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Photo of the Galleria Trees on Stephen's Avenue. // Photo by Mariah Wilson.

Basic Income Calgary hosts art show:”Through the Lens of the Disabled, Deaf, and Mad”

By Jenn Gorrie, November 19 2020—

Basic Income Calgary, part of the Basic Income Canada network, debuted an online art exhibit in September entitled Basic Income Through the Lens of the Disabled, Deaf, and Mad, highlighting the work of ten artists with disabilities.

Colleen Huston the co-ordinator of the Disability Action Hall, which serves as a community development project of the Scope Society, has been part of Basic Income Calgary since it was first developed in 2017. 

“We have seen people even with CERB and the pandemic, being left out — there are challenges to people with disabilities who don’t have access to income, employment, education, health and environmental design,” said Huston.  

The art exhibit was intended to be an in-person event, but due to the pandemic it transitioned into an online gallery. Webinars were also held, focusing on topics around economic impact and recovery of jobs.

“Some of the greatest artists around the world have a disability, but it’s something that an artist is not always proud to talk about,” Huston said. “Politically we are reclaiming that, as people have been marginalized because of these labels, and it’s about reclaiming them.”

Huston mentioned that the online gallery became more accessible within the community, as no one had to worry about being able to enter the building or any potential barriers. Basic Income Calgary received an emergency assistance fund from Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA).

“It helped us really amplify the project, to give emergency assistance to people with disabilities in hopes of leveraging the professional profile of artist’s disabilities in Calgary,” said Huston.

Kathy Austin is a legally blind artist, who participated in the exhibit, and was affected by a decrease in income due to the pandemic. Her husband had lost his job, and due to the fact that she has worked as a freelance writer, publishing books, as well as showcasing her art around the world including Dubai and Australia, she does not qualify for AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped and income support) . 

Drawing was the first medium she was taught, but after losing her vision, the process was hindered and something she had to re-learn again. Austin shared the difficulty she experienced while trying to understand her disability and be part of a drawing class, she said, her professor was fairly new and did not know how to really help her.

“He wanted me to draw like everybody else, but I don’t see like everybody else and I didn’t understand my vision either,” she said. “I had just recently found out I was legally blind, so I was in turmoil essentially, and I tried doing what he wanted — at the end of it I felt like my drawing ability was gone.”

Austin said a friend of hers mentioned that if she was able to draw once before, it should be something she could get back. Austin practiced in a drawing diary for 18 months, and later joined a sketch club with the Glenbow Museum where she was pushed to learn more. 

Penny Gunderson also contributed to the exhibit, and initially was told about Basic Income Calgary by her son. She said it was a subject her son would often talk about, as she is currently receiving benefits from AISH as well as CPPD (Canadian Pension Plan Disability benefit). These two benefits have been helping Gunderson greatly, as she said she would not be able to afford basic necessities including her medical prescriptions otherwise.

“If you don’t have your very basic needs met, how are you going to expand and do things for the community, and do things for your growth when you are so concerned about where your next meal is coming from, or whether you’ll have a roof over top of your head,” she said. 

Within the last few years, Gunderson has been able to focus more on art, after overcoming several roadblocks preventing her from creating. She was also given the opportunity last year to be part of the RBC Visual Emerging Artists Project. Being part of the program allowed her to receive professional training and exposed her to different kinds of artists as well as gallery owners, and she is currently part of the Women’s Centre’s Artist in Residence program.

Gunderson has also participated with Studio C in a show called Invisible Illness Icons. Like many people, not all of her illnesses are visible.

“People tend to have a hard time understanding that, that if you don’t have a broken arm, or you aren’t blind, how are you disabled?” she said.

Pastels used to be one of Gunderson’s favourite art mediums to use, but after experiencing two floods — one in High River, and the other in Calgary — from this summer due to the hailstorm, she has changed the mediums she works with. She said she found a book one day about encaustic work, and taught herself how to use beeswax candles to form art.

When Gunderson lived in High River, she said she had a friend who owned a gallery, and the only art pieces that survived from the flood were encaustic pieces.

“I started thinking that I wanted something more permanent than pastel, and I had the opportunity to have some scholarships to attend different classes in encaustic and it developed into the interest I have now,” she said. “When we had that huge hail storm, I was living in a basement suite, and I was flooded 4 feet up, a lot of my paintings were stored in cardboard boxes on the floor, and I was able to rescue all the large ones, I had to treat them with bleach to stop mold, and had to seal them with acrylic paint so whatever mold spores were left wouldn’t get any air to multiply.

“The fronts and sides that were encaustic were not affected at all, they just needed to be washed, so that reinforced my understanding that encaustic is very long lasting and strong.”

The online exhibit is still available to view, and artwork from the artists interviewed can be found on the website

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