Artist explores ways to communicate between deaf, hearing culturesCynthia Weitzel turned to art later in life, but it didn’t take long for her to tap into her creative wellspring and begin communicating the passions of a lifetime in a new way.
By: Ruth Nerhaugen, The Republican Eagle
Cynthia Weitzel turned to art later in life, but it didn’t take long for her to tap into her creative wellspring and begin communicating the passions of a lifetime in a new way.
A member of the deaf community, Weitzel infuses her artwork with deaf experiences, perspectives and symbols of deaf history.
Images that are instantly recognizable to others who are deaf or hard of hearing become teaching tools when the Anderson Center resident artist shares them with hearing people.
Weitzel grew up in a small Wisconsin community where her parents were the only deaf residents.
She was born hard of hearing and, because of a progressive hearing loss, was deaf by the time she was a teenager. Her mother had the same genetic issues; her father was born deaf. Having a hearing brother made them a “mixed family,” she said.
Because she speaks both English and American Sign Language, Weitzel — who is also an accomplished lip reader — considers herself bilingual. ASL is not English which people “sign” using their hands, she explained. “It is a complete different language” with its own grammar, structure and syntax.
She also is bicultural, Weitzel said, because her life experiences include both the hearing and the deaf culture, which are very different in many ways.
Her parents chose not to send her away to school. However, she was the only deaf student and the school in her home town did not provide an interpreter.
“It was the longest, most painfully boring 12 years of my life,” she said, “but I had the luxury of going home nights” to a place where people signed and understood. When she was growing up, there was no TTY on the telephone or closed captioning on television.
Weitzel began exploring the larger world by attending Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., on a scholarship. The school is based on using ASL.
In the early 1990s she was part of a pioneering program at the University of Minnesota that trained people to be drug and alcohol counselors for the deaf.
She worked in that field when she and her husband, Steve Weitzel, moved to Tennessee, but after several years, “It was really wearing me out.” Weitzel went back to school and studied business management and fine arts at Austin Peay State University, graduating in 2000.
“My whole life I’ve been creative, but I’d never had one art class,” she said. “There was no time for fun classes like that” because of all the extra time she needed for reading and studying academics outside of the classroom.
“Five minutes into the first class (at Austin Peay),” she said, “I knew I was in the right place.”
Still, it took years before she was able to devote herself to art. She and her husband, a roofing contractor, moved to Hager City in 2006 to be closer to family in Minnesota, and she worked as a human rights lobbyist in St. Paul.
Last year Weitzel retired and began her new life as an artist at Red Wing’s Anderson Center at Tower View. This spring she moved into a historic building known as the “chicken coop” that previously was the art studio of John Anderson and for internationally known artist Charles Biederman.
“I’m a visual artist,” Weitzel said. “My concentration primarily is painting, but I don’t limit myself” to one medium. She also does printmaking, creates story tiles and experiments with non-traditional materials and methods.
One wall of the studio holds a grouping of charcoal drawings that reflect experiences of deaf people and others who were targeted during the Holocaust because they were “less than perfect.”
“I use them as a teaching tool,” Weitzel said. Deaf viewers often recognize certain motifs or symbolism that she explains when hearing people ask questions, such as an emphasis on hands or a lack of ears.
She believes that shared knowledge of that history leads to greater understanding and acceptance of deaf people as a linguistic and cultural minority. “Because of teaching tools like this — the language of art — I am able to be part of that process,” Weitzel said.
Art which focuses on “themes that tell our story from our point of view” has its own name: De’VIA, or Deaf View Image Art.
“Not all of my work is this heavy,” Weitzel said. An oil painting she currently is completing depicts an iconic image from Minnesota deaf history — Charles Thompson Memorial Hall in St. Paul, which happens to be where her parents met.
She is painting “Deaf American Gothic” to be displayed at the hall, the oldest deaf club in the world. It was designed and built by the first deaf American architect, Olof Hanson.
Recent experiments include working with screw art and ASL action paintings.
Screw art is a unique process of creating an image on the heads of screws that are inserted at varied depths into thousands of holes on large panels. Weitzel’s first pieces will be part of an exhibit opening Thursday in Pepin (see related story).
ASL action paintings are abstract drip paintings Weitzel creates by dipping her hands into paint. As she signs words in ASL, the paint drips onto a canvas, creating a unique pattern.
“It’s not just about the finished work,” Weitzel pointed out. “It’s about the process. What I’m learning about the material and about myself is part of the process.”
“I’m loving every minute of it. I’m finding a new way to communicate,” she said. “I’m using the language of arts to interact with people of either world.”
Artwork featured at exhibit, events
Cynthia Weitzel’s art work can be seen at several upcoming events.
• Thursday through Oct. 13 at the Lake Pepin Art & Design Center, 406 Second St., Pepin.
Weitzel and potter Richard Spiller present “Touch See Feel,” a visual and tactile experience for everyone, including art lovers who are blind or deaf-blind. Titles and descriptions are in both English and Braille.
“Touch See Feel” is described as a “spontaneous collaboration between … two human beings from two different worlds who share the same degree of empathy and sense of humanity,” particularly as it concerns “those often put aside, not seen, not heard.” It features ceramics, paintings and two- and three-dimensional sculptural pieces.
A closing party is planned for 6 p.m. Oct. 13, with readings in American Sign Language and in English by poet John Lee Clark. The gallery is open Fridays through Sundays. Call 715-442-4442 for information.
Weitzel and Spiller plan to send the show on tour, and are negotiating exhibitions in Europe as well as the United States.
• Saturday and Sept. 29 at the Anderson Center at Tower View, Highway 61 at Highway 19, west Red Wing. Weitzel’s studio will be open to visitors during the Celebration of Minnesota Children’s Authors and Illustrators, which runs from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, and during the Sept. 29 grand opening of the newly renovated barn. Call 651-388-2009.
• Oct. 5-7 at the Lake Pepin Art & Design Center during the Fresh Art Fall Tour. Hours are 2 to 6 p.m. Oct. 5; noon to 6 p.m. Oct. 6; noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 7. Go online to www.pepinartdesign.org.