How you ever gone to a medical devices store and been struck by just how grim, grey and clinical all the products look?
That was how artist A. Laura Brody felt when her partner had a stroke and she was thrown into the world of assisted mobility.
Her belief that dependency shouldn’t mean loss of beauty has lead to ‘Opulent Mobility,’ an exhibition of art, designs and inventions dealing with, and reflecting on, disability and mobility, opening September 9 at CSUN’s West Gallery.
The exhibition features work from 19 artists, including Brody’s steampunked walker, Elaine Bereza and Claudia Barreto’s feathered ‘Peacane’ and Baxx Vlada Pantelic’s metamorphosing wheelchair Butter Chair/Wheel Fly.
Laura Brody came to KCRW to tell us more about how it’s possible to be infirm and opulent at the same time. You can hear the interview above.
DnA: How did you get interested in this topic?
Laura Brody: This is something I’ve been interested in for a while, because I had looked at assisted technology and thought the devices are great and they’re hideous.
DnA: When you say assisted technology, what do you mean?
LB: I mean wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, prosthetic limbs, any of the things that you use to help yourself out moving around with a disability or say after you’ve had a stroke. There’s so many different devices out there, there’s kind of a wealth of them, but there’s not a wealth of design.They’re really, really hideous. Most of them. They function, and that’s it.
DnA: So that feeling of being a second class citizen because you’re dependent on an assisted device is made worse because they are ugly.
LB: Yes, and part of that of course is about insurance and about medical licensing but part of it’s the adult version of putting your hands over your ears and sing la la la this will never happen to me. I don’t want to think about it, so it kind of gets pushed to the side.
DnA: So what are you showing in your exhibition?
LB: My own work is a lot about what I call pimping out wheelchairs and walkers, so I really dress them up. The walker for example has cow horns on the front a G.P.S. unit, a compass and a parasol, definitely Victorian inspired with just a little touch of modern.
DnA: And a little touch of Southeast Asian?
LB: Yes, just a touch. It was nice because you really did have in the Victorian era some of these devices, some beautiful wheelchairs, and we’ve gone away from it by getting more functional. I’ve been interested in this work for a while, but I put the show up so I could find other people to work with and other people who might be thinking along these lines, so the other works are everything from an adapted Sistine Chapel ceiling with crutches in a wheelchair thrown in, or somebody dolling up a wheelchair that’s actually a cart and treating it like a circus pony. There’s one that’s an Eames chair your that’s being turned into wheelchair with toy horses. It’s fabulous.
DnA: So this is an artistic take on assisted mobility, this is not the leading edge of product design as it relates to assisted mobility? This is more poetic.
LB: Exactly, but you start with the poetry and then you can start to build it. This is how you get the ideas put forth. I figured that starting to curate shows I would find more people that I could work with, and that was part of the goal, specifically people who have more skill in medical licensing. But what I have been finding from putting on the show is really has been touching people’s imaginations, and there’s work from all over– from the U.K. from Taiwan from Australia–beautiful, beautiful pieces and really interesting ones.
DnA: So this is primarily people working in the visual arts, and you gave them the problem of thinking about assisted mobility in a different and fresh way?
LB: It can be anything from the prosthetics and the assisted devices to how you feel about them, and so some people are putting in work that’s about that and some people are putting in work that’s really a little bit more whimsical. There’s a Pogo crutch, which is hilarious.
DnA: For all of us aging punks!
LB: Which would be a very bad idea, a very bad idea, but really fun. Painted safety yellow of course, you know why wouldn’t it be? I think it struck a lot of people’s imaginations, and it’s good to get the conversation started, because I don’t think you can get that kind of design change in the real world without having something to look at and dream about.
DnA: And what got you dreaming about this?
LB: I got thinking about it because a former partner of mine had a stroke, and I got really really interested in all of these assisted devices that help people out but were horrible to look at. They were almost insultingly ugly. So then I started thinking about it a little bit more and made my first piece for a friend of mine. He has a leftover wheelchair that he wasn’t using, and I dolled it up. I also did it badly. I made it look nice, but the upholstery was too thick he was almost shoved out. I didn’t understand enough about the balance he needed as a quadriplegic. I know how much I don’t know as I get through this process. I’m also learning how few places are accessible–galleries, for example. There’s so few places to show the work because you can’t get the wheelchair into, so that opened up a big can of worms.
DnA: So this is not your day job?
LB: I do have a day job, I make things like chicken costumes for Disney T.V. It’s ridiculous.
DnA: But from that comes a colorful imagination, and you apply that to retrofitting existing assisted mobility devices.
LB: Absolutely. I think that sometimes sense of humor really helps people with this. Why aren’t they fun, right? Why wouldn’t you want to make these fabulous at every part of your life?
DnA: When you look back at say classic paintings, you’ll always see gentlemen with their rather beautiful walking sticks. A walking stick was so much part of fashion.
LB: It was! This is actually really old technology. I mean the Romans were certainly pimping out their carriages and being around on their decorative litters by all their servants. There’s been help that’s been fabulous before; there’s no reason why we can’t have it again.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. ‘Opulent Mobility’ runs September 9-19 at California State University, Northridge’s West Gallery.