Tàcharan: Auto-Ethnography Through Painting, Part Two

An unfinished painting resting on an easel. The painting depicts an infant in a crib. The wall behind the infant is decorated with pictures of flowers and a child's growth chart. A closet in the background holds a filing cabinet and an empty cradleboard.
An unfinished painting resting on an easel. The painting depicts an infant in a crib. The wall behind the infant is decorated with pictures of flowers and a child’s growth chart. A closet in the background holds a filing cabinet and an empty cradleboard.

“It is true the stranger was often found to indulge in odd freaks; but this was accounted for by a recollection of its pedigree, which was not doubted to be of the piskie order.” (Hunt 1871, 96)

“In clinical experience, variations are not set aside, they separate of their own accord; they cancel each other out in the general configuration, because they are integrated into the domain of probability; they never fall outside the boundaries, however ‘unexpected’ or ‘extraordinary’ they may be; the abnormal is still a form of regularity: ‘The study of monsters or of the monstrosities of the human species gives us an idea of nature’s teaming resources and of the gaps to which she can lend herself'” (Foucault 1973, 102)

“There is so much functional variation among humans and the variation is so multidimensional that the belief in an objective correlation between typicality and functional success is scientifically untenable.” (Tremain 2017, 171)

An image of the edge of a painting showing a filing cabinet in a closet. The extension of the filing cabinet around the edge of the canvas adds to its concealment.
An image of the edge of a painting showing a filing cabinet in a closet. The extension of the filing cabinet around the edge of the canvas adds to its concealment.

I knew from my first conception of Tàcharan that I wanted the painting to juxtapose the stolen child narratives that are so prevalent in discourse around autism, against the very real experiences of stolen children in the eras of residential schools, sixties and millennial scoops, and contemporary practices of transracial adoption and foster care. Parallels between the infantilizing rhetoric around Autistic people and the infantilizing language used in The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, and the various iterations of the Indian Act, have been an emerging theme in some readings for my Masters thesis. My earliest conception of the painting included an empty tiginaagan (cradleboard). tucked away in a closet, visible just at the edge of the painting’s frame.

As the composition took shape I knew I needed to find a way to draw this theme into the rest of the painting. I also needed to place something on the large space of empty wall behind the cradle. I tried several arrangements of objects in this space, from shelves to family pictures. Eventually I hit on the idea to include small references to other images in this space, starting with a detail of the potted plant from the photos of Thomas Moore who was incarcerated in the Regina Indian Industrial School in 1891. Four years latter he would die from TB contracted at the school.

Two black and white photographs of Thomas Moore are shown side by side. In one he is in traditional regalia backdrop against an animal hide. In the second he wears European style dress and leans against an architectural barrier. A potted geranium is pictured beside him. His hair has been cut short.
Two black and white photographs of Thomas Moore are shown side by side. In one he is in traditional regalia backdrop against an animal hide. In the second he wears European style dress and leans against an architectural barrier. A potted geranium is pictured beside him. His hair has been cut short.

Once I had made the decision to include this detail in my painting, the themes of normalization, and the surveillance of bodies considered “deviant” whether due to their disability or their indigeneity emerged. This in turn suggested the inclusion of the other images on the wall: The botanical drawing of a geranium, artificially broken down into its constituent parts for the purposes of defining its typological traits, and the child’s growth chart.

I also wanted to include an images that would represent a different and potentially counter hegemonic perspective on the themes of normalization and respectability. I landed on a cameo of one of my Great Aunt Kae’s flower paintings, showing wildflowers confined to a vase as an object of beauty, albeit a beauty as seen from a particular racial and class perspective which I do not (and cannot) share.

A detail of a painting shows three images of flowers. The first is a black and white picture of a potted geranium. The second is a painting of a vase of wildflowers. The third is a botanical illustration of a geranium. A child's growth chart is shown hanging on the wall below the botanical drawing.
A detail of a painting shows three images of flowers. The first is a black and white picture of a potted geranium. The second is a painting of a vase of wildflowers. The third is a botanical illustration of a geranium. A child’s growth chart is shown hanging on the wall below the botanical drawing.

While the image itself does not radically undermine notions of respectability, by the simple act of painting it Kathleen Hart Ellis challenged the exclusion of Disabled people from the category of artist/author, and positioned herself as an agentive producer of knowledge rather than the passive object of a medicalized gaze.

A painting depicting vase of buttercups, daisies, tiger lilies and ferns backdrop by drapery. The painting is signed Kae Heart Ellis.
A painting depicting vase of buttercups, daisies, tiger lilies and ferns backdrop by drapery. The painting is signed Kae Heart Ellis.

Kae was a respected artist in the London Ontario area who was able to find a level of acceptance in the art world that is often denied to Disabled, and other artists who often find their work relegated to the realm of “outsider art”, and read reductively through the lens of their difference. I am not certain that she would entirely approve of the work I turn out from her easel. However I am grateful for her influence in my life as someone who saw my early and unskilled attempts at painting as work; work which could be improved through practice and critique, and not as the spontaneous manifestation of some innate savant talent.

A detail of an unfinished painting shows a Tiginaagan tucked away in a closet and leaning up against a filing cabinet.
A detail of an unfinished painting shows a Tiginaagan tucked away in a closet and leaning up against a filing cabinet.

I also present an alternative perspective in the beadwork adorning the Tiginaagan. Here the flowers are not uprooted and confined within a pot, but the geranium flower is interconnected with a tulip and berries, part of a community of plants rather than an isolated individual.

References:

Department of Indian Affairs. Thomas Moore before and after Tuition at Regina Indian Industrial School. 1897. Saskatchewan Archives Board. In A National Crime.

Foucault, Michel. 1973. The Birth of The Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. A. M. Sheridan Smith (Translator). Random House, Inc.: New York

Heart Ellis, Kathleen, Wildflowers from Byron, Oil on Board, n.d., London Ontario.

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.

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.

Lawrence, Bonita. 2003. “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview.” Hypatia 18 (2): 3–31. https://doi.org/10.1353/hyp.2003.0031.

Lige, Sara. 2000. “Adults with Intellectual Disabilities and the Visual Arts: ‘It’s NOT Art Therapy!’” B.F.A. Thesis, Okanagan,British Columbia.

Tremain, S. L. (2017). Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. University of Michigan Press.

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