Deaf artist Ellen Mansfield uses her art to inform the hearing population about deaf culture and to end oppression in the deaf community.
Mansfield is a part of De’VIA (Deaf View/Image Art), a group of artists who use their art to express their experience of being deaf.
“It was expanded upon to incorporate acting and writing, and it emphasizes the importance of all of the things that are the deaf experience,” said Mansfield through her interpreter.
De’VIA art involves repeated features such as the use of eyes, mouths, ears and hands. Many of the motifs used also involve animals.
“Animals like bees, butterflies, turtles and snakes don’t have hearing at all. Deaf artists apply that to their artwork as a sort of symbolism,” said Mansfield.
De’VIA flourished in 1989 and started with only eight deaf artists. Shortly after the group’s inception, the artists separated to pursue their own projects. It wasn’t until 2012 that they would come back together again.
“That was like the second wave of De’VIA, and a lot has been happening since then,” said Mansfield.
Mansfield became a full-time artist in 2011 just as De’VIA was beginning to take off again. One of Mansfield’s works at the time reflected upon her years without American Sign Language (ASL).
“My experience not using ASL for many years was not good,” said Mansfield. “I really had no form of communication. I didn’t feel alive. With ASL, it really gave me life, it taught me how to communicate. What happens to flowers without sun? They die. ASL was my sun.”
Mansfield and the De’VIA artists also call themselves “artivists” because they are artists as well as activists. They work to fight audism, the belief that to hear and to speak is superior to being deaf, and phonocentrism, the belief that the spoken language is the primary and most fundamental method of communication. They also try to make sure deaf children learn ASL early.
Mansfield and De’VIA worked with HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) to give deaf prisoners in Rochester, New York more rights.
“They couldn’t communicate, they were isolated – it was forbidden to write notes and pass them to each other,” said Mansfield. “They were punished with six months in solitary confinement for passing notes. It was very much oppression.”
De’VIA even organized a deaf pride march at the White House.
“It was just because we loved ASL and we were proud of it,” said Mansfield. “ASL students, interpreters, deaf individuals and the ASL community all held signs and stood right outside Obama’s house.”
Madeline Delucenay, a sophomore in the College of Liberal arts and a member of the ASL club, likes that Mansfield promotes peaceful activism.
“She’s trying to make it peaceful,” said Delucenay. “With other activism movements, there’s violence. She wants to bring across that deaf people are peaceful and they just want everyone to love each other and be a community. She’s showing good attention.”
In addition to activism, Mansfield and the De’VIA artists also create art for their community. They made murals and sent them to local deaf schools and Mansfield herself created a nine-foot tall menorah for a synagogue with a deaf rabbi.
Mansfield’s exhibition, “My Deafhood Art: Traveling Through the Darkness to the Light,” will be on display at the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette from now until Feb. 14, 2016.
“My favorite part about this is that her art is not just gorgeous – it starts a conversation,” said Morgan Geeslin, the ASL club president and a senior in the College of Liberal Arts. “There is so much symbolism and imagery. I think it’s inspiring that you can start a conversation from it and teach someone about the deaf movement. Because if you don’t have exposure to a deaf person, how are you going to learn about what they’re facing? That is what this art can do.”