Artist Interview: Corbett O’Toole

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What do you think are some of the challenges disabled women, especially disabled women of color, face in being in the public eye?
I don’t see challenges in disabled women being in the public eye. I see extremely few opportunities for them to be there. And frequently their perspectives are ignored and re-written from a nondisabled perspective which typically tells an “overcoming/inspirational” narrative that silences their voices and appropriates their images and work. Disabled women are creating vibrant and interesting work about their own experiences. These works invite us to expand our perspectives and ask new questions.

How does the presence and visibility of disabled women change conversations or perceptions around disability?
In the U.S., and most western countries, “disability” is framed as “sick” and “less than.” The visual image is nearly always of a white person, most commonly a white man, usually sitting in an expensive manual wheelchair. When we invite disabled women into our imagination as to who is disabled, we are presented with new ideas such as how does gender change the static image of a “disabled” person. In the United States, only 26% of permanently disabled people are employed. Women, whom our culture prefers to see as tied to the home, spend their lives doing unpaid labor. So when you add those two stereotypes together – disabled and woman – the cultural images clash. Women are supposed to be strong and carry the family. Disabled people are not perceived as strong and often perceived as a burden on the family. The lives of disabled women contradict these presumptions but those lives are rarely seen outside disability communities.

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Quilts have such a long lineage and large tradition in many cultures. Was this something you wanted to highlight specifically? Does quilting have a special, personal resonance for you?
I call myself a “kitchen table activist.” For me this means that I approach all my work as being rooted in my experience as a woman, as a provider of nurturance and sustenance for my community. My being disabled just means I do this work sitting down. I tried many art forms before I began to quilt 5 years ago. I have never sewn so I had to learn that skill in order to create my art. I love how sewing is rooted in women’s need to both create and to repair tears. Quilting requires community, nearly always women, who come together to make a finished product. I love how making a quilt is both artistic (in the vision) and practical (you get a quilt that will keep you warm). And how the activity blends individual activity in making the outsides with community in bringing the quilt to completion.

Can you talk a little about the Agnews Asylum? Why do you think, as a pretty monumental loss, it is talked about so infrequently? Do you think this is out of fear, or shame, or misunderstanding. My assumption is that it is probably a combination of the three.
I visited Agnews before it closed down. I have visited other institutions before and felt close to the inmates there. I am inspired by historian Susan Burch’s work about the Canton Asylum of the Insane Indian but I wanted to work on an institution closer to home. As I researched the history of Agnews, I found the story of the massive loss of life from the 1906 earthquake and decided to focus my pieces on that story. The 107 deaths are not included in the official records of the San Francisco 1906 earthquake. I believe this is because when society institutionalizes people, we stop treating them as part of our communities. For centuries disabled people have been herded away from our families and kept out of sight. The absence of the Agnews deaths from the otherwise well-preserved history of the 1906 earthquake is merely the latest way of making disabled lives invisible.

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One of the quilts [in the show] feels more like a celebration while the other feels more like an opportunity for mourning. Do you see celebration and mourning as being two sides of the same coin? Do you see them as being necessary for communities to do together?
Whether through my writing or my quilting, I am interested in the stories of disabled people. The Disabled Women of Color quilt was made for the People of Color Caucus of the Society for Disability Studies. They needed money for scholarships and that was my contribution. Since I initiated the donation, I was free to make anything I wanted. I decided to focus on disabled women of color through the lens of very successful women. Most people know the women represented on the quilt but almost no one knows that they were disabled. So that quilt highlights both the successes and contributions of disabled women of color and also allows their disabilities to have equal footing with their other identities and contributions.

The Agnews quilt is part of a larger project that I am engaged in about remembering the disabled dead. The city of Santa Clara has removed all grave markers from the Agnews land and since the few people buried at the city cemetery are in unmarked graves, there no longer exists any demarcation of the hundreds of people who died during the 100 year history of Agnews.

 I was happy that Fran [Osborne] selected these two pieces to display because I believe that it’s important to remember and honor our dead and to celebrate the living, especially disabled women.

Quilts by Corbett O’Toole, photos by Elena Gross

The exhibition DIS/PLAY will be on view until April 23rd.

About the Author:
Elena Gross is a CCA Extern for SOMArts Cultural Center and a graduate student in the Visual & Critical Studies program at California College of the Arts.