Janet Morrow


Photo Courtesy of Eric Bouwens.

Description: A line of models parade down a ramp/catwalk towards the viewer. The first two are men using wheelchairs. Most are wearing dark colored clothing, but the red of one man's jacket and the bright pink of a woman's hair ornament stand out. Dramatic stage lighting makes a grid pattern of shadows on the floor.

A few months ago, I heard about an intriguing art event, ELEVATE: A DisArt Fashion Show, which took place this year on September 24 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The show is produced by DisArt, an organization that strives to connect people through art and celebrate and honor disability as a natural human experience, in collaboration with SITE:LAB, which is known for completing award-winning, site-specific art projects.

In goals listed for the show, I learned that it sought to change:

  • Perceptions about what the human body looks like and how it behaves;
  •  The role of clothing in enslaving or liberating both the bodies and ideas of the body;
  •  The challenge of the disabled body to ideas of wholeness, well-being, and beauty.

I decided to go and experience the fashion show for myself--and to bring this to a personal level, I am an artist with bilateral cochlear implants and have also survived double mastectomies for breast cancer with tram flap reconstruction. My body is a rocky landscape of scars, machine parts, and not necessarily human-looking contours. I also teach a Disability Studies course on Prosthetics and Cyborgism--whisper to me of post-humanism and alternative embodiments, and I am yours.

But, add to all this excitement the fact that Grand Rapids is home to Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse, a work I have yearned to see for years. It will be staged on HYBRID STRUCTURES, an architectural intervention by Alois Kronschlager in collaboration with Paul Amenta and Ted Lott, which, among other things, includes about 300 linear feet of ramps connecting several buildings. THREE HUNDRED LINEAR FEET OF RAMPS, PEOPLE! 

La Grande Vitesse, Alexander Calder, painted steel, 1969. Photographed during ArtPrize 2016.

Description: A monumental steel sculpture consisting of enormous flat shapes in biomorphic shapes welded together and painted red-orange.  There are tall buildings and trees in the background, with blue tents and ArtPrize workers wearing green t-shirts in the foreground.

I rounded up a traveling companion, my artsy niece Megan Greene, cashed in a bunch of AAdvantage miles, and the game was afoot.

DFW Airport – Megan and I hit the road. 

Description: A middle-aged white woman with red hair and glasses and a young blonde white woman wearing a black top sit smiling expectantly in an airport departure lounge.

The fashion show was part of ArtPrize, a ginormous international art competition that has taken over the downtown area of Grand Rapids for a period of time every fall since 2009. According to show literature, ArtPrize has had the highest attendance of any public art event on the planet for the last two years! 

The excitement was indeed, palpable; from the time we landed at the Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, ArtPrize was literally everywhere. There were banners, flyers, posters, hand-written signs. Everyone we encountered, from taxi drivers to hotel clerks to friendly people on the street, asked us if we were there for ArtPrize. Everyone also had a particular venue or piece of work they insisted we must see. But while their enthusiasm was contagious, Megan and I soon realized that we wouldn't make much of a dent in the behemoth that is ArtPrize in our quick weekend trip. But we could try!



On Saturday morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out. The first stop was La Grand Vitesse herself in the plaza in front of City Hall, a very satisfying end to my years-long quest. We also realized that the ArtPrize logo is actually La Grand Vitesse turned on its side! 

This photo to the right is of me, fulfilling a dream – standing in front of La Grande Vitesse.

Description: A white woman with red hair wearing beige and brown clothing and glasses stands in front of a large red-orange non-objective sculpture.

Another lovely surprise was DeWitt Godfrey’s gorgeous steel sculpture, Louis, on display in the same plaza. It’s an imposing structure, but I found it most beautiful from the inside, looking out. It probably was not overtly intended to be about disability or embodiment, but to me it evokes thoughts of being “in my skin,” of attempting to see things from another’s perspective.

Louis, DeWitt Godfrey, weathering steel and bolts, 2016.

Description: View of the sky and top of a building, looking out through weathered steel cylinders.

The downtown area was literally one big art gallery. Every open patch of pavement or grass served as a pedestal. The shops, restaurants, and businesses were filled with art. It was incredibly energizing to be surrounded by people of all ages, alight with excitement about art! There were far too many excellent pieces to share even a fraction of them here, but a couple of notables we passed on the street were Ella's Wings by Marie Greve and Flush IBD -- Let's Find a Cure for Crohn's & Colitis by Rebecca Takacs-Britz.

We wanted to check out the venue for ELEVATE in daylight, so we started making our way to 333 Rumsey Street SW. SITE:LAB’s Rumsey Street Property, on loan from Habitat for Humanity until 2017, consists of a number of unoccupied buildings, including a former Catholic church and rectory, a body shop, and several old homes. Some of the buildings still looked relatively intact, while many have been partially deconstructed or transformed into works of art.

