Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Artist Riva Lehrer paints portraits of people with disabilities — minus the mock heroics, the “freak show” or the toxic staring.
Artist Riva Lehrer paints portraits of people with disabilities — minus the mock heroics, the ‘freak show’ or the toxic staring
The first time Riva Lehrer painted a portrait of someone with a disability — someone other than herself, she has spina bifida — she painted a Chicago man who had been shot in the head. He was riding his bike on Ashland Avenue when a car pulled up alongside him and opened fire. No one was caught. No motive was determined. He lived but lost an eye, and was left with one socket considerably lower than the other. That portrait, as she describes the painting now, “was neither sentimental nor grotesque, not a charity poster, freak-show banner, monster-movie still nor medical photograph.” The man in the image simply exists, tilted awkwardly, standing in a stairwell, wearing a striped Oxford.
She followed it with a portrait of William Shannon, a former Cirque du Soleil choreographer who spent a lifetime on crutches because of a disability that kept him from placing weight on his hips. In her image, he’s twisted on crutches, but also graceful and handsome. About 25 years ago, when Lehrer began painting these portraits, the work was regarded by some as niche, therapeutic at best, exploitative at worst. She had a lot of requests
to show her work in hospitals and rehabilitation institutes. She often said no. Even now, when I was talking to people about Lehrer, some of those close to her described the portraits as niche.
Groundbreaking, yet niche. Remarkable portraiture, yet sort of niche.
She cringes at that word —
At 62, Lehrer is an accomplished painter, with scores of shows and major gallery representation. She teaches art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University. She is a leading activist of Disability Culture. (A pair of her corrective shoes are included in the Smithsonian, as an artifact from Disability Culture.) Her first book, “Golem Girl,” a memoir, was released late last fall to excellent reviews; indeed, next month, it’ll be a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
“What Riva has been doing for many years, in many ways, is having a conversation with some of our earliest images of disability,” said Rosemarie Harland-Thomson, a key voice in disability justice, as well as co-director of the Disability Studies Initiative at Emory University in Georgia. “She’s done nothing less than retell the story of disability.”
Still, Lehrer assumed that by now, decades after she started, there would be more images of disability in galleries and museums, and no. She’s usually the exception, not the rule.
Though disability remains her subject, she describes many of those she paints now, to use her word, as sharing some imposed stigma — each, in a way, occupies a social niche themselves. Not everyone she paints is disabled. One of her breakthroughs — a portrait of cartoonist Alison Bechdel, a lesbian and author of the memoir “Fun Home,” the basis of the Tony Awardwinning musical — is in the National Portrait Gallery. But the process strained their friendship. It happens occasionally with her work. She paints those she finds beautiful, but she does not flatter. When that man who was shot saw his portrait, he asked her: “Do I really look like that?”
When Lehrer started these portraits in the mid-1990s, she decided to paint her subjects only after long conversations with them — about how they saw themselves, and about how she saw them. Some of the conversations lasted weeks, months. After painting Bechdel — and incorporating Bechdel’s own imagery into her final work — Lehrer began offering more of herself to her subjects. Whenever they sat in her Edgewater studio, after two hours of painting, Lehrer would leave for an hour. Her subjects could then eat her food, sleep in her bed, use her computer, steal or even alter the work-inprogress.
Lehrer promised not to ask questions.
Alice Sheppard, a disabled choreographer who has been innovative for her use of wheelchairs in dance performances, remembers feeling “unskilled” as a painter, so when Lehrer left her alone, “it became a bit terrifying.” Still, Sheppard set to work immediately tweaking Lehrer’s unfinished canvas. “We developed a degree of intimacy but now I was kind of marking up her work a lot.
I drew all these characters in wheelchairs, and then a cascading curtain of feet, so when Riva walked back in, she looked shocked. I don’t think anyone had taken her up on her offer as extensively as I had. So it took her a long time to integrate what I had done with the final (portrait), but Riva figured it out.”
