Since 2002, the Kennedy Center and Volkswagen Group of America have teamed up for the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program, to recognize and showcase the work of emerging young artists living with disabilities, ages 16-25, who are currently residing in the United States. Electrify!, the 16th exhibition presented as part of the VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, gives 15 young artists the opportunity to display their work in venues across the United States where each artist’s individual talent, mode of expression, and view of the world is showcased and valued.
Electrify! is a conduit for creative reflection on personal and shared histories, from revisiting formative events in one’s childhood, to strengthening a community and sense of belonging. These 15 artists give us examples of how art can be used to understand and rewrite narratives; they explore the triumphs and tensions of the “now,” and invoke unity and inclusivity.
With this traveling exhibition we aim to give visibility to the work of artists with disabilities throughout the United States, positioning them to broaden our understanding of disability and the arts. We believe that art should excite our senses, awaken our curiosity, and electrify our very being. Art has the ability to empower the artist and viewer alike, but just as important, it can spark empathy and ignite understanding.
Trinity Kai, Grand Prize Award
Gum bichromate over palladium (17 in x 24 in)
Trinity Kai turns the camera on herself to create images that speak to spirituality, identity, and feelings of alienation. She was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a genetic condition that results in poor vision and over-sensitivity to light, but her visual perceptions are only part of what drives the mysterious and ephemeral mood of her photographs. Kai grew up in a strict religious household, where any choice made outside the doctrine was criticized. In making this work, she creates her own spirituality through the transformation and analysis of those memories. Kai uses a large format camera equipped with a pinhole lens, which requires a long exposure time—and for Kai as the model, an unblinking eye. Kai prints the images using nineteenth-century photographic processes that impart a luminous and painterly quality to her work that complements the electrifying quiet of Kai’s gaze.
Kai received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Photography at University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.
Summer Mason, First Prize Award
Stills from Copper, 2017
In the short film Copper, dancers float in and out of focus in a kaleidoscope of color and movement in an intimate interpretation of black experiences and narratives throughout America. In each of the film’s five sections, director Summer Mason explores the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The driving force behind the film is a quest to shift the current focus on the black experience from a place of brutality and violence to a place of healing and artistic freedom. Mason, who has bipolar disorder, wrote Copper over the course of several manic depressive episodes, and the film’s transcendence of reality reflects these hallucinatory experiences.
Mason was born and raised in Los Angeles, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Film and Media Studies at University of California, Berkeley. They live and work in Oakland, California.
Haley Macherone, Second Prize Award
Hold for Inspection
Mixed media sculpture (24 in x 24 in x 24 in)
At age seven Haley Macherone was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary tics that are frequently uncomfortable and distressing. Her work is informed by her investigations into her identity as an artist with a disability, and is driven by her need to understand what elements shaped who she is. Through her sculptures, which depict memories blended with fiction, Macherone delves into her childhood with a mix of humor, uncertainty, and wonder. The figure in Hold for Inspection is at once Macherone’s childhood self, full of innocent curiosity, and her adult self, who has an awareness of the potentially dangerous contents of the crate. Macherone invites us to contemplate the act of looking: into our past and into a larger unknown. She shows us that our experiences appear changed through the act of remembering, and over time can come to have new meaning and importance.
Macherone earned her associate degree in Fine Art from Hudson Valley Community College in 2015, and completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Maine College of Art in May, 2017. She lives and works in Portland, Maine.
Brianna Beck, Award of Excellence
Negotiating Space: Othered by Design, 2017
Rip stop nylon, vinyl, PVC pipe (108 in x 48 in x 48 in)
Brianna Beck uses elements of scale and spatial incongruity to address the social model of disability—the idea that individuals are far more inhibited by their physical environment and social stigma than they are from their bodies or minds. Her work is both playful and provocative, and focuses on how these interactions with our physical and social environments contribute to an individual’s sense of self. Negotiating Space: Othered by Design aims to communicate the experience of hyperawareness of one’s body in a vulnerable space. As a woman with skeletal dysplasia and anxiety/depression, Beck’s work investigates the intersection of physical disability and mental illness, spatial incongruence, and femininity within disability.
