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Focusing on Artists' Abilities, Not Disabilities

May 08, 1987|SUSAN HEEGER

Karen Wheeler has made an art out of proving people wrong.

Never mind those who pat her on the head and shout at her as if she's deaf. Or those who eye her artwork, then her small, constricted hands and want to know if she paints by numbers. But her true inspiration, she said, were the art teachers who saw her wheelchair and said "you can't" before they had given her a chance.

"That did it!" a gleeful Wheeler said recently. "I didn't just graduate, I got my master's ."

On Saturday, the 31-year-old Fullerton painter, afflicted since birth with a debilitating muscular condition, will take her art to the Mercantile Building in Santa Ana for the last weekend of the national festival, Imagination Celebration.

It is a rare chance, Wheeler said, to set an example for disabled children who visit "Imaginarium," the festival's multimedia program that allows young people to create, as well as observe.

"They'll see me up there," she said, "being recognized for my ability, not my disability. And they'll see that if you really want something, you can get it. No one can ever hold you back."

Sponsored by the Kennedy Center in Washington and now in its second year in Orange County, the Imagination Celebration festival has gathered artists with diverse backgrounds and talents to highlight the value of art in education and in communities.

Wheeler will be the first of five physically disabled artists to demonstrate her painting skills in the "Imaginarium," which begins at 10 a.m.

A little later, children will be invited to help Wheeler "illustrate" desert poems of Mitsuye Yamada, who will read them aloud. Next, poet and painter will take their audience--crayons in hand--on an imaginary odyssey through the desert, discussing and drawing what they imagine.

Wheeler, coordinator of the Imaginarium program for disabled artists and secretary to its chairman, Hal Pastorius, said she regards "Imaginarium" as an opportunity to show that the disabled have been "seriously underestimated" by the public. The sight of disabled artists at work may help to counteract stereotypes of those in wheelchairs as helpless, she said.

Her creative partnership with Yamada will emphasize that "while everyone is different, we can work together," she said. "Mitsu's from Japan, and I'm not. I'm in a wheelchair, and she's not. And we both have something to contribute."

Phyllis Berenbeim, a festival co-chairman and coordinator of the Arts for the Handicapped Program for the Orange County Department of Education, said having role models is crucial for disabled children. "Watching someone like Karen tells those children, 'I can.' It shows them that through their talents, they, too, can play an active part in mainstream life."

Wheeler said she had no such model to emulate as a child, although her mother did encourage her to draw. "I needed something to keep me busy," she explained, attributing her active imagination, in part, to her physical limitations.

Scholastically, however, Wheeler said she was hobbled by her disability. She looks back darkly on "eight wasted years" at a now-defunct Santa Ana school for the handicapped, which she said landed her in college with fourth-grade skills.

But with hard work, first at Santa Ana College and then at Cal State Fullerton, Wheeler said she fought her own shortcomings as well as "teachers who didn't want me in their class."

The majority, she said, were supportive. But she blames ignorance for the skepticism of a few. "I was the first," she said. "For two years, mine was the only wheelchair in the art department. I had to break them all in."

Along the way, Wheeler said, "I got stronger. Whenever someone said, 'You can't,' I wanted to win even more." In 1981, came the payoff: Her master's degree in art from Cal State Fullerton.

Since then, Wheeler said, there have been many changes in the way the public views handicapped people, something the media--especially television--is responsible for. "They're using real disabled actors to play strong, not decrepit, characters," she said.

Special access ramps and dial-a-ride services that have increased the mobility--and thus the visibility--of the disabled also have helped. "The more we are out," she said, "the less we'll be seen as oddities."

To foster understanding of disabled people, Wheeler welcomes questions about herself and expects several on Saturday. "Kids wonder how I brush my teeth," she joked.

Most children have little contact with the handicapped, Wheeler said. "When they do, their parents say, 'Don't stare.' That's it; the kids learn nothing."

It would be nice, too, Wheeler said, if the weekend crowds "look at the art, not the artist, and see that talent--not physical condition--is the issue."

To encourage that, Wheeler and other disabled artists--including Erika Visenio, Cathie Hanley, Suzanne Short and Cynthia Soto--will exhibit their works alongside those of nondisabled artists in the Mercantile Building.

Wheeler's finely detailed watercolors have been shown at such places as the Brea Gallery, at UC Irvine and the prestigious Society of Illustrators in Los Angeles.

Such public acknowledgement is precious to the feisty Wheeler, who said her immobility and small size have, at times, prompted people to treat her more as a child than an artist.

"They tend to pat and tickle me--and I used to take it," Wheeler said. "Now I say, 'Do you value your feet? This wheelchair weighs 200 pounds.' "

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