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Beyond silence
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"Stream of Consciousness" was painted by Susan Dupor, a deaf artist from Wisconsin. (Image courtesy of Susan Dupor)
In recent years, Minnesotans have placed increased emphasis on multiculturalism. From Vietnamese cooking classes to Somali musical offerings, Cinco de Mayo festivities to Chinese New Year celebrations, the state serves up a smorgasbord of culture. Still, there's one group that often feels lost in the deluge of diversity. Deaf advocates say Minnesota's non-hearing community is three times as large as its Hmong community. But they say few people recognize its significant contributions to the culture. An art exhibit at St. Paul's aND gallery is hoping to change that.

St. Paul, Minn. — If art is about communication, then the works on display at St. Paul's aND gallery are screaming. The paintings blare with color; the sculptures are loudly forceful. Yet all of these creative exclamations were made by artists who live their lives in silence.

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Image Nancy Meyers (left) and Kate Meyers

The work in "Images and Visions of a Culture" comes from deaf artists. Nancy Meyers, one of the exhibit's organizers, says the boldness of the art is a direct reflection of deaf culture. She says that since sign language doesn't use metaphors or idioms, deaf artists are masters of crisp expression.

"The bluntness of the language and the culture is different," Meyers says. "There's the joke that if a deaf person sees another deaf person they haven't seen for five years, and the person has put on 35 pounds, they'll just say, 'Wow! You've gotten fat.' It's just straightforward like that. They describe us as beating around the bush. They think, 'Just get to the point. Just say it.' We start with the little things and get up to the point, and they start with the point and then get down into the little things that add to the point. But you have to start with what the point is."

Nancy's sister, Kate, owns aND gallery. She set out to bridge the cultural gap between the hearing and non-hearing worlds. And the result is this show. Kate Meyers says it's the first national deaf art exhibit in Minnesota and the first artistic collaboration between the hearing and deaf communities.

"I think people are uncomfortable going up to deaf people," says Meyers. "People just don't know what to do with people they can't readily communicate with. Art is a common language for all cultures."

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Image Marian Lucas, deaf artist

Marian Lucas, one of the Minnesotans whose work is featured in the show, always wanted to be an artist. But the path to successful sculptor wasn't easy. Her first art teacher didn't know sign language and spent most of the class period smoking cigarettes. During her college critiques, well-meaning classmates would consistently refer to her artwork as 'nice.' Despite her desire for feedback, people just didn't want to criticize the deaf girl.

Still, Lucas says such setbacks never extinguished her drive to create. She says art helped her express the memories she was unable to speak aloud -- memories of the teachers who locked her in the closet with the floor cleaner and counter-top disinfectant because she didn't communicate to their liking; and memories of the iron gates at her residential school, barriers that kept her from the rest of the world. Through an interpreter, Lucas says her work has helped her turn these negative experiences into beautiful art.

"My artwork helps me carry those experiences to the deaf community and share those experiences that we all have in the past," said Lucas. "What really surprised me is that when I show this work to other deaf individuals they go, 'I have that story, and that's what happened.' And that's why I love sharing it with people. It's so nice to bring us all together in that way. It's not like they go, 'This is awful. This is sad.' They go, 'This is the way it was. That was my life.' And they can see the beauty in it as well. This is a history that was brought forward that has not totally died. It's our history."

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Image aND Gallery

The deaf community views itself not as a disability group but as a linguistic minority -- one that just happens to use sign language instead of English. Kate Meyers is hoping this art show will help make the mainstream population more deaf literate.

"I would just hope that people would have a different appreciation for this community that lives among us. There is something we can learn from each other," said Meyers.

Marian Lucas agrees. And she hopes the message of the exhibit is received loud and clear.

"I want hearing people to recognize deaf people as a part of the community, that they have their own community, that they have their own culture. We can have strong, good art within the community as well," said Lucas. "I want them to see that within the Twin Cities there are all these different cultures, Hispanic, etcetera. They have their own culture and their own art, and we do too."

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