3 min

‘Far beyond Christopher Reeves’

Disabled lesbians explore their own ways of seeing

DISTRESSED OBJECTS. Local queer artist Donimo pours her life, her limitations, her frustrations and her creativity into her digital art, as she copes with chronic pain. Credit: Wendy D

Upon first glance, Donimo looks slim and athletic. Her blue-grey eyes shine as she looks almost ready in her runners to take off sprinting with her dog, Arrow.

But the situation is quite the opposite. Her frail features are those of a careful sculptor and evolving local artist who has lived with chronic body pain for 22 years.

“I’m so occupied by it. I have pain head to toe and I have to do something about it all day long, every day. It’s part of me,” she explains. “It’s a different way of seeing the world.”

Donimo expresses her limitations, and often frustrations, through sculpture and, recently, digital art. Her creation of art depends on her condition as it subsides and relapses.

“I always have to reinvent my specific expression because my abilities are changing,” she says. “If I want to keep making art I have to be inventive. I’ve done a lot of work with distressed objects because, in a way, I felt like a distressed object.”

She presents a piece from three years ago: three blue, broken drinking glasses frosted and inscribed with “Thoracic Outlet Syndrome,” the name of her condition.

Her work exploring the nature of her condition and life with a disability was featured in Canada’s first disability arts festival in 2001, KickstART.

The festival returns after three years and KickstART2 will feature Donimo’s digital artwork, as well as other artists and performers with disabilities. The events, scheduled to run from Sep 16-19, are being organized by the Society for Disability Arts and Culture (S4DAC), which organized the original festival, the first of its kind in Canada.

Persimmon Blackbridge, a multi-disciplinary artist, curated at the first festival and is excited about contributing as an artist this year.

Blackbridge, who has written award-winning literature, has also dealt with low expectations from early on in her life because of her learning disability.

“I grew up with a learning disability with a university professor father,” Blackbridge explains. “I was never expected to do anything but graduate from high school by the skin of my teeth.

“Until my learning disability was diagnosed, my diagnosis was bad, lazy, stupid,” she continues. “The notion was that if I was hit enough I would smarten up, and it didn’t really work that way.”

Blackbridge believes it is a unique experience to work with like-minded people who can empathize with her needs. This year, she will be contributing a number of mixed-media portraits to the visual exhibit.

“Because the people at KickstART have disabilities, they’re really familiar with working with artists on their strengths instead of putting them aside,” she says.

Beyond her work focussing on disability, Blackbridge is part of the Kiss & Tell collective with two other women and has been tackling issues of lesbian sexuality and representation for more then 10 years. Their work has shown worldwide and they have published two books.

Maureen Bradley, a media artist, curator and educator working out of BC and Saskatchewan, saw Blackbridge’s work in the first KickstART festival three years ago and was inspired to get involved. This year, she will be contributing an abstract short film, Bipolar Mandala, exploring mental illness.

“When I finally got my diagnosis of bipolar disorder a year and a half ago, it kind of unlocked the footage for me,” explains Bradley. “I have an invisible disability and it’s like being queer.

“I hid my mood disorders for a lot longer than I hid my sexuality,” she continues. “At one point I was thinking of working on a piece called ‘second coming out.’ That’s what it feels like for me.”

While coming out twice has been difficult for Bradley, she seems light-hearted and happy about her identity now.

“I’m queer and I’m crazy. I want to reclaim those words,” she laughs. “It is a blessing. It has enriched the world.”

Donimo’s sexuality and disability relate to each other in a different way. Her practice of SM has actually allowed her to transcend her disability by exploring her sexuality.

“I’ve used temporary piercing as a way of transcending pain,” says Donimo. “It takes the needles out of context.

“It has allowed me to explore pain in different ways and look at instruments that have been used in medical procedures in a different way,” she continues. “I feel there is a tension between the medical and the sexual.”

Artists will converge at KickstART with their stories of struggle and empowerment and engage in a community discussion that is often pushed to the sidelines. “KickstART is a place where it’s a really rich discussion and varied display of what it is to create within disability,” Donimo smiles. “It is so far beyond Jerry Lewis and Christopher Reeves.”

She believes it is very much about acknowledging the true stories of people living with disabilities and not just the typical commercial narratives of empowerment.

“When people start presenting disability in a way that limits them to being all smiling happy people as an inspiration to all, they don’t realize there’s also hardship, but also creativity,” she says. “There’s all this other stuff. It makes people uncomfortable to acknowledge that they have complete lives.”


Sep 16-19.

Roundhouse Community Centre, 181 Roundhouse Mews.

Call 604.685.3368.