Lehrer fell in love with portraiture as a student at the University of Cincinnati, then at SAIC. She came to recognize “a mutual transformation” at work in every portrait. “When I am in a museum and read the tags next to a work, I wonder about the relationship between artist and subject, and usually there is little of that history explained — what it was like between them, what it was like to sit for them — and based on my experience, the real product of a portrait is always that relationship.”
That’s true of even her self-portraits.
Though she would come to paint herself eventually as she looks — short, pensive
and slightly hunched by spina bifida, her spine more prominent, her expression more pained — early in her career she hired “pretty, normal women” to stand in for her own “bodily discomfort.” She assumed people would reject the image if she used her body as it actually appeared. “When I paint disability now, I am feeling pleasure,” she said. “I am not doing it as a lesson. I am noticing how nature comes up with these different ways of making a person, which is remarkable. Some people say, ‘I don’t see you as disabled,’ and I think ‘WHAT?!’ In their minds, being disabled means being incapable of something, and sure, my life has been more affected by disability than anything else — more than queerness, more than gender, certainly more than religion. But then, everything intersects.”
When Lehrer was born, it was not uncommon to regard children with spina bifida as wait-and-sees — if they survived for a couple of years, it might be worth the effort of surgeries. Spina bifida is created during fetal development, when gaps form in the tube that later becomes the spinal column, leaving holes. That said, it tends to affect the children who develop it differently. Sometimes a spinal cord gets pushed outward, creating a bulge. Sometimes a person can’t walk from birth. Many develop fluid in the brain. That kind of vulnerability is evident in many of her portraits, though alongside an appreciation for the body.
Her close friend Audrey Niffenegger, author of the bestseller “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” recalled a trip they took several years ago. They were visiting the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, famed for its blunt exhibitions of anatomy and medicine. She said when they found themselves before a row of jars containing fetuses with spina bifida, Lehrer “got so quiet, in that way people do when realize something and get introspective. She’s never wanted to be defined by (spina bifida) but you could sense a feeling of how things might have gone. If she were born a little earlier, if she hadn’t had her mother, the right doctor … Riva is probably both the luckiest and the unluckiest person I know, all at once.”
Lehrer likes to say she grew up in hospitals. But that’s not quite true. She grew up in Cincinnati and moved to Chicago to follow a boyfriend and never left. That said, she did have dozens of surgeries before she was out of her teens. She still ends up in the hospital with some regularity. Her friend Lawrence Weschler, the author and artistic director emeritus of the Chicago Humanities Festival, said she once told him that if she alerted friends to every time she was in the hospital, “nobody would get anything done. And yet, the most self-pity I have ever seen Riva show was that ‘Golem Girl’ came out in the middle of a pandemic. And she’s right, too — if there hadn’t been a pandemic, we’d be seeing a whole (media spectacle) around her, a ‘60 Minutes’ profile, the whole deal.” Maybe that’s for the best. Lehrer hates when interviewers dwell on her appearance, and they often do, on her spina bifida, the number of surgeries. “Toxic staring,” she calls it. She presumes they see her in terms of the medical and clinical. When she moves around Chicago, she gets enough of that. She’s heard it all: Are you a dwarf ? Why do you walk like that? What’s wrong with you? I’ll pray for you. You’re so brave. She said the first time she did a TV interview, the morning show reporter asked, first question, “Exactly how much pain are you in right now?” Lehrer is used to feeling reduced.
“The typical disability narrative — which is also common in narratives around queerness and Blackness, though that’s been changing faster than disability — remains: You have a painful existence and that pain is the definition of your reality. Everything else is subsidiary. And the truth is, I may have started with a sense of otherness but that otherness also lets me see details most people would miss, and it’s been wonderful. The story I sometimes get applied is, ‘Oh, look at this person who all of these things happened to, yet she makes paintings despite it all.’ There is no despite . We all make meaning out of our experiences. Some people say to me, ‘Well, I shouldn’t complain to you. You handle so much more.’ I hate it. It’s often not true. Everyone’s pain is their own. When you talk about a disabled person
as just inspiration, a wall goes up.”