Beck received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communication from Ball State University in 2013 and is currently pursuing her Master of Art in Art Therapy and Counseling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Taylor Bielecki, Award of Excellence
I’m Bringing Hell to You, 2017
Oil on canvas (36 in x 48 in)
Taylor Bielecki’s I’m Bringing Hell to You is both startling and seductive. It Pulls viewers into an otherworldly carnival scene that hinges on the delirious and hints at a world of dystopian unease beyond the frame. Her paintings, which are often inspired by classic literature and cinema, are full of frantic energy conveyed by fast brushstrokes, glossy highlights, and strong contrasts. Bielecki has cerebral palsy, which affects the right side of her body, her hearing, and speech. Because speaking does not come easily to Bielecki, she often turns to her art to communicate her concepts and ideas.
Bielecki attends Penn State University, where she studies English and fine art.
Kevin Quiles Bonilla, Award of Excellence
Colonial Wall Push, 2016
Kevin Quiles Bonilla is interested in reactivating public spaces with his body to engage viewers in a hidden or forgotten past. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, his work references colonial themes of inherent and imposed identity through a sense of place. Colonial Wall Push asks us to consider how one’s sense of self is formed from the physical spaces we occupy, built from ideas and dialogues that are both conscious and unconscious, private and public. What power (symbolic and actual) impacts us in shared space? Quiles Bonilla, who has obsessive compulsive disorder, draws inspiration from the late conceptual artist Terry Fox, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and whose work explores a recurrent cycle of illness and health.
A graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bonilla is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at Parsons, The New School of Design in New York City.
Rein Brooks, Award of Excellence
Synthetic hair, plywood, paint, graphite powder (96 in x 33 in x 29 in)
For Rein Brooks, interactive sculpture is a means to inhabit a body other than one’s own. In this piece, Brooks uses a literal representation of their own hair, which has thinned, become brittle, been cut, and regrown as their health has fluctuated. The resulting piece invites the viewer into a personal tangle of power, vulnerability, and erasure. Angel is part of a larger series, Gifts, which questions established narratives of illness, identity, and gender. It is both magnetic and repulsive—an analogy to Brooks’ experiences living with an eating disorder and gender dysphoria. “Angel is meant to be engaged with. Its columnar structure leaves room for a single person to stand or sit within a protective, enclosing space. It is an invitation for the viewer to step inside my body and experience the gratitude and awe I feel for its resilience.”
Brooks, who is from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, earned a bachelor’s degree in French and linguistics from Grinnell College where they also studied studio art.
Marieke Davis, Award of Excellence
Life is Blurry (parts I and II), 2016
Pen and ink on paper (17.5 in x 26 in)
Marieke Davis is a graphic artist from Phoenix, Arizona. The small frames required for graphic art accommodate Davis’ limited field of vision. Using her own life as material, Davis’ narrative-driven creative process always begins with writing the script before she brings it to life through drawing. She uses humor to educate the able-bodied world about how she and other people with low vision often perceive and navigate the world in what she terms “the most effective way possible—through laughter.”
Davis graduated from Arizona State University where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in art/drawing and studied English literature, women’s and gender studies, and creative writing.
Rowan DiIoia, Award of Excellence
Teardrop Cabinet, 2016
Mahogany, steel, aluminum, rope (24 in x 12 in x 12 in)
Rowan DiIoia created Teardrop Cabinet to hold a collection of small wonders from the natural world—a modern-day take on a cabinet of curiosities. The seven drawers that spiral upwards from the bottom of the piece each hold a sample of water from seven different sources. DiIoia works in various artistic disciplines including metal working, wood working, glass blowing, sculpture, and ceramics. Like most of his work, this piece features elements that come from recycled materials. Teardrop Cabinet is hand-shaped and carved from a single block of mahogany wood, with a hand sculpted recycled aluminum top.
A Santa Barbara, California native, DiIoia is currently studying furniture design at California College of the Arts. He has dyslexia and dysgraphia.
Blythe Gurche, Award of Excellence
Acrylic on wood (60 in x 60 in)
Blythe Gurche’s work explores and embraces change. As a child she insisted on celebrating her twelfth birthday twice because she rejected the idea of becoming a teenager and all of the perils that come with that transition. As a teen, she started painting as a way to hold on to aspects of her childhood. Gurche has neurocardiogenic syncope, which causes a drop in blood pressure and temporary loss of consciousness. These fainting episodes, which are themselves miniature and abrupt changes, interrupt her daily life in unpredictable ways. “Almost everything we interact with in our lifetimes is mercurial, ever-changing. Coming to terms with constant change has been something that in the past I have struggled with, it is something that I think we as human beings have a difficult time grasping.”
