By Caitlin Shamberg
NEW YORK — Four bright paintings of ghost-like creatures hang in Christine Kim’s studio on the ninth floor of the School of Visual Arts (SVA). The small, rectangular room comes equipped with a shelf and a table, where Christine keeps a stack of colored paper and a basket of yarn. She works with wood, vivid colors and textured materials. But tonight she has put away her supplies and is having a party.
Her guests are in their early 20s; they bring bags of chips and bottles of red wine. She introduces those who don’t know each other by signing names, forming letters with one hand. Like Christine, most of them are deaf.
The room fills with the quiet swooshing sound of hands brushing together, at times punctuated by bursts of laughter. If it were possible to map the sound in studio 916, it would look like an electrocardiogram — a straight, flat line spiking suddenly when something funny is said.
A group of SVA students gathers in the corridor next