Seems like I’ve been thinking about abilities/disabilities a lot lately. I’ve written about Brenda Brueggemann’s brilliant work—and recommended her “Why I Mind,” which is on YouTube—and our Bread Loaf class has been doing quite a bit of soul searching in terms of our relationships, as teachers, to students with varying abilities/disabilities. And now comes Shoulder the Lion, a documentary film by Erinnisse Heuver and Patryk Rebisz. Because a good friend is featured in the film, I drove to the Rafael Cinema House in San Rafael a few days ago to see a screening. Knowing my friend, I expected it to be good: but in fact it was so far above good that I was just stunned.
This searing documentary tells the stories of three artists: Alice Wingwall, an artist and photographer who lost her sight in 2000; Graham Sharpe, an Irish musician whose advancing Tinnitus makes it impossible for him to participate in his beloved band; and Katie Dallam, a veteran and psychologist who lost half her brain in a boxing match (“Million Dollar Baby” was inspired by this event). The film moves back and forth among these stories, as the artists speak directly to viewers of their ongoing work and the emotions that accompany it. In the Dallam sections, we learn that losing half her brain left her with “nothing, nothing at all.” She had no memory, and she had to re-learn absolutely everything, from eating to speaking. Eventually, Dallam discovered art and found that her “disability” had taken away all her inhibitions. The results are fantastical, larger than life, monstrous, fabulous, riveting sculptures and paintings.
Sharpe never tells us how his tinnitus developed or whether doctors have tried any treatments, but he dwells on his emotional state as he sank into and eventually accepted the fact that no matter what he would hear ringing in his ears: the sound, he says, is like TV static, with no reception, and it’s LOUD. He turned his talents to building a music festival in Ireland, which after ten years had won the reputation of “Best Small Festival” in the country. At the end of the film, we see him sitting in a field, strumming his guitar, and writing lyrics, something he continues to do even though he can’t really play them.
Alice Wingwall, a dear friend for well over a decade now, speaks eloquently of losing her vision, of her deep anger at being blind, of her realization that “seeing” is about more than vision, of her sadness that so many sighted people today do very little true seeing—bombarded by images as we are—and of her determination to keep on capturing images. And so she does, as brilliantly and dramatically as displayed in the film. With her husband, architect and writer Donlyn Lyndon, she answered questions after the film in her typical straightforward, witty way. And we met Rumba, her guide dog, who took the entire screening in stride, as though she knew she was a “star” of the show.
This film, and the artists represented in it, give testimony to an argument Shirley Brice Heath has made throughout her career: that some form of art (music, dance, sculpture, painting, drama) is essential to human development. Heath’s work with youth groups across the country has engaged young people in artistic endeavors, and for decades she has documented the progress they have made and the way in which art has enriched and changed their lives.
Of course, I think of writing as an art—and speaking as well. That’s one reason I want writing teachers everywhere to focus on the ART of and in writing/speaking. The style, the rhythm, the cadences, the syntax, all of which bring a written or spoken performance to life. As teachers, we need to remember that all people have artistic potential (just ask comics artist Lynda Barry, and check out her books!), and especially so those with “disabilities.”