Gurche studied art and anthropology at Skidmore College, and has worked combining both disciplines as a scientific illustrator.
Carly Mandel, Award of Excellence
Porcelain, steel magazine rack
In Everycloud, artist Carly Mandel comments on the lack of representation of disability in commercial media, and examines the way health is publically and commercially understood and valued. Mandel crafted the bone-like porcelain rings of Everycloud by hand, and each is unique. The magazine rack, in contrast, is rigid, factory-produced, and serves to help distribute mass media messaging. Mandel intends this dichotomy to highlight the relationship between an individualized approach to health, and the generic and pervasive idea of wellness in our society. As a person who has Crohn’s disease, she hopes that her work will educate people about invisible and chronic diseases. Mandel notes that for those with chronic illness the idea of attaining a state of perfect health is untenable, and the words “get well soon” have little meaning.
Mandel grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon in 2015. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Jillian Santora, Award of Excellence
Symptomatic (series), 2017
Fabric, thread, wood, hanging hardware
Jillian Santora has discovered the cathartic nature of sewing, mending, and quilting—art forms she uses as an agent of change. Symptomatic is a series of protest banners emblazoned with hand-appliquéd statements that address the lived experience of illness and disability. By employing traditional sewing techniques and hanging methods, Santora invokes suffragette and labor union protest banners to confront a present day inequity. Santora’s goal with Symptomatic is to give voice to people with hidden or invisible disabilities. As a person with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and mast cell activation disorder, Santora’s messages are a means of empowering herself and her community, who in her words, are “fighting for inclusion, compassion, and care in an able-bodied world.”
Santora holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Kendall Schauder, Award of Excellence
Digital video and cloth shirt (66 in x 66 in x 18 in)
Kendall Schauder investigates the way that textiles are a 3D record of the machinery used to produce them. Schauder was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade, and continuously struggled within a school curriculum that could not be adapted for students with learning disabilities. This led her to explore the idea of learning through visual and tactile sensations within the 3D workspace of textile machinery. T-Shirt was presented as a performance piece in which Schauder unraveled an industrially knit t-shirt, and then completely reconstructed the shirt by hand. Through the process of deconstruction she notices the way each piece of the shirt fits together as part of the overall pattern. When reconstructing the shirt, Schauder uses the same logic as the original pattern, but by reworking the material by hand she comes up with her own understanding of the fabric and its qualities, characteristics, and possibilities.
Schauder was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and how lives in Chicago, Illinois. She recently graduated from the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Becca Schwartz, Award of Excellence
Binghamton 2, 2016
Photograph (60 in x 40 in)
As a photographer, Becca Schwartz questions the reality depicted in photographs that we as viewers understand to be the truth. In this body of work she photographs the interiors of mid-century homes using bright lighting so that her audience is unable to differentiate what is real and what is staged or edited in post-production. Bingham 2 challenges the unrealistic idea of normalcy as seen through home advertising in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The reading glasses float above the too-white surface of the kitchen table, forgotten or belonging to no one, yet the visual weight of the benches and the ordinariness of the tile floor pull us back into a version of reality. The viewer is left wondering if this hyper-realistic image is a representation of someone’s life, or a complete fabrication.
Schwartz has Tourette syndrome. She lives in Richmond, Virginia and studies photography at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Esther Woo, Award of Excellence
Photograph (60 in x 40 in)
Esther Woo works across multiple media, from sculpture using found objects to photography and collage, and has been creating art since childhood. In Isolation Woo channels her experience with attention deficit disorder, which can make socializing and connecting with peers difficult. The fractured, misaligned layers of the digital photo collage and inconsistent focus throughout the image is at odds with the precision and clarity we expect from the photographic medium, and leads to a feeling of tension and unease. Woo seems to be brought short by an invisible barrier, yet the vibrancy and larger-than-life size of the photograph conveys assurance and potent sense of self.
A native of Coppell, Texas, Woo lives in New York City where she attends Parsons School of Design at The New School.