She gets the need for drama.
She just wants the context, too.
After all, speaking of drama, the title of her memoir, “Golem Girl,” is a nod to the European folk legend about a monster assembled from mud. “I’ve been protean since the day I was born,” she writes. Many of the chapter titles — “Suspiria,” “Freaks,” “House of Wax” — are horror classics. Jim Ferris, who teaches Lehrer’s work as chairman of the Disability Studies program at the University of Toledo, said he recognizes a need in her story “to claim identity as opposed to have one attributed.” They met decades ago at a conference when both realized they wore unusually large boots, hers for stability, his to equalize the difference in the length of his legs. “Riva and I come from a time, the early ’60s, when people with disability were not expected to be out, obvious and part of the world. And so you get excessively praised for the things everyone does. You become somewhat apologetic for violating the norms of what other people expect from bodies.”
Lehrer’s mother pushed relentlessly with hospitals and doctors, making the case for including her daughter in new treatments. Her form of spina bifida — lipomyelomeningocele — puts a fatty tumor on the spinal cord, threatening to tug the brain stem out of place. Lehrer went to a school for children with disabilities. She often felt cloistered, she said. In the book, she describes one of her teacher watching the students in her school “with a half-smile that had something of the zookeeper in it.” Disability was entirely a clinical issue then, not a cultural or a political one.
Diane Yasgur, a first cousin of Lehrer, said Riva was such a lively kid “that I probably didn’t even realize how often she didn’t feel well.” She describes Lehrer as just a part of the neighborhood gang. “I picture her laughing, and I doubt any of the other kids saw her as disabled. In fact, I didn’t really realize just how much Riva identified as disabled until I read her memoir.”
Actually, Lehrer herself didn’t realize how much she identified as disabled until moving to Chicago. “I
would hide my body,” she says. “I could fit a marching band in my clothes. It was a camouflage. I didn’t know anybody in Chicago like me, for a long time. Denial gets strenuous, and every now and then, you catch glimpses of yourself.” She writes in the book about attending a disability picnic in Rockford and scoffing that she was nothing like these people — she was queer, she was cool, she wore leopard-print tunics. This was the mid-’90s. By the time she found herself to the backroom of the Victory Gardens Theater for a meeting of the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective, she was exhausted from the years of trying to fit in. They used words she had never heard, like ableism. They claimed “Disabled” (always capitalized when referring to identity) as part of political language. They bonded over a lack of accessibility in arts institutions — that attending art school for Lehrer meant having to stand for six-hour painting classes. That so many of her new friends would be artists in Chicago began to seem preordained: “Imagination rules our lives. Even after we’ve reinvented how to shop, how to get to our jobs, how to find a job, our bodies decide what you could do on Monday is no longer doable on Wednesday.” When she began painting portraits, her first subjects were the members.
Lehrer moved through her snowy Edgewater neighborhood the other day without pause or slip, balanced on a cane, though otherwise showing no strain. When there’s no snow, she doesn’t use the cane. Her hair is red and silver, and her soles are so thick, it would be easy to assume she’s just another cool aunt. Her boots — which help because her hips are not aligned — read as Doc Martens with Gene Simmons heels. In rare instances when she teeters, strangers are fast with the inevitable wisecrack: “Maybe don’t wear shoes that tall if you can’t walk in them.”
Her apartment is classic artist eclectic — a lampshade covered in decorative ravens, a John Denver painting in the kitchen, a human skeleton (not real) in the living room. Her studio, though, has the rigidly organized feel of an arts supply storage room. She said she’s more and more enticed by writing lately, partly because “there’s less cleanup afterwards.” On her easel, one of three portraits she’s making of Sharrona Pearl, an associate professor of medical ethics at Drexel University and theorist of the body and face. Because of the pandemic, Lehrer is asking her subjects to sit for her via Zoom, so those portraits of Pearl around her studio include her computer’s screen, the browser borders, the tabs, etc. She hates working like this. Because of her spina bifida, she’s uncertain, vaccine or not, when she’ll have live subjects again.
