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Breaking Ground 100 - Telling Stories through Art

by Commissioner Brad Turner, Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
“Art is not always about pretty things. It’s about who we are, what happened to us, and how our lives are affected.” – Elizabeth Brown

This quote is simple, yet very powerful when it relates to the arts in our community. Every single piece of art inside our hallways at the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) and our community tells a story about not only the artist themselves, but the world they live in. It allows us to expand outside verbal communication, and better understand the artist’s spirit and soul through picture.

As many of you are aware, my daughter, Kinsley, is non-verbal. One of her favorite things to do is communicate through photographs. She will pull me down next to her and want to snap a picture with me on her iPad. She’ll also scroll through the pictures and find her friends, favorite teachers, and other people or images that have meaning in her life, and then hold the iPad up so I can see the picture. She’s telling me her story through the art and images that she helped to create.

Our challenge is preparing ourselves to listen to an artist so we don’t just hear persons with disabilities, but we work to understand! Art is compelling on its own account, but when used to relay stories, experiences, realities, fears, and futures, it demands an audience that seeks to better understand. Throughout history, art has been used to inspire change and unite societies. In our own recent history, photographs and images from Vietnam showed the harsh reality of a world halfway around the globe, and it began to turn public opinion on the conflict. Videos and photographs from the civil rights struggle in the 1960s moved the needle in public perception, after many American homes saw the injustices towards African-Americans for the first time.

I want to share a few pictures from my friends Derrick, Austin, Morgan, and my daughter Kinsley. These pictures and crafts give us a glimpse into their souls as people. It reminds us that everyone not only has something to say, but a specific message and meaning behind it. Are we seeking to listen, as opposed to seeking to respond? Are we working towards providing ways for their voices to reach more people? These are just some of the questions we ask ourselves inside the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities every day.

painting that features bold brushstrokes of purples, blues, golds and white all across the canvas, layering colors over each other
“Untitled Abstract” by Derrick Freeman.
an abstract painting with purple and white swirls all over the canvas; it almost looks like purple waves on a seashore washing up on sand
"Purple Nexus” by Austin King
a horizontal rectangular painting with a bright blue square section at the top left, and then the rest of the canvas features waves or swirls of red and white that appear like the red and white stripes of the American flag
“Messy Flag” by Morgan Vice
The drawing is divided diagonally from the center, with alternating sections of white and red thick stripes, and blue and white thick stripes. It appears to look like a red, white and blue web
“Kinsley’s Web” by Kinsley Turner

I’m proud of our partnership with the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and the privilege we have to work side-by-side. Previous DIDD leaders Jim Henry and Debbie Payne, provided the foundation for change and empowerment through their belief in our community and the individuals we support every day.

I want to encourage all of us to find ways to see a picture, sculpture, painting, or any other form of art in a deeper light. Let’s work to better understand not only the artist but what they want us to see through their creation. Understanding others is something the world needs more of. Art can bridge cultural, language, socio-economic, and other barriers. Let’s challenge ourselves to see every individual for who they are and what they’re saying through the reality they create in their art.

Let the kind of change that can be generated from art start with me!