Tàcharan: Auto-Ethnography Through Painting, Part One

An unfinished painting on an easel. The walls of the room depicted in the painting have been painted as has some of the floor. There is a window slightly visible in the upper left corner. On the right side of the image a dark space has been painted indicating a closet. White chalk has been used to sketch a bassinet in the corner of the room and an empty cradle board tucked away in the closet. Four squares have been sketched on the wall behind the cradle indicating positioning for paintings and a growth chart. Birds have been sketched entering the room through the open window.
An unfinished painting on an easel. The walls of the room depicted in the painting have been painted as has some of the floor. There is a window slightly visible in the upper left corner. On the right side of the image a dark space has been painted indicating a closet. White chalk has been used to sketch a bassinet in the corner of the room and an empty cradle board tucked away in the closet. Four squares have been sketched on the wall behind the cradle indicating positioning for paintings and a growth chart. Birds have been sketched entering the room through the open window.

This painting began with an emotion which I don’t have a name to adequately describe. It is the emotion I feel in response to dehumanizing narratives. I have attributed this emotion to different aspects of my identity at different times in my life. Attributing the cause of the emotion to various experiences of oppression.

When I was a child I explained why I felt so different in terms of being adopted. Later the narrative centred on my mixed ethnicity, or my queerness. Most recently I have interpreted this emotion through the lens of my diagnosis of Autism.

This emotion, this feeling of being profoundly different and of being dehumanized, has surfaced again as I work on my Masters thesis. I have an opportunity to turn in a painting in place of a final essay for my Disability and Health course. I have also found this same emotion that I have been struggling to articulate reflected in some of the readings for the course, and in particular in the writing of Melanie Yergeau. I decided this was a good opportunity to grapple with this experience though art. In doing so I intend, as Yergeau does through her writing, to push back on stereotypes of Autistic people. To demonstrate though my work that Autistic people are capable of reflexive, creative, and complex theoretical thought, and to create a tangible artifact that physically embodies those capacities. I find myself hopeful, perhaps naively, that by embodying my inner experience in a physical object it will be more difficult to discount.

So having made a decision to paint about this emotion, I needed to decide on a way to present my thoughts visually.

The myth of the changeling has always resonated with me, regardless of whichever lens I define my difference through. It is a type of monstrosity that draws its horror from its invisibility. Changelings are terrifying because they (we) look human. So this is the myth I will be drawing on to visually represent this emotion related to dehumanization.

I decided to use Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting of a changeling, Der Wechselbalg in my composition as reference for traditional conceptions of the changeling. However, as I worked out the composition of Tàcharan through thumbnails I made some significant departures. I decided it would not be appropriate to focus on the moment of the human mother discovering the change. This isn’t a narrative about parents. This is my narrative, it should be told from my point of view, the point of view of the monster.

Der Wechselbalg by Henry Fuseli, 1781

I also decided to replace the fairy at the window with a bird. I’m not painting a literal representation of a changeling narrative. I’m painting about what it feels like to be othered. In the end I decided to depict four birds of two different species. I chose canneries and brown headed cow birds for their symbolism. If I continue the series with additional paintings, canneries, cowbirds, and coyotes will be recurring motifs. I already have an inkling that this piece connects with another painting I am in the early stages of creating about grief and loss that I am provisionally referring to as “the sad coy-wolf painting”.

I also knew at the onset that I wanted to make reference to Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. This paper resonated with me when I read it in undergrad and I felt it would be an important reference to make in a piece that I want to resist falling into dichotomy. I want this painting to be applicable to more than one narrative. The power of art is in its ability to open dialogue, and to approach ideas that are not easily communicated though language. This painting should not be a closed conversation.

So here are the photos of me as a baby that I will be using as references. My tiny cyborg self in a prosthetic womb when my Mom’s own divergent body wouldn’t allow her to carry the pregnancy to term. After some consideration I settled on a picture where I am leaning into my birth Mom’s hand and smiling. After all there are enough depictions of disability focused on tragedy. I don’t want to shy away from some of the physical discomfort of disability (represented here by the IV lines and monitors) but I do want to show that there can be joy and the full range of human emotions in the midst of that discomfort.

A photo album is shown resting on top of a sketchbook where the composition of a painting is being worked out. The open page has two photos of a baby in an incubator, wires and monitors are glued to its chest and stomach, and an IV tube is taped just below its mouth. In the upper photo the infant is leaning into a hand that is extended from the left of the frame.
A photo album is shown resting on top of a sketchbook where the composition of a painting is being worked out. The open page has two photos of a baby in an incubator, wires and monitors are glued to its chest and stomach, and an IV tube is taped just below its mouth. In the upper photo the infant is leaning into a hand that is extended from the left of the frame.

References:

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. 1911. A Changeling Musician. In The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. pp. 128-129.

Fuseli, Henry. Der Wechselbalg. Chalk and watercolour, on paper. 1781. Kunsthaus Zürich.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 3–90. https://doi.org/10.5749/minnesota/9780816650477.003.0001.

Hunt, Robert. 1871. The Piskies’ Changeling. In Popular Romances of the West of England: The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall, 2nd ed. John Camden Hotten: London. pp. 95-96.

Leask, J. 2005. “Evidence for Autism in Folklore?” Archives of Disease in Childhood 90 (3): 271–271. https://doi.org/10.1136/adc.2003.044958.

McGuire, Anne. 2016. War on Autism. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Quirici, Marion. 2015. “Geniuses without Imagination: Discourses of Autism, Ability, and Achievement.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 9 (1): 71–88. https://doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2015.5.

Yergeau, Melanie. 2017. Authoring Autism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

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