Portraiture, Disability, and Identity: Explorations with Mellon Creative Resident Riva Lehrer

"At 54," a self-portrait by Riva Lehrer. 2013.

“At 54,” a self-portrait by Riva Lehrer. 2013.

Mellon Creative Resident Riva Lehrer is returning to Haverford this Thursday to deliver her lecture, “Jarred: Self-Portrait in Formaldehyde”, inspired by an encounter with a fetal specimen at the mutter museum. Riva has exhibited her work in museums and galleries across the country, and has also curated numerous exhibitions. Her work focuses on issues of physical identity and the socially challenged body.

Riva’s visit is a continuation of her work with Professor Kristin Lindgren’s course “Disability, Identity, Culture,” part of the 360° Program, “Identity Matters.” The cluster of three courses focuses on representations of illness and disability in the arts. Over fall break, Riva Lehrer and students in the 360 spent five days at Camphill Village, an intentional community in Kimberton, PA that includes adults with developmental disabilities. During the trip, students created textual and visual portraits of Camphill residents.

I spoke with student Sula Malina, BMC ‘17, about the class’ trip to Camphill Village and Riva Lehrer’s residency.

Can you tell me a little bit about the structure of the Camphill Village visit?

We visited Camphill for five days, from a Sunday to a Thursday, so we could get a glimpse of the most active days of the week for the villagers. Each of us were paired with a villager who had volunteered to take part in the experience, and we were meant to follow them around, either shadowing or helping out, with their various activities throughout the day. We stayed at a nearby camp, ate our breakfast there each morning, and then drove over to Camphill.

We also worked with our villagers and Riva on drawing, and followed them to their second work assignment of the day. We usually went back to our campsite for dinner, and then took about an hour to an hour and a half during which we reflected on our day and our relationships with our villagers.

"Lynn Manning: Comet," by Riva Lehrer. 2007.

“Lynn Manning: Comet,” by Riva Lehrer. 2007.

How did you go about creating the visual and textual portraits of the residents of Camphill?

Before we took our trip, Riva came to visit our classes several times. We worked on a number of different projects—we drew our younger bodies, we did writing exercises, and we drew our “fantastical bodies” (if our bodies could represent literally all of the strengths we wished to have). We worked outside of class on realistic self-portraits, and the first night there, Riva gave us a crash course on anatomy and facial structure so we could revise the self-portraits.

We had discussed how we were going to create portraits of the Camphill residents, and had decided that we wanted to represent the many interesting and amazing facets of our partners—either literally or symbolically. When we first got together with our partners in the drawing space, we asked each other questions to get to know each other and each other’s interests better. We then discussed with Riva how we could put all of their many interesting sides into a portrait, cohesively. From then on, we worked each day on developing those ideas—first sketching lightly, then defining our lines, and finally, adding color. While we worked on this, our partners worked on portraits of us and of anything else they wished to draw. When we were finished with our stay at Camphill, we held a sharing circle with the 360 students and our partners, and explained each piece of art we had created.

What was particularly exciting or challenging for you?

I learned a great deal from visiting Camphill, and from working with Riva. As far as drawing goes, I am not much a visual artist, and I’ve never been very interested in learning. However, I found myself dramatically improve as I went from the first draft of my self-portrait to my more guided, accurate draft. Frankly, it was inspirational. I had never realized I could improve at anything that much in such a short period of time, and that was certainly thanks to Riva’s teaching. After that, I was incredibly excited to work on drawing each day, especially with our new villager friends.

"Mom," a self-portrait by Riva Lehrer. 1997.

“Mom,” a self-portrait by Riva Lehrer. 1997.

The Camphill visit itself was emotional and complicated. All of us went into the trip needing a real break from a very emotional and rigorous set of classes, and having already spent a little too much time together. So spending each night in the same cabin put even more strain on that relationship. Somehow, though, we ended up closer than ever. I think this was due, in part, to the fact that we all changed so much, on a very personal level, from working with our partners and observing the functioning of Camphill. Most of us had had minimal experience working with individuals with developmental disabilities, so this was certainly an exercise in compassion and understanding, as well as patience. We really did have to be “on” all the time—interacting not just with new people, but with people who held conversations in very different ways than many of us were used to. Adapting to this was certainly challenging, but incredibly rewarding as well. By the end of the trip, we all felt incredibly deep connections with our villagers, and many tears were shed during the final circle share.

Thanks so much, Sula!

Make sure to stop by Riva Lehrer’s talk at 4:15 this Thursday in Stokes 102!