Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune
Jim Ferris is a disabled poet, performance artist, and disability studies scholar who has argued that disabled people “represent danger to the world” because they “show [their] human vulnerability without being able to hide it.” What’s your take on that idea?
I agree with that argument, I know that this disability has made me more human and more sympathetic to others. I get to experience a side of life that most can't dream of, a side without happy endings. I use my art to show people what it's like in my world, what it’s like to be in my life. By being vulnerable in my art, I hope to allow others to see how difficult it is to feel like an outcast in the eyes of those around me, strangers and even those in my immediate life. I can show how cruelly people treat people with disabilities. By working and toiling with these issues in my art, I hope the viewer might in some ways inhabit my pain and struggles, and that, well, that might allow me to help put an end to this pain that is society’s gift to the disabled. I want to give a voice to people that don't have one.
So, as covered in several news articles, when you were 10 years old, an attack by your family’s two dogs left your face with only part of your right eyelid and portions of your lips in-tact. Now, I understand, your right eye works well, but becomes tired as the day goes on, and visual stimulus and information is processed more slowly. Your left eye, which is only able to detect some light, is covered with a protective plastic cover, changed daily. Your prosthetic ears are modeled on your mother’s. Meanwhile, your nose—which you have to put stints in when you sleep to prevent suffocating—lips and cheekbones have all been reconstructed.
Do you get tired of being asked about the dog attack you experienced as a child, and the various subsequent impacts from it? Or is it something people actually shy away from talking with you about?
I actually like it when people ask about what happened to me because they get to learn and understand my disfigurement better than just assuming things. Of course, I’ve come across a fair amount of people who are mean or cruel because of the way I look, even kids are sometimes afraid of me because I think they believe I’m a movie monster that’s come alive and is standing right in front of them. But it always helps put people, and especially kids, more at ease. when I explain what happened and they see that I'm harmless to them.
How does your disability influence how you perceive the world, visually, and/or perhaps in other ways? And how does it impact the execution of your work?
It allows me to feel and express things in ways that maybe others can't. It’s allowed me to see life from so many points of view that have changed me in significant ways. On July 9th, 2018 I had my 60th surgery, and it has almost been 11 years since the attack. I've been in situations where I’ve almost lost my life in the operating room and I’ve watched as the stress of it all has broken my family up. The people around me experience all of this stuff that I have had to go through as real pain, too. It hurts them. And my father, the way I was just trash to him to throw away even when I needed him. I've been bullied by so many people over the years until I became suicidal, I wanted to end my life so that others could live happily without being scared or threatened by me.
I used art, but mostly Photoshop, to save my life and to help me express my pain to the world, and heal scars on the inside, in my soul, that were stopping me from moving forward with my life. The more I practiced art, made art, lived art, the more I could see how it was helping me through all of the extra “gifts” my diability had given me: my PTSD, social anxiety, and depression. And then how it could help heal others who are like me, too. This disability made me fight against myself to stay alive and to make a change in the world, no matter how difficult it is. It has made me work really hard and put in overtime, to show my teachers and the world that I won't let this pain stop me, I use it as fuel to learn, heal, and keep going no matter the cost.
I think most people are more aware than in previous times that identity classifications are inherently suspect, and potentially reductive, not least those associated with race, gender, disability, sexuality, &c. I’ve been thinking about the African-American scholar Darby English’s book, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, which claims that, “Work by black artists today is almost uniformly understood in terms of its ‘blackness,’ with audiences often expecting or requiring it to ‘represent’ the race.” The text goes on to argue that, “such expectations [severely] limit the scope of our knowledge about this work and how different it looks when approached on its own terms.” In light of English’s thoughts, I wonder a few things:
do you feel pressure to represent blackness and/or disability in your work?
Not exactly, I feel too vulnerable sometimes to approach or speak to those aspects of myself in my art because I feel like people tend to undervalue or misunderstand that art a lot more than my artwork that doesn’t speak to race or my disability. It makes me feel alone, even though I'm surrounded by hundreds of people. It feels like a chore, not a choice, to represent ‘blackness’ in artwork. It makes me feel like I’m fighting a battle I wasn't made for.
do you feel you are implicitly invited to portray your “tragedy” in your work and/or your narrative?
Yes, at times because that body of my artwork is the strongest. It’s a very strong connection: my tragedy, my art. When I create something based on my experiences, the compositions, impact, colors, tone, settings are more thorough; they require more time and patience though to fully understand what intentions need to be.
what are your thoughts on the pressures of audience expectation on the artist?
I think they are just confused, and don't understand this side of my experience of the world that I am showing in my art. It makes them speechless; they stare for a long time trying to understand. But when you present your work not everyone is going to see what you want them to see. Everyone is different and has different experiences, intellects, and personalities; they all are gonna take away different information from the visual evidence the artist provides and interpret it differently.
Minorities of various backgrounds sometimes feel pressure to educate others about aspects of identity – two things:
do you find yourself—because of your identity/identities—being asked for your perspective and/or drawn into arguments/conversations you have not chosen?