We saw the formidable ramps right away. They rose, they swooped, they soared – as tall as 25 feet in some places. At the same time, there was a weighty feeling of sturdy permanence to them. The buildings they connected were old, decayed, seemingly ready to fall down in a strong wind, but the ramps threaded through them like a strong spine supporting the whole.

View of the ramps of HYBRID STRUCTURES during rehearsal of ELEVATE.

Description: We see a complicated arrangement of sturdy wood and metal ramps connecting two or more buildings. The front part of the structure is very high – 25 feet in the air.  This photo was taken during rehearsal and there are a number of workers in the picture, setting things up and taking part in the rehearsal.

Megan and I investigated the buildings and found that many showcase other works of art. One of our favorites was Token Totems, by Dan Woerner and Kate Barnet. It consists of four huge plastic inflated sculptures of North American animal busts, emerging from one of the unoccupied houses in the Rumsey Street Property. In their statement, Woerner and Barnet write, “The sculptures are part trophy, part Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, part compass rose and part oracle who stand as suggestions of something long gone and silent witnesses to current transformation, decimation and inevitable rebirth.”

Zimoun's installation piece, 250 prepared ac-motors, 325 kg roof laths, 1.0 km rope, consisted of hundreds of wooden roof laths suspended from a wooden structure mounted to the ceiling. There were motors that caused the laths to lift a few inches, then pound repeatedly against the floor, resulting in a constant clattering noise. The sound reminded me of hundreds of canes tapping. The room was awash in the vibrations created by the physical striking of the laths, as well as the resulting sound. I went back three times to experience it again. This was one time that I think my weird, hybrid/electronic perception of sound was richer than the perception of plain, vanilla humans!

250 prepared ac-motors, 325kg roof laths, 1.0km rope, Zimoun, 2015.

Description: Hundreds of wooden roof laths are suspended from a wooden structure mounted to the ceiling.

Redux: Stripes for St. Joseph (2016), Nick Kline and Amy Goldrich, parts of old pews, lights, wall drawings and portraits of local “leaders without titles,” 2016.

Description: We see the interior of an old white frame building. Pieces of disassembled church pews are mounted on the far wall. Six large illuminated church light fixtures sit on the floor. There are some framed drawings and portraits hanging on the walls.

Redux: Stripes for St. Joseph (2016) is one part of a two-piece installation created by Nick Kline and Amy Goldrich. The work uses recovered materials from the former St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church. It reflects the community’s uncertainty about changes coming as the result of impending development. Although the artists’ intent was to comment upon a specific situation in their community and not necessarily related to disability, I have chosen to include the work here because I find that the church represents a place of uncertainty for many people with disabilities. Rather than being a place of comfort and acceptance, it often merely highlights our difference -- whether due to lingering traditional beliefs that disability is punishment for sin or simple inaccessibility, resulting in isolation from the community of believers.

So, after a day rich in art and reflection, 8:00 p.m. had arrived and it was time for ELEVATE. Wanting to know more about the show beforehand, I had emailed Christopher Smit, Executive Director of DisArt a few weeks prior. The organization had already conducted a DisArt Festival in April of this year, which included a wildly successful fashion show that inspired them to go even bigger and better with ELEVATE for ArtPrize 2016. I asked Christopher about the intent of the fashion in this show and his reply was:

 We have a big handful of designs and clothing… Some of them are specifically designed for PWD (wheelchair users, amputees, etc.), some are fantastic designs being adapted to disabled bodies for the show. All of them are aesthetically pleasing, most of them show functionality, but some are just there to look fabulous! 

Under the direction of DisArt Fashion Lead, Robert Andy Coombs, who is producer for the fashion shows, the event took place at the front porch of one of the houses united by HYBRID STRUCTURES. The porch acted as a stage for the emcees of the show, Rachael Ruiz, host and reporter on eightWest, and Kevin Matthews, radio personality and writer--who were accompanied by ASL Interpreter, Misti Ryefield, and Spanish Interpreter, Leandro Robles. Colorful animated projections painted the facades of the houses, multiple monitors showed projections of the action on stage, along with real-time captions, and lively background music signaled it was time to party!

Stage area of ELEVATE.

Description: We see the front of a two-story frame house. Four people are seated on the front porch (with two more standing in the open doorway behind them), although we can’t make out much detail at this distance. It is twilight and a projected complex purple design covers the front of the house. A crowd of people are sitting and standing in the foreground, preparing to watch the fashion show.

