Paul Johnston: Becoming a Pioneer—Discovering De’VIA
Length of Interview: 18:18
Note: This is a summary of the signed commentary made during this interview and is not a verbatim translation. Text summary by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.
Remember, everything takes time. We are pioneers. We have to roll up our sleeves and work away. It takes patience and years to arrive at a point where the De’VIA concept gains strength. We are still cleaning things up. Like underwater explorers, we are still discovering shells and gathering up all of the treasures of De’VIA.
Becoming a Pioneer—Discovering De’VIA
An Interview with Paul Johnston: De’VIA artist, actor, scholar and professor
My name is Paul Johnston. Some sign my name PJ while others use the P hand shape bumping up against the other hand, which is in a 5 handshape. In truth, I like the “P against the 5 handshape” name sign best.
My involvement with Deaf Art began during my first year as a student at RIT when I met Chuck Baird (name sign CB on chin).
(Image: Chuck Baird)
Chuck and I became good friends. It just so happened that Chuck had been a student at Gallaudet College under Betty G. Miller. That was during his first year of college, and then later he transferred to RIT. One day, l visited Chuck’s art studio and saw his painting, “Mechanical Ear.”
(Image of “Mechanical Ear” by Chuck Baird)
That painting blew my mind. I had never thought you could express something like that . I was brainwashed in my upbringing to believe that artists should be trained to paint or illustrate conventional subject matter and every day objects such as portraits, figure drawings, animals, buildings and flowers. This way of thinking resulted in neglect of the Deaf-World, Deaf community, Deaf schools, and our experiences growing up. The problem was that we rarely had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the Deaf experience and engage in value clarification. I never attended a Deaf school so I had no one to share those experiences with until I arrived at NTID. At NTID, I took classes from two great Deaf teachers: Loy Galloway and Bob Panara. Panara was one of my favorite teachers, and he became like a second father to me.
(Image of Robert Panara–Deaf Professor & Poet)
I became very close to him. He explained about Deaf history, philosophy, and literature that included Deaf characters. It was through conversations with these mentors that I started to understand who I was as a Deaf person. When I met Chuck Baird, I started to dive into Deaf culture and began collecting information on different artists. I initiated this research on my own and was pretty much self-taught. At that time, there weren’t any courses such as an introduction to Deaf Artists.
Bob (Panara) did teach one course entitled “Introduction to Deaf Literature.” In that course , names of some Deaf artists were mentioned, and I was constantly raising my hand asking questions. Bob must have become tired of the battery of questions from me so he asked, “why don’t you become a pioneer (Paul’s sign — “roll up your sleeves”) and do groundbreaking research yourself in this area?” His suggestion really struck me.
Chuck Baird’s work, “Mechanical Ear,” I saw as a critique of the history of the Oral methods of teaching in Deaf schools. In my senior year at RIT, I took a painting course as an elective and I undertook the making of “Eyescape.” This large painting featured an eye illustrating how functions for a Deaf person.
I painted this work in contrast and response to Chuck’s work focusing on the EAR, I wanted to portray the EYE.
(Image of “Eyescape” by Paul Johnston)
“Eyescape” depicts a huge eye showing the inner workings of the eye and visual acuity; a visual representation of memories, what we remember, what we cherish, and what makes us cry. It is a collection of images and colors which appear to function like a camera. I just put it all in there. At that time, I was a novice painter. My major was in furniture design / woodworking. The SAC (School of American Craftsman) required a lot of stipulations to follow “functional” design like how to make a bed or a chair. There really wasn’t any potential for incorporating Deaf issues there.
(Image of “Mechanical Ear” by Chuck Baird cross dissolves to “Eyescape” by Paul Johnston)
For my senior thesis project, I was asked what I wanted to do. I thought long and hard about it and decided I wanted to do a sculpture as I had already made furniture. They said, “Go for it.” I knew I wanted to make something with a hand. I was encouraged to experiment with it, and the result was “Pride of Hand.”
(Image: “Pride of Hand” by Paul Johnston)
Once, I took a sculpture class at Pennsylvania State University called “Installments of Found Objects.” I drove around and picked up this huge piece of wood that was a tree trunk. I sought out a length of shipping rope and used that. I found a radiator grill from an old car. I assembled them all together to make a cohesive piece and said, “That’s it.”
One of my art professors looked at the installment and asked, “What is that?” He said I see a tree trunk linked by rope to this frame, but he asked me what it was. I replied, “This is my hearing aid.” [Pause, and response to interviewer].
Most of the reactions upon seeing the work were expressions of disgust and recognition of the invasive, uncomfortable, and painfulness of such a thing as a hearing aid.
The large and oddly shaped trunk represented an ear mold ; the frayed rope conveyed how we would chew on our body aid wires and the discomfort associated with that. [Responding to the interviewer]. Yes, that is right the grill represented the body aid that was strapped to our chests like a fence or a grate at the front of a car; hence, I used the car radiator as the body aid which “drove us.”
