may mean more space for local artists.
I am hopeful that there is a real ongoing shift to recognising Disabled and diverse artists more.
I am hopeful that this may present opportunities for more collaborations, and an overall diversification of the arts. However, with more opportunities, Disabled and diverse artists from marginalised communities, will also need to be ever more vigilant against tokenism and find better ways to identify this and support each other.
Several months in, I am finally now finding the ability, the health and the space to make progress on some new artwork. It is so exciting and relieving!!!!!”
I am a Melbourne based artist and disability activist, working across wthe mediums of printmaking, artist books, street art and a community art practice. My work is inspired by the urban industrial landscapes of Melbourne’s West, as well as my experience of disability, to investigate ideas of belonging and place, healing and change, and ways that we can celebrate what we have here and now.
I began my visual art practice in my 30s after a brain injury rearranged my talents. I completed a Diploma in Visual Arts (CAE) in 2010, and have also undertaken some art studies at RMIT. I have been regularly exhibiting since 2006 and been a finalist in many and a winner of some art awards.
I have also become known for my street art practice that investigates my daily ritual of performing handstands, a key part of my disability self-management. In 2017, these handstand art works were exhibited at the Melbourne Arts Centre and the Warrnambool Art Gallery.
I have also led and collaborated on many community art projects, including working with Brain Injury Matters, the Self Advocacy Resource Unit, Arts Access Victoria, Arts Access Australia, Footscray Community Arts Centre and several local City Councils. I was a key member of Dangerous Deeds, a traveling multimedia exhibition (2015-2017), presenting a snapshot of the Victorian Disability Rights movement alongside self-advocacy workshops. In 2017, I staged two large collaborative paste-up murals in Footscray exploring Disability Pride. One of these was dramatically thrown into the media spotlight after it was destroyed a week later on International Day of Disabled People. This Disability Pride mural was reinstalled as part of the 2018 Melbourne Fringe Festival.
I am also currently vice president of Brain Injury Matters, Australia’s leading self advocacy ABI group, run by and for people with ABI.
I have had 12 local and International residencies, workshops and exhibitions cancelled due to COVID-19.
This project has been curated by Carly Findlay and supported by the City of Melbourne Covid grants.