Yes, because some people just assume that I may have had certain experiences because of my identity, lifestyle, background. Some automatically assume that I know everything about being black since I’m African-American. I don't. Some people just assume because you're something, black, disabled, that they aren’t then surely you know the whole breadth of experience of everyone connected to that identity. That’s ridiculous, of course. So it's frustrating to be in a class or a conversation with few or no other minorities and a ‘black topic’ comes up. You can just feel the slow, synchronized stare when everyone else turns to stare at me waiting for a reaction. And of course what I say isn’t what they wanted or expected to hear. So then they get mad. They do.
the African-American journalist and podcaster (Code Switch, and PostBourgie), Gene Demby, explicitly stated in a *podcast episode that it is almost never his responsibility to educate strangers/radio listeners/Twitter or Facebook followers, &c., about blackness or the black experience. Alternatively, his colleague, Aisha Harris, asked: “But do we really want [white people] talking about it (race) by themselves)."
to what extent do you feel one has that responsibility to inform/educate others about (their) identity, if at all, and at what point is it on others to educate themselves?
You know, sometimes people just don’t have the skills or the competency to understand a given situation. Yeah, I think that there’s nothing wrong with giving them the information they’re missing so that next time and the time after that they’ll have a better understanding. Some people just don't know as much about race as others, and you know I just think where are they going to learn about it if I don’t, we don’t share our knowledge. You can’t really get angry at a person that isn’t as knowledgeable about identity, etc., as you or I when they haven’t had an opportunity to learn about those things. We should help them.
* “I’m Not Your Racial Confessor: The black person’s burden of managing white emotions in the age of Trump”Dec 6, 2016
Is protest an aspect of your work? If so, can you say a bit about how that is expressed? Also, can or does that approach become limiting? Can you elaborate?
I'm just plain tired of being judged because of the how I look, I’m tired of people abusing me mentally and physically every single day when I’m out in public because of my appearance. It’s been more than a decade. It hurts to experience human cruelty and it makes it impossible to live as openly and freely as I want. Like, I can't eat at restaurants without someone staring. I commonly use my art to fight back and to express my anger and pain. I want people to stare at my art. I want people to not just see it, but to digest it so that they can see what this world I inhabit had done to me.
My goal is to make artwork that is not only reflective of my experience, but also of the greater community of people who are like me. I want it to give comfort and I want it to say, “I’m here, too. You are not alone.” In addition, I want to raise awareness of the all of the appalling ways that our society treats people who are differently abled. After all, nobody is normal, so let’s learn about each other and let’s end this pain. I want to be able to live my life, and everyone else to be able to live theirs, equally, without judgement.
What artists have been most influential for you, in general, so far, disabled or not?
Vincent van Gogh has greatly impacted the way I view my art and myself. Through studying his life—through attempting to see life through his eye—I have a better understanding of myself. After studying him for a while, I started to notice the similarities between us. His art was continuously fueled by his warped visual perception, and by his unique interpretations of his own life. His artwork was beautifully crafted, with intensive and discriminately picked color palettes that were visual expressions of his emotions. His works have taught me how to fully immerse myself into artwork by expanding my creative processes so that I can allow my feelings, body, and thoughts flow cohesively all over the canvas.
And also his struggles, how his depression intensified and how it led him to suicide. It ultimately provided big motivation for me to keep going so that one day I might have a legacy of my own, like him. His life and work motivates me to continue to make artwork grounded in my life experiences and to turn them into something beautiful when I am depressed and so low.
Are there benefits that you feel art education/art-making could have specifically for the disabled, more so or differently than for the “abled”?
It starts a healing process that goes right to the invisible wounds that are impossible to express with words. I like to think about it as a door that opens to a world where everything makes more sense. A place where you can cry, fight, and hide without being judged. I see people practicing art therapy experiencing that all of the time. It allows me to use my unique experiences and express them in ways that others may finally be able to understand. It also allows me to repair the parts of my consciousness that I constantly have battles with, so that I can learn things I was maybe too walled off to learn otherwise.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on a piece that is focused on different memories taking place in one spot, like a time-lapse. I am experimenting with my environments, and trying to capturing the emotionally charged moments that are important to me and my life experiences.
What got you working on these particular pieces?
I think about how some places contain stories or memories from one's past and how re-inhabiting those spaces can have pretty visceral impacts.
My dorm room in college, for example, I had a lot of pain and a lot of joy while I lived there. Sitting in certain areas of my room again, I could vividly remember the events and emotions that I had previously experienced there. The piece I recently created "Wisping Thoughts" is a combination of those same kind of mixed up, muddled up emotions and memories. It represents how I was depressed about a serious incident that occurred with another student and of how I felt about going home for the summer.
I captured these moments and emotions by recreating them and taking images of them, but from a static camera angle and lighting situations. Then I overlayed all the images together and blended them into one sepia-toned image. I don't have a clear idea as to why this process of storytelling fascinates me so much, but it does.