On Art and Life

Ann Millett-Gallant, Lecturer, Arts and Humanities, UNC-Greensboro

I am a congenitally, physically disabled woman, a visual artist, and an art historian. All of these aspects of my identity contribute to my research on representations of the disabled body in art and visual culture and the work of contemporary disabled artists. My first book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010), focused primarily on photography and performance art. I placed the work of disabled artists in dialogue with that of non-disabled artists and with the history of western art. In the process of writing this book, I became very interested in and later directly involved with the work of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. In 2007, I posed for one of Witkin’s lavishly detailed, historically and mythologically rich compositions, Retablo, New Mexico, 2007. I later sketched and painted myself using the photographs that served as models for this work. I had always been interested in figurative imagery in my own drawing and painting, and as my scholarship developed, so did my practice in representing my own disabled body.

In 2007, I had an accident that caused me to have traumatic brain injury, resulting in memory loss, increased anxiety, muscle dysfunction, and the limited use of prosthetic legs. I explored my personal experiences with congenital impairments, as well as those caused by the accident, in my artwork and writing. I eventually self-published a memoir that explored these issues and my experiences with art therapy, as I continued to cope with the life changes brought about by the accident.

Colleagues considered my first book a significant contribution to disability studies, for art history has not contributed to the field as much as have other areas of the humanities. I have continued to create new opportunities for such dialogues, by chairing panels of interdisciplinary research at disability studies and art history conferences. In 2014, I co-edited, with art historian Elizabeth Howie, a special issue of The Review of Disability Studies, which included interdisciplinary essays on disability and visual culture, primarily visual art. Currently, Dr. Howie and I are continuing this work as we co-edit a forthcoming book of such essays, Disability and Art History, which will be published by Ashgate Publishing in 2016. The book will include one of my essays in which I analyze artist Susan Harbage-Page’s photographs of her developmentally disabled nephew, Peter. In addition to this essay, I have begun to place additional forms of visual culture at the center of my research, especially film and television.

I have been teaching full time at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro since 2008. I teach all online courses for the Department of Art and for the Bachelor of Liberal Studies Program. The BLS Program offers an all online Bachelors Degree in Liberal Studies, for which I teach interdisciplinary courses on photography, the representation of women in visual culture, and the intersections between art and everyday life. And I am still painting! In addition to images of my body, I specialize in pet portraits, still lifes, and images of single flowers, many of which I have assembled in an installation mural in my living room. I find art-making enjoyable, therapeutic, and thought-provoking, as it engages me in new ways with the kind of practices and imagery I analyze in my scholarly work.

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