The Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) collaborated with artist Oaklee Thiele and the Grand Rapids-based disability arts organization DisArt to present the âMy Dearest Friends Projectâ in Grand Rapids for ArtPrize 2021.
From September 16 to October 31, the exhibit will be featured on all four sides of the GRAM exterior in large-scale hand-sewn banners and panels.
GRAM’s communications manager, Elizabeth Payne, said the exhibit is meant to bring the presence and struggles of the disability community to the forefront of the city’s spirit.
âThis outdoor presentation brings the personal and political presence of the disability community to the heart of the city, visible from Ottawa Avenue, Monroe Avenue, Louis Street and Monroe Center Street,” said Payne.
Thiele, who is currently in her second year of art school obtaining a BFA from the Cooper Union Advancement of Science and Art, describes herself as “a protest artist whose work draws attention to inaccessible structures integrated within our society and addresses empowered institutions built to prevent people with disabilities from entering.
She said that with her artwork, she worked to explore the intersectional nature of disability, specifically its relationship to sexuality.
“My work serves as a very real testament to my own disability experience, âsaid Thiele. “While my disability continues to progress, I have to adapt my way of creating.
Thiele’s âdearest friendsâ started at the height of the pandemic in March 2020, when she said she felt very frustrated with the response to the effects of the pandemic on the disability community.
“Family and friends kept saying, ‘It’s only the disabled and chronically ill who will die from this pandemic, âThiele said. âThey were ready and willing to completely ignore the life of the disabled as if my own life was worthless. I face through art. So I wrote a poem alone in my studio called “My dearest friends”.
Thiele’s poem read: “My very dear friends, /We must not let this be forgotten /The time the world has won /Perspective on a small portion /Of our struggles. We must/Make sure that this moment /Go down in history therefore /That we can build a better world /A more accessible world /A world for all /A world for us.
When DisArt co-founders Jill Vyn and Chris Smit saw Thiele’s poem on her social media, they reached out to collaborate.
The poem was then shared on more social media platforms by Thiele and DisArt ask people with disabilities and chronically ill to send their stories in the same format as Thiele’s poem, beginning with the phrase “My dearest friends …”
Participants were invited to write on their experiences with disabilities, and sign with their first name.
Since the original post was published, there have been over 400 submissions to Thiele from around the world. She responded to each submission by creating a black and white image. Some images incorporate respondents’ own words into the artwork.
For ArtPrize 2021 at GRAM, a selection of illustrations created by Thiele has been transformed into huge banners and signs displayed outside the museum.
In selecting the illustrations to enlarge for ArtPrize, Thiele said they tried to stick to the pieces that best represented the main themes of the submissions.
“There are distinct common themes in many of the submissions – stories of terror, anger, hope, community, âThiele said. âWe tried to select submissions that really spoke about the common themes. After selecting submissions for GRAM, each illustration has been designed to be site specific – drawn to accommodate window sizes and interact with surrounding landscaping and architecture.
Thiele said seeing the exhibition for the first time was a “surreal moment,” as she finally felt that she was accurately represented by an artistic institution.
“The fact that this was drawn by me, that he had my name on it – none of that mattered, âThiele said. “What mattered was that there was this huge, daring depiction of a wheelchair user covering an entire window at an art museum. All i could think of was, ‘Hey, he looks like me.’ â
Payne said this exhibit has been a once in a lifetime experience for GRAM and one that the museum greatly appreciates.
“This exhibition has been an exciting and inspiring process for all of our staff, âsaid Payne. âGRAM has never facilitated an ArtPrize listing like this. Bringing disability culture to the fore in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids during ArtPrize has been a unique source of inspiration, especially with the activism and Oaklee Thiele’s artwork as the driving force behind the exhibition.
Thiele said her goal was for the disabled community to feel represented by the project and for the disability culture to be authentically represented.
“I hope that other members of the disabled community can find representations of themselves within the work – that they can feel represented and celebrated, âThiele said. “I want this exhibition to serve as a easy introduction to the culture of disability. It is a strong reminder of the immense value that the disabled experiences and that the stories of people with disabilities should be told from the perspective of people with disabilities. “
Once the exhibition is over and ArtPrize 2021 is over, Thiele asks community members not to go so quickly from what they have seen and learned.
“When these stories are no longer displayed in front of you, please do not forget them, âThiele said.
Although eventually the artwork will no longer be in Grand Rapids, Thiele’s work with the âMy Dearest Friends Projectâ is far from over.
The project is currently helping launch a web application, which is currently in the prototype stage, called “Demand Access”.
With this app, users will be able to to take photos of inaccessible places in their region, making the problem known. The app will then take the photos and add them to a geotagged map, creating information about the general accessibility of a zone.
âWe are delighted to release it to the world,â Thiele said. “The” My dearest friends “project has has always been to use the concept of community to fight for a more accessible world. This app is a really tangible step towards that goal.“