Most of the graduate students at Penn State found the installation to be eye opening and overwhelming.
Intertitle: Defining Deaf-Themed Expression
Subtitle: 1987 Deaf Artist of America (DAA) Conference
I went to the first DAA (Deaf Artists of America) conference having no idea what it would be like. I felt there was a flood of Deaf artists. Previously, I had only met a handful of Deaf artists. At this conference, there was something like 100 Deaf artists in attendance. That large of a number of Deaf artists was just unbelievable to me. Did we all share the same philosophy? NO. It’s like republicans and democrats: There was polarization. I don’t blame them because everything was so new. Some folks were struggling with their identities and their cultural affiliations while others had not even arrived to that point yet.
One evening, Ann Silver raised the question of “What is Deaf Art? Is De’VIA an art movement?” At that time, there were over 100 participants in a classroom, lining the walls in a circular formation. It was impossible to see everyone as we went around the circle. The distance across the room was even a problem. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any videotaped documentation of the conference. Once a year is not often enough for that type of gathering and those types of discussions. We need to have frequent meetings.
Intertitle: In 1989, a four-day workshop was held before Deaf Way I in Washington, D.C. to delve into the topic of Deaf-themed art.
Intertitle: A copy of the De’VIA Manifesto document with the text explanation as follows: The term Deaf View/Image Art (De’VIA) was coined, a manifesto was written, and a group mural created. The signatories were: Dr. Betty G. Miller, Dr. Paul Johnston, Dr. Deborah M. Sonnesnstrahl, Chuck Baird, Guy Wonder, Alex Wilhite, Sandi Inches-Vasnick, Nancy Creighton, and Lai-Yok Ho.
(Image: Videotape by Lai-Yok Ho of N. Creighton, B. Miller, D. Sonnenstrahl, G. Wonder, P. Johnston, A. Wilhite, S. Inches, and C. Baird in front of the mural)
Betty Miller and Nancy Creighton came up with the concept of an art manifesto similar to that from the Dada art movement. The idea was to make an announcement; to raise a flag making a claim that would stimulate recognition, put a stamp on Deaf art in order to undertake some sort of symbolic action.
So we wrote this manifesto. Keep in mind that we only had four days together to accomplish this. Everything was squeezed into that timeframe; the discussion of the concept, the fleshing out of the idea into written form, and the creation of mural painting. Truthfully, I cannot believe what we accomplished in just four days. We felt the urgency of seizing those four days, and did not want to leave empty handed.
I want to emphasize that this manifesto was not created as something rule binding or as an edict of some sort, but was simply the planting of “a seed.” It was the seed of a new idea that was planted and which would grow in unexpected ways. The manifesto is intended to be read broadly. I would describe it as being like a poem, where the meaning is not always immediately apparent. You must study and analyze it for yourself. I do not want to see it become edified, as it was not intended for that purpose. It was designed to introduce new ideas.
Deaf people have struggled with explaining what the Deaf experience and Deafhood mean. This is part of the process. It’s all a new phenomenon. I think that’s okay. We don’t have to be definitive. The basic concept was that De’VIA is works that relate to the Deaf experience and Deaf issues, including solutions to these issues, needs of the people and so forth. It is wide open.
I was talking with Valli (Clayton Valli–name sign V on side of chin) once and we discussed the concept of De’VIA. Valli wanted to borrow the term to apply it to his work in ASL poetry (to interviewer — “Yes, he did.”) I really welcomed that idea. I could see that Valli seemed to be frustrated and struggling with finding others who were interested in ASL poetry and Deaf art.
(Image of Clayton Valli — Deaf ASL Poet & Linguist)
This happened somewhere between 1987-90 (responding to interviewer) while Valli was a professor at Gallaudet in the Linguistics Department. He was studying for his PhD and we would have these chats. He was actually very lonely. Many people responded negatively to his work in ASL poetry. I hate to bring up the term, crab theory, but… Not many people at Gallaudet had embraced the concept of De’VIA yet. I talked with Betty G. Miller about that.
(Image: Betty G. Miller “Mother of De’VIA”)
I remember when I brought this up to Betty; her response was a knowing laugh. One must recall that it was Betty who had that first De’VIA Art show in 1972, and many Deaf professors responded with comments like “oh, goodness don’t show THAT. That’s our secret.” They wanted to keep it hidden. Some had the characters of an “Uncle Tom” if you will. They would be bowing down to the dominant culture while at the same time at their homes, their kitchen tables they would gather round to complain and vent. Later, they would turn around and just smile in the face of their oppressors and say “everything’s fine and dandy with us” and pretending everything is fine and acceptable. (responding to the interviewer) Yes! So I totally commend Betty for having the COURAGE to expose all these feelings on the canvas. Her expressions of the Deaf experience didn’t look any different from than other cultural groups that paint, write or create addressing their grievances. Negative artistic expressions appear in Shakespeare’s work, in response to the French Revolution, events in China, or World War II. If others can, why can’t we? There really is no difference in our needs for expression. Yet, Deaf people have been FORBIDDEN. Revelations of negativity within the Deaf community has been considered a taboo. It has been acceptable to address these feelings in secret, but never to fully bring them out of the closet and acknowledge their existence.