On the plus side, sales of her work are up.
Brian Gillham, director of Chicago’s Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, which represents Lehrer, finds her art “in many ways quite classic, beautifully crafted portraiture, and even if the subjects were more standard, we would have sought her out.” He’s not alone. Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, said Lehrer “has become important in advising us on artists who represent disability. There’s a lot of work like this being made now but frankly, institutions need to do better (about including it). I see things are moving forward, but it’s happening because of someone like Riva who’s behind pushing that change.” (She’s also been advising the Ford Foundation and National Endowment of the Arts on Disability Culture.)
Lehrer’s portraits often feel akin to paintings by Black artists such as Chicago’s Kerry James Marshall and Barack Obama presidential portraitist Kehinde Wiley, who place their Black figures inside an art history framework more typically white, male and European. “Using portraits to do it makes so much sense,” said choreographer Alice Sheppard, “because especially in the world of disabled people, it’s about representation, and Riva’s work is not abstract or conceptual.” The disability is there, as is the person, one not outweighing the other. “I see Riva in conversation with classic European art,” said Emory’s Garland-Thomson. “Her portrait of (Chicago playwright) Susan Nussbaum — I don’t know if Riva intended it, but I lined it up alongside Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, and they’re a lot alike, except one is Stein, and one is a Nussbaum in a wheelchair.” The point is subtle, she said, “but that’s a painting doing work in the world.”
For her part, Lehrer says the paintings are activism, though not necessarily political activism.
“It’s about changing how people who are different are seen. But it’s always about the context of the images.” If the image disrupts your understanding of the person being painted, then it may be activism. This often requires a deliberate and matter-of-fact approach. At Northwestern she teaches first- and second-year medical students a course named “Drawing in a Jar.” The jars contain fetuses, the same kind that left her speechless and contemplative that day in Philadelphia years ago. Indeed, one or two jars always contains a fetus that had spina bifida.
She knows what the narrative around these jars would be if she wasn’t in the room.
“Someone would show these ( jars) as mistakes — ‘We’re showing you because medicine is trying to fix this. It’s shocking, it shouldn’t happen and it probably won’t in the future.’ What gets forgotten is that people do live like this. So I tell my students about what it means to live with this, and I talk about the wonder of what they are looking at.
“In these jars, they see how a body is put together, relationships to other vertebrates, antecedents. What they should not see is a disaster but a symphony. All these bodies are notes in an orchestra, each one a different sound. We don’t shove them into the land of the tragic mistakes. And we won’t hide them away. We live, like everyone, in parallel.”
How much pent-up demand exists for live entertainment that involves leaving your home? Chicago finally has helpful data.
At the time of writing, around 150,000 tickets have been sold to “Immersive Van Gogh,” a show that is cranking out admissions on Chicago’s Near North Side from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. Right now. No Zoom account required.
Despite its title, ”Immersive Van Gogh” is not an art museum exhibit. There are no Van Gogh paintings whatsoever to see at the former Germania Club. There are no artifacts at all.
What people — a whole lot of people — are buying is a show that lands somewhere between film and theater. It’s a high-definition, environmental movie containing original music, images and storytelling. And it’s adaptable to the shape of the building in which it happens to be playing.
In other words, it’s the kind of immersive, communal experience that conventional wisdom says just got blown away by the pandemic and won’t return for years. Convention wisdom, as usual, is wrong.
“Immersive Van Gogh” is the work of an incredibly savvy Canadian theater company. Starvox Entertainment, which also created “Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience,” “Evil Dead — The Musical” “Four Chords and a Gun” and “Faulty Towers the Dining Experience” (note the shrewd spelling change).
