In 1982, I met Judith Snow. after a close friend of hers, came recruiting people who could work as her Attendants. Judith was brilliant thinker. Physically, she could breathe, chew and digest, and move her right thumb ever so slightly to activate a switch that controlled the movement of her very large wheelchair. For everything else she required someone to act as her arms and legs. That was the job of her attendants. I took on the job, and developed a friendship that lasted more than 30 years, and gave me an understanding of giftedness that I want to explore in this series of blogposts that I am calling "The Courage To Be Gifted".
Don't complain. Create.
I am 57 years old. Depression has been a frequent visitor in my life, cycling through so many of my years. There have been waves when I would rise to levels of functionality (rarely at full capacity), with periodic moments when joy was felt; or I could see and feel the beauty of sadness; or be awed by the expansiveness that is life, and my small part in it. Far too often though, I felt immobilized, emotionally shrouded, cloaked by an anger that shields a sadness born out of a sense of loss that I feared drowning in if I actually let myself feel it.
The struggle to create the illusion of not being depressed is exhausting. Depression is war, an emotional invasion reinforced by thoughts used as weapons designed to take me down. It became the occupier in the territory of my mind, where I would find myself engaged in a bloody battle (one that I always felt like I would lose), making it difficult to pay attention to anything else.
Slowly my mental radar developed, now flagging depression's approach. Negative thinking shows up. I hear myself automatically, complaining, blaming someone for the reality of my life, and judging other people. I hear these utterances flowing out of my mouth. It would be routine for these outward negative projections to turn into self-judgement and loathing simply for hosting the thoughts....and the downward spiral was engaged. Now these thoughts are signals, like the doorbell in a store that lets the owner know that a customer has crossed the threshold, indicating it is time to pay attention to the interests of the visitor; an opportunity to shift gears, refocus, and seek an alternative to combat.
I've noticed some things about artists and their creations; sometimes they inspire; sometimes they reflect and shine a light on beauty; sometimes they prophetically expose naked truth; and sometimes they disrupt and disturb. Judith did all of these. She made it possible for people to see, and feel; sometimes soaking up the beauty of possibility; sometimes activating the imagination; sometimes enraging people; and other times causing people to feel like their heads were going to explode as she painted paradigms that shook their foundations.
In recent years I heard Judith declare herself as an artist, committed to "making the invisible, visible". One of the lasting "works of art" Judith made visible is the power, in relationships, to create and transform. Her body's inability to move became had become an opportunity to engage people in the act of creation.
In the late 1970's, after completing 2 degrees at York University, Judith found herself boxed into life in a room in a chronic care hospital, dying. One day she rolled into the office of her friend Peter, and sat in silence, refusing to speak, a non-verbal hunger strike of sorts. For those who knew Judith well, her silence was shocking. It activated Peter to contact another friend, Marsha, who mobilized a wider circle of connections, to liberate Judith from the hospital, and pursue the vision she held for her life, to live in her own apartment, to control and care for her body and life through hiring attendants that she would choose, enabling her to work and contribute in ways that only she could.
This powerful manifestation of relationships, Judith would one day call "the Joshua Committee" (as in the biblical story of bringing down the walls of Jericho), truly a co-creative work of art, that became a model for people gathering to unleash the best contributions and offerings of people, a living example that has captured the imagination and practice of people all around the world.
It would be more than 20 years before Judith’s practice of art, through painting, would show up in more public ways, and still later before the Royal Ontario Museum presented a 3 month exhibition of her art, and a theatrical interpretation called "The Book Of Judith" would appear. The thing that the "therapists" view of the world missed, was that Judith was an artist all along. Her life was her art. She was a performance artist, with the world as the stage, her life as her creative pieces.
On the evening of the memorial celebrating Judith's life, her long time friend, Jay, shared a powerful story of the art of relationships engaged by Judith’s vision.
Ten years earlier, Judith was a founding member of an artist collective, called "Laser Eagles" (now known as Artists Without Barriers) engaging artists with limited mobility or language in guiding visual interpreters or ‘scribes’ to create art. This practice of art enabled Judith to move beyond perceptions of her painting as therapeutic. It was liberating, but a nagging desire lingered in Judith, the desire to experience the solitude of the direct act of creation without the intervention of a visual interpreter.
Jay is the Project Director of The Alliance for Person-Centered Accessible Technologies, at Arizona State University. He listened deeply to Judith's vision, and connected her to research fellows, scientists, engineers, and computer programmers, who engaged in Judith’s vision, in pursuit of the creation of technology that would enable Judith to experience this solitary act of creation. At the time of her death, Judith had captured the imagination of people halfway across the continent, who were actively developing prototypes that would make it possible for Judith to create.
Judith lived in a culture that was committed to the idea that she should be dead. Faced with this reality, she exercised a different set of mental muscles. Somewhere along the way, Judith took a turn, past the idea of fighting, past the idea of advocating, toward the notion of creating, of living life as art, equipping herself with the eyes to see other possibilities, committing to craft, mold, manipulate, and massage the gift of life she received into a creation that previously was unimaginable. Judith made the unseen, the invisible, visible, for those who dare to see.
And me, after years of growing weary from the war of depression, I seek a non-violent alternative to depression’s occupation. Judith's life as artist provides me with a “way” to see, do, and be, embracing the gift of "what is" (no matter what that may be), as a starting point, to be transformed into the visions that only I can see. It is a “way” worth considering…and so I will.
An exploration of writing as a means of paying attention to themes that have captured my interest. --justice as "right" relations; gifts as what we have to offer; and beauty --within us, around us; and in all our relations.
Copyright ©2016 David Hasbury. All Rights Reserved.,