First model out, Holly, wearing an outfit from Rebirth Garments.

Description: A figure with blue hair poses on an elevated ramp wearing brightly colored form-fitting garments.

After some introductory remarks, the emcees introduced the first model, Holly, and we were off!  We quickly found that, despite the undeniable coolness quotient of the elevated ramps, the distance and the angle of view made it difficult to see much detail of the models and their clothing. Fortunately, close-up views were projected on several large monitors and on the front of the building, where the emcees were seated.

Here’s a projected view of model, Allie, wearing clothing from the Rock, Paper, Scissors Boutique of Grand Rapids.

Description: An image is projected on the front of a house of a female model wearing dark pants and a black lace cardigan over a printed top. The model is wearing a puffy pink and purple ornament in her hair.


The show featured 18 models, all people with disabilities. I had asked Christopher how the models felt about foregrounding their own disabilities in this way, inviting the stare a la Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Staring: How We Look, Oxford University Press, 2009). Christopher told me that the models would meet at least a couple of times before the show to talk about "this idea of being looked at as a moment of spectacle violation (i.e., making the choice to be a spectacle in the name of pride) rather than gawking.” 

It seemed to me that the audience was enthusiastic to the point of being collaborators in the spectacle. In fact, this felt less like spectacle and more like family. There were many people with visible disabilities in the crowd, and I have to assume that there were even more with invisible disabilities. Even the able-bodied people at this event seemed “involved” – friends, family, caregivers, supporters.

The fashions came from a number of different sources. Some of the ones I found most interesting were:

  • Rebirth Garments -- They produce gender non-conforming wearables and accessories for people on the full spectrum of gender, size, and ability.
  • Open Style Lab -- Uses a 10-week research program to team designers, engineers, and occupational therapists to create functional yet stylish wearable solutions with and for people with disabilities.
  • Custom designs by Liz Hilton, a local Grand Rapids designer, and Knitit, a 3D knitting studio -- These garments are among the most elegant and big favorites with the crowd, featuring simple lines and a sophisticated black-and-white color palette.
  • Designer Guadalupe Quero, a Mexico City based designer -- Her evening wear was stunning. In her mission statement, she writes: “I design each garment to reflect the tenacity and strength and beauty of the model it is designed for, while at the same time preserving an authentic connection to their roots."

But although the clothing was inventive and exciting, the models were the centerpiece of the event. They were beautiful, hot, funny, endearing, confident. Gorgeously clothed and coiffed, they strutted, spun, slinked, rattled, and rolled their way up and down the elaborate ramp system. They donned wheelchairs and accessibility devices as accessories--and the technology was as fascinating as the designs. I was struck for the first time by the unique and distinctive beauty of non-normative gaits. (DisArt has posted profiles online about each of the models: http://disartfestival.org/elevate-profiles.)

The last models of the show were Bob and Magdalene. Bob was using a motorized wheelchair and Magdalene was riding in his lap. She was wearing a design by New York-based designer, Amanda Phelan, featuring a geometric printed knit white top, reminiscent of a Mondrian, with a pop of yellow color, black pants, tall blue suede boots, and a particulate mask printed in a pattern that complemented her outfit. They looked sexy and carefree as heck.

Photo Courtesy of Eric Bouwens. Last models of the show, Magdalene and Bob.

Description: A woman wearing a white knit top with a pop of yellow color, black slacks and blue boots sits in the lap of a man wearing a cobalt blue suit over a black shirt who is using a wheelchair. The woman has red and green ribbons in her upswept hair and is wearing a particulate mask that compliments her outfit.

The show ends with a projected image of Magdalene and Bob.

Description: View of models Magdalene and Bob as it is projected next to the Emcees' area. A blue and green pattern of light covers the front of the house.

The emcees closed out the show and invited everyone to stay for a street party. Megan and I had a morning flight, so we reluctantly left the festivities behind to make our way back to the hotel. As we left the Rumsey Street property, we turned to take one last look back and saw the view pictured below, the whole place glowing like a big gem… a perfect end to a perfect night!

Last look back at the street party in full swing.

Description: It is night and we look past an old building with light spilling out through gaps between the boards and holes in the walls. In the background are bright pink, purple and white lights from a street party.

On the subject of accessibility, I don’t think I have ever seen a more concerted effort to try and make every aspect of an event as accessible as possible for everyone. There were a few little bobbles; the ASL interpreter needed a small spotlight, the captioning on the monitors was yellow and sometimes blended into the background, signage for the induction loop area would have been helpful--but these are quibbles. Clearly, the organizers are a smart, kind, and infinitely resourceful group of people; they are learning as they go, making each event better and more accessible than the last. I'm so excited to see what they will do next.