While most local companies and presenters were stuck trying to figure out a crisis plan and hitting roadblocks, the shrewd Starvox producer Corey Ross somehow figured out a way to bring to Chicago a hit attraction from Toronto (tricky international borders notwithstanding), get it installed in the former Germania Club building (108 W. Germania Pl.) redubbed Lighthouse ArtSpace Chicago (not a typical live venue), hire a staff and still pass muster with a city regulation that has so far limited indoor gatherings to no more than 50. And a lack of competition means a lot more media coverage.
The show had unusual advantages, of course.
There are no live performers — everything is digital. And that meant Ross did not have to deal with safety-conscious unions, although he did need staffers.
He did run afoul of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 2, colloquially known as the stagehands union, explaining why a giant rat could be seen for a day or two at Germania Place. But in an interview Tuesday, Ross said he had settled his dispute with the union, and a call to IATSE confirmed both sides were happy. (An IATSE spokesperson also said people had been feeding its rat.)
Better yet for Ross, Lighthouse ArtSpace has several rooms, so it’s possible to get more than 50 people moving through the environment at once while still social distancing everybody. Because the show is digital, it was also possible to extend the performance hours, although it’s still striking to me that the audience demand is so high, even on weekday mornings. It’s indicative, perhaps, of some vaccinated retirees feeling comfortable about the safety of this particular endeavor.
Buildings without fixed
seating are seeing a major advantage at present. So are venues with a lot of space allowing for safer entrances and exits. If you can sell a show as something you can safely enjoy with a single companion, aware of others but not too close to them, you are, in the Blago terminology, golden.
There are a couple of other salient points here.
Ross could get this done precisely because he lacks a Chicago staff. Most venues and presenters still have a lot of staffers on furlough and aren’t about to bring people back without more product (it’s a bit like restaffing a well-known restaurant for a month’s worth of reduced-capacity dinners; it makes no sense and the start-up operator invariably can be more nimble).
At one point in our conversation, Ross, a superb marketer of his shows, was telling me how much his immersive and magnified digital images of the
licensed Van Gogh pieces allowed for a superior experience than standing at a respectful distance from the works themselves.
“You can better see the brushstrokes but also the artist’s pain, as compared to peering closely at the painting and hoping you are not getting tackled by a security guard,” he said.
I laughed wryly at what the world has become (especially since Ross often does his shows in Toronto in the cavernous room that once printed the analog version of the Toronto Star), but I also think Ross has homed in on one permanent pandemic change: increased comfort with digital facsimiles.
If you’ve gotten used to talking only to a digital facsimile of your mom, as so many of us have, you’re probably less inclined to make a fuss about that old distinction between the real thing and some digital representation. If you can love on Zoom, you can
adore pictures of things in high definition.
This, to my mind, has huge implications for the future of live theatrical entertainment, although Ross is also skilled at making commercial shows out of real art works too, such as the works of the British artist and provocateur known as “Banksy.” He does the same thing with shows about bands like The Ramones and when parodying literary and entertainment properties.
Ross said he doesn’t plan to abandon live performances, arguing instead that this theory of a new digital comfort will be exploited through the environments in which these humans can be seen. In other words, people are sick of screens and the trick, beginning now, will be to make sure they aren’t so aware of them even if they are present.
On Broadway, of course, that already has been happening for a while. No wonder IATSE was anxious
to make sure it had a contract to handle that physical stuff that remains to be handled.
Ross’ point is that our pandemic versions that are inferior to what was experienced before the pandemic will be quickly abandoned. Drive-through comedy will be consigned to the trash as quickly as possible, as will rock concerts heard through your car’s speakers. These experiences might be better than nothing, but they are undeniably worse than the original.
What will abide, he argues — and he’s wellpositioned to know — is live entertainment that is better than what we had before, at least in the minds of an audience. And at least 150,000 people in Chicago already seem to agree.
No closing date has been announced.
Czech-born Jewish playwright Tom Stoppard arrived in England with his family in 1946, when he was 8. They’d managed to flee Czechoslovakia ahead of the Nazis and had spent years in Singapore and in India. He’d later call himself a “bounced Czech.”
Stoppard took to England, his adopted country. He was impressed with its values, especially free speech. He was as impressed by one of its sports: cricket.
