'I AM': An exhibition of and by artists with developmental disabilities

'I AM': An exhibition of and by artists with developmental disabilities

Published April 9th, 2024 by Benjamin Merritt

Two shows at the downtown courthouse tell the history of civil rights for disabled people and share the joy of artwork to express the breadth of human experience


On view at the Diana E Murphy United States Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis are the dual exhibitions An Unfinished Journey: Civil Rights for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Role of the Federal Courts and I AM, a juried art exhibition featuring work by Minnesotan artists with developmental disabilities. The first exhibition, An Unfinished Journey, is on view in the lobby of the courthouse as multiple large poster boards that describe the long, difficult history in Minnesota of the push for the civil rights of people with disabilities. The second exhibition, which I will focus on here, is located past security, a line of paintings and drawings by artists with developmental disabilities. This exhibition was created as a joint project between the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Minnesota Disability Bar Association, and MSS.

The work was selected by local artists and community members who also live with disabilities, in conjunction with three federal judges: Judge Jerry Blackwell, Judge Jeffrey Bryan, and Judge John Tunheim. The featured artists are Sarah Armstrong, Bill Crane, Abigail K. Cushing, Danielle Day, Daryl Hoffman, Sidney James, Cyrus M, Paul Macharia, Jesse Mitchell, Lina Mwassa, Kandis O., Ocean C. Poet, Dorinda Tveit, JobyLynn Sassily-James, Mirna Satouf, Becca Seevers, & Josh Selvig. 


Top: An Unfinished Journey. Photo courtesy of Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse. Bottom: I AM. Photo by Stan Waldhauser, courtesy of Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse


When I attended the opening event, I first walked through the historical and educational display about the civil rights for people with disabilities. The tone was somber, as the subject matter is difficult and the realities of past and present are difficult to swallow — however, the information is important to keep in mind to push us toward a better, more caring future. Contrasting this, the mood around the art was full of joy, excitement, and celebration. All of the work was for sale, and within the first hour, a large chunk of the work had sold. Poets with disabilities read some of their work for all in attendance to hear, and it was a joy to witness a large community all celebrate the art and creativity present in the room. Alex Junge read some of his work — you can read an essay he wrote here and listen to one of his poems here. His writing reflects his love of botany and the nuances of plant life systems here in Minnesota. He also works often with Cow Tipping Press, a press doing important work to get the writings of people with disabilities out into the world.

One of the artists featured, Dorinda Tveit, sold her painting within the first twenty minutes of the exhibition being open and took her photo with the buyer. Her work, titled Breaking Through is an acrylic painting with collage on wood. It features a large border and a low-relief interior with a figure swimming upward in water, leaving behind broken pieces of wood. The figure is in shadow, outlined and backlit with light blue water surrounding them. “I have several paintings of being in water," says Tveit. "The ramifications of my disability have often interrupted my life.  These interruptions lead me through different seasons.  Not all of these seasons are places I want to travel through but they are the reality.  My artwork reflects my journey.  Who I am as a person has been a theme in my art work.  Through self portraits and using the symbol of water, I have explored my inner self.”


Top: Dorinda Tveit with her work. Bottom: Bill Crane with his work. Photos by Stan Waldhauser, courtesy of Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse.


Another piece that I was drawn to is Untitled by artist Bill Crane. This piece is mixed media on textile, and features an array of drawings, textures, and colors overlaid on a speckled background. The drawings in the piece hit the sweet spot between representational and abstract — I could be looking at a face, or it could be a fruit, or a hand. The piece is immediate in its impression, but lasts by providing a near endless array of images and textures to look at. The work is whimsical, and provokes a feeling of curiosity. Abstraction also plays a role in many other pieces in the exhibition, like in the work of Becca Seevers, whose piece features abstract colorfields with contrasting drawn textures laid over. 

Paul Macharia is a part of Fresh Eye Arts, and has a large painting of two elephants in the exhibition. He has had quite a bit of attention recently, like this interview from January. His work consists of naturalist representations of animals, beautifully and patiently painted. His work is influenced by his childhood and personal history, as the title of the exhibition suggests, is an affirmation of identity. 

I AM, the title of the exhibition, is very short but adequately invokes an important element of autonomy and identity. The work provides an insight into the personal expression of artists with disabilities, chosen also by artists with disabilities. In the medical realm, and even habilitation programs and other programs or nonprofits geared towards serving those with disabilities, autonomy can be stripped away from individuals because of harmful societal biases against those with disabilities. This exhibition is a reminder about the importance of advocating for autonomy and care for those in our community, and reminds us of the history. The work illustrates how personal interests and identities help build community, in a search for a better future. I hope that this exhibition theme continues and expands, providing more opportunities for growth and support for the artists involved. ◼︎ 


Artist Becca Seevers with her artwork. Photo by Stan Waldhauser, courtesy of Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse.

An Unfinished Journey and I AM are on view at the Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse (300 S. 4th Street, Minneapolis) through May 10, before moving to the Warren E. Burger Federal Building (316 North Robert Street, Suite 100, St. Paul) May 20 – July 12.

Public viewing hours are 8am- 4:30pm, Monday - Friday. The accessible entrance is on 3rd Ave S, on the northwest side of the courthouse. 

Banner image by Stan Waldhauser, courtesy of Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. 

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