Valli and I had a sit down discussion about how ASL poetry could have greater recognition and how Valli’s works in ASL poetry could be better appreciated. In the same way, we worked with the manifesto to promote greater recognition of De’VIA works. As our discussions progressed, it became evident that ASL poetry, visual arts, and theatre were all areas of Deaf artistic expression that overlapped and were interwoven. There were commonalities in themes, symbols and messages. To bring these separate areas together would be powerful. We were making headway with this way of thinking, but before I knew it Valli was gone.
(Image: Clayton Valli (1951-2003))
(Image: Venn Diagram: Overlapping Circles of areas Deaf artistic expression labeled ASL literature, English literature, Deaf Cinema, Deaf theatre and Deaf Visual Art.)
Discussion of Selected Works
One of my works related to the Deaf experience I would choose for this discussion is pick “Deaf Education Pinball.” This artwork actually originated from a performance (short play / ASL poem) that E. Lynn Jacobwicz and I created together called “The Perception Performance.” This occurred during Deaf Way I Conference, and I personified a pinball during the performance. I enacted rolling around, being hit back and forth, and from all sides. This experience led to my increase understanding of a pinball machine which later led to creating this painting. That was the process. It evolved out of a performance and became an artwork.
(Image: “Deaf Education Pinball” by Paul Johnston)
From my own experiences and those of my friends, I have seen parents uproot their Deaf child from one educational setting and placing them in another and then another. This happens to the point where the child is left clueless as to if they will ever arrive at “the right place.” The pinball game was used as a symbol to indicate that the child never knows where s/her will end up. Hearing children who enter the public school system commonly know they will progress through a standard curriculum, learning to read and write, learning spoken English, graduating and going straight on to a university for a degree. For Deaf people as children, many of their parents have had a hard time deciding which educational method is best. They’ve needed to choose from many competing factions: the oral educational method or the signing method, advice from doctors or the advice of other parents, attitudes of Deaf community members or those Deaf people not involved in the community (Big D and small d). It’s a whirlwind of choices: follow the medical view or the cultural view (of Deaf people). Additionally, the artwork shows; many barriers and obstacles, many failures and frustrations with writing English, problems getting VR (Vocational Rehabilitation) support, and laws like 504 and those leading to mainstreaming. The artwork has many symbols in it. In this pinball game, we might bump into one thing and miss another. That’s how I look at it. It shows how Deaf people have been controlled by Hearing people due to colonialism.
(Detailed images of symbols in the work “Deaf Education Pinball”)
The artwork has many stories to tell. You could write one hundred stories based on the different imageries in the “Deaf Education Pinball” work.
As an artist, I try to create using a wide range of themes in my work including politics, sarcasm, positive messages, and abstract elements in order to educate people. The “Deaf Education Pinball” artwork is an example of a more political work whereas the “Poetic Hand” is a work of affirmation.
(Image: “Poetic Hand I” by Paul Johnston)
I came to make the illustration, “Poetic Hand,” as a result of my past experience delving into the teaching of sign language and creative signing arts. I saw the BEAUTY of sign language. It was also created in response to the stereotypical view of Hearing people who pity Deaf people because they can’t hear sound and the beauty of music. I wanted to rectify that misunderstanding and wondered about how I could best teach them. My decision was to try to express the beauty of sign in a way that shows sound is not necessary. In the same way that their ears bring them delight from listening to music so does our eyes delight us as receptors of visual music. I wanted to affirm and show how we cherish sign Language. We still encounter negative attitudes toward ASL such as that it is something to be embarrassed about, it is broken English, substandard language and ghetto or slum communication. Pfft to that.
In the past, I was involved with NTD (National Theatre of the Deaf) and worked on translating scripts into ASL. Ella Mae Lentz (name sign E at temple) and I worked together playing with signs. “Poetic Hand” was based on all of these experiences along with my years of teaching Visual Gestures, teaching Sign Language and performing arts.
(Image of “Poetic Hand I” by Paul Johnston)
I have always loved masks. Keep in mind that half of me is really a performer and the other half is a visual artist. My attraction to masks was stimulated by my theatrical background and having directed Commedia dell’Arte. I studied their mask making. Additionally, I love traveling to other countries in the world and became interested in the masks of the French Marquis. I studied mythology as well as the spiritual traditions of Native American and African cultures. This has led me to wonder about masks and representation within Deaf culture.
(Images of several masks by Paul Johnston)
I hope De’VIA, Deaf theatre, ASL poetry, and Deaf writing/literature will all be entwined to produce an innovative new media and new ideas. I would love to see this materialize in the future.