He played in school (Stoppard skipped college) and, once he’d found success in the theater, on Harold Pinter’s team in London, the Gaieties. Their rival was a team from The Guardian newspaper. Pinter was an ogre on the pitch. He presided, Stoppard said, “like a 1930s master from a prep school.” Stoppard was the wicketkeeper, stylish in enormous bright red Slazenger gloves.
Stoppard is not an autobiographical playwright. But his obsession with cricket led to one of the great moments in his work. His play “The Real Thing” (1982) is about theater, relationships and politics — one character is an actress, another tries to help free a Scottish soldier imprisoned for burning a memorial wreath during a protest. The play includes what’s become known as the cricket-bat speech, of which here is an excerpt:
“This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel 200 yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly … (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.)”
The way the cricket bat taps a ball, and makes it sail an improbable distance, becomes, in Stoppard’s hands, a metaphor for writing. No living playwright has so regularly made that beautiful (clucks his tongue to make the noise) sound.
The adjective “Stoppardian” — to employ elegant wit while addressing philosophical concerns — entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1978. His plays are trees in which he climbs out, precariously, onto every limb. These trees are swaying. There’s electricity in the air, as before a summer thunderstorm.
Stoppard’s best-known plays include “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “The Real Thing,” “Arcadia” and “The Coast of Utopia.” (His most recent, “Leopoldstadt,” is closed, for now, because of COVID-19.) He co-wrote the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love” and has written or worked on dozens of other movie scripts. He’s written a novel and flurries of scripts for radio and television.
Now 83, he’s led an enormous life. In the astute and authoritative new biography “Tom Stoppard: A Life,” Hermione Lee wrestles it all onto the page. At times you sense she is chasing a fox through a forest. Stoppard is constantly in motion — jetting back and forth across the Atlantic, looking after the many revivals of his plays, keeping the plates spinning, agitating on behalf of dissidents, artists and political prisoners in Eastern Europe, delivering lectures, accepting awards, touching up scripts, giving lavish parties, maintaining friendships with Pinter, Vaclav Havel, Steven Spielberg, Mick Jagger and others. It’s been a charmed life, lived by a charming man. Tall, dashing, large-eyed, shaggy-haired; to women Stoppard’s been a walking stimulus package.
There’s been one previous biography of Stoppard, by Ira Nadel, published in 2002. Lee says that Stoppard “didn’t read it.” She must be taking his word.
Lee is an important biographer who has written scrupulous lives of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Penelope Fitzgerald. Her Stoppard book is estimable but wincingly long; it sometimes rides low in the water. The sections that detail Stoppard’s research for his plays can seem endless, as if Lee has dragged us into the library with him and given us a stubby pencil. Like a lot of us during the pandemic, “Tom Stoppard: A Life” could stand to lose 15% of its body weight.
Lee owns a sharp spade, but don’t come here for dirt. Stoppard has long been a tabloid fixture in England; the spotlight on his relationships sometimes became a searchlight. But Lee makes the case that people, even his ex-wives, of which there are two, find him a decent sort. He’s remained loyal to old friends. He’s a family man who kept his office door open to his children. He kept the same agent and publisher for decades.
Lee tracks the arc of Stoppard’s politics over time. Most people turn to the right as they age; Stoppard went the other way. One reason this book entertains is that Stoppard has had an opinion about almost everything, and usually these opinions are witty.
He thinks, for example, that art arises from difficulty and talent. “Skill without imagination,” one of his characters says, “is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.” (The character’s name is Donner, and Stoppard has said: “Donner is me.”)
Stoppard is a maniacal reader who collects first editions of writers he admires. Asked on the BBC radio show “Desert Island Discs” in 1984 to choose the one book he’d bring to a desert island, he replied: Dante’s “Inferno” in a dual Italian/English version, so he could learn a language while reading a favorite. His idea of a good death, he’s said, would be to have a bookshelf fall on him, killing him instantly, while reading.