(Photo: Photo provided/Tom Shafer)

(Photo: Photo provided/Tom Shafer)

An oil on canvas piece by artist Ellen Mansfield titled "IO Will Never Forget, no. 3

Review: A deaf world seen through art

Ellen Mansfield, a deaf artist and activist, conveys her culture and message through multiple mediums at the Art Museum

Journal & Courier, November 5, 2015

Domenica Bongiovanni, dbongiovan@jconline.com

Finding your way into Ellen Mansfield's art isn't difficult. Bright, varied colors turn a glance into a stare. Paintings, tiles, mandalas and more offer multiple means of communication. And although each work centers around a focal point, details spin out layers of meaning, leading viewers into a deaf world that includes vibrancy and struggle.

With her exhibit, "My Deafhood Art: Traveling Through the Darkness to the Light," Mansfield wants to impart the darkness of being kept from using American Sign Language as well as the joy she has experienced personally and as part of the deaf community. The solo show, which Mansfield said is her first in a gallery, is up until Feb. 14 at the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette.

Deaf awareness and her interest in the arts led Shireen Hafeez to seek out deaf artists whose work could be displayed in Greater Lafayette, she said. Hafeez does advocacy work with Indiana Hands and Voices, an organization that helps families with deaf and hard-of-hearing children find communication options. She brought in deaf artist Warren Miller a few years ago, museum executive director Kendall Smith said. After reading about Mansfield, Hafeez said she reached out to her in hopes of launching a second exhibition.

"Artwork, it's very powerful. It shows a very powerful message," Mansfield signed as Morgan Geeslin, president of the American Sign Language Club at Purdue University, translated. "You can ... show how deaf people live through deaf pride or through oppression."

Mansfield said she fell in love with art at an early age. Without being allowed to use sign language or have an interpreter as a young student, Mansfield writes in her artist statement, she had trouble learning in school and was expected to blend into a hearing society. She obtained a bachelor's degree in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, she wrote, and after a move to Maryland, she realized how her absorption of deaf culture manifested itself in her work. She now works out of her studio, TileStroke, in Frederick, Maryland.

Mansfield, who is not connected with Indiana Hands and Voices, is a deaf activist, and this is key to understanding her work. A major part of her message, she said, is to promote ASL as a natural language equal to spoken languages and to fight audism, the belief that those who can hear and who act as those who can hear are superior to those who don't. Deaf children, Mansfield said, often have been forced to assimilate into a hearing culture, made to speak and considered unequal to their hearing counterparts.

Mansfield is part of De'VIA — Deaf View/Image Art — artists who impart the deaf experience through their work. She also coined the term De^ARTivism, a movement broadly rooted in activist-artists, which occurs when De'VIA artists confront oppression and celebrate the deaf culture, according to the group's website.

"One of the reasons that we agreed to have Ellen and Warren's artwork (at the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette) is to give people something to think about," Smith said.

The De'VIA imprint is evident in Mansfield's exhibit. Artists in the movement often pull from a common collection of motifs — including hands, eyes and animal images that speak to their identities — that illustrate deaf cultural values, she said. Mansfield's style coalesces around these symbols as well as narratives surrounding deaf history, the joy of her family and her Jewish heritage. The result is a clear expression that folds in abstraction and illustrative scenes, said Michael Crowthers, the museum's curator of collections, exhibitions and education.

"With her usage of symbolism and its subjectivity and her use of color and the vibrancy, (the work) does evoke emotion for me personally having a son who shares similar challenges. As a mother, it strikes a very personal place in my heart," Hafeez said.

In "Drown in Mainstream," a deaf girl dressed in red stands out from a crowd of peers without eyes. Mansfield said this shows the barrier deaf students face — they can only see others moving their mouths but don't communicate. At the bottom, fish — a symbol for the deaf because they communicate in the silence under water — swim amid ear molds, showing the oppression of forcing deaf children to wear hearing aids, she said.

In Mansfield's mandalas, ceramic hands in different gestures reach out of the pieces and, as Crowthers put it, seem to beckon viewers. Along the edges, hands within the palms of larger ones represent ASL — a major part of deaf cultural identity. The circular nature of the mandalas signifies wholeness and a universal symbol of the earth, she said.

Overall, these symbols fit together seamlessly with hundreds of details that form a tapestry of context.

"Her thoughts about the piece or what she wants to say dictate, I think, as well as establish, what it is visually," Crowthers said. "Sometimes art can get away from someone (when) they're trying to go after something and it evolves, which is just fine, but it seems like she has a clarity there."

If you go

What: "My Deafhood Art: Traveling Through the Darkness to the Light" by Ellen Mansfield

When: Open daily 11 a.m.-4 p.m. until Feb. 14

Where: Art Museum of Greater Lafayette, 102 S. 10th St.

Cost: Free