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Deaf Artists in American History

Updated on December 6, 2011

The first deaf artists in America back during the 1760s through the early 1800s were usually painting portraits of American settlers in an attempt to be recognized in the new world. They usually painted in the style of English artists since there wasn’t yet an American art style. There weren’t any art museums or art schools at the time so they were pretty much self-taught and over time developed their own unique style of Folk art, which doesn’t follow the “fine art” tradition of the English. Deaf artists from that time, including William Mercer, the first known Deaf American artist, usually painted portraits or scenes of the times including Civil War scenes and Native American and “New West” way of life.

These artists usually tried to make a living painting portraits for wealthier people and some were travelers going from town to town to paint portraits. Since there was no “Deaf Culture” back then they didn’t paint artworks much different from hearing artists at the time. Many of the earlier deaf artists never even knew another deaf person. The American colonial artists in the book were lucky enough to be born into families who could afford education. Some of the artists were the first students of schools for deaf children but there was still no strong deaf community.

As America was developing it was becoming more sophisticated and more schools for the deaf were being established. Artists began to study art abroad in France and Europe and their art began to reflect the European style at the time, most notably the style known as Romanticism. John Carlin (1813-1891) was the first Deaf American artist to study abroad. His art was influenced by European artists which was evident in his paintings and drawings which include scenes of sailors, portraits of children and even a charcoal drawing of famous deaf educator Laurent Clerc.

The first Deaf photographer was Theophilus Hope D’Estrella in the mid to late 1800s not too long after photography was invented. Many more Deaf photographers followed. As the art styles began to grow and new styles emerged, Deaf American artists grew with it. There were many “modern artists” who were deaf and exhibited many styles that were popular during the early and mid-20th century, including Cubism, Dada, Art Deco, and Surrealism and eventually Abstract and Expressionist art. The deaf artists would take these styles and developed them into their own styles like the hearing artists did.

Examples of De'VIA

Art No. 2 by Chuck Baird The sign for "ART" is portrayed with art supplies...and magic!
Art No. 2 by Chuck Baird The sign for "ART" is portrayed with art supplies...and magic! | Source
Mechanical Ear by Chuck Baird This shows the Deaf Culture's aversion to hearing aids and cochlear implants
Mechanical Ear by Chuck Baird This shows the Deaf Culture's aversion to hearing aids and cochlear implants | Source
Ameslan Prohibited by Betty G. Miller a portrayal of American Sign Language oppression
Ameslan Prohibited by Betty G. Miller a portrayal of American Sign Language oppression

As more and more schools for the deaf and other Deaf institutions were being established, many Deaf communities would form and a Deaf culture began to emerge. The artists within these communities began to make artwork reflective of their lifestyle and their perspective of their surroundings.

In 1989, shortly the International Festival and conference on the Language, Culture, and History of Deaf People, better known as The Deaf Way, an artist named Betty G. Miller ushered in a new Deaf Art movement which defined in a written and visual manifesto which became known as the De’VIA movement. De’VIA, which is short for Deaf View Image Art, isn’t a term for deaf artists but for deaf art. As stated in its manifesto, De’VIA represents Deaf artists and perceptions based on their Deaf experiences. As stated in it's manifesto "It uses formal art elements with the intention of expressing innate cultural or physical Deaf experience. These experiences may include Deaf metaphors, Deaf perspectives, and Deaf insight in relationship with the environment (both the natural world and Deaf cultural environment), spiritual and everyday life."

Deaf art now had its own identity to go along with the Deaf culture. Many Deaf artists began documenting their life experiences and their perspectives as artworks as well as their ideas and their feelings. Some Deaf artworks reflected the cultures feeling of oppression. Betty G. Miller created an impactful drawing of two hands in shackles with the fingers broken off like porcelain. Other artists made paintings depicting everyday life for Deaf people in the Deaf community, and other artworks represented the issues and problems faced by Deaf people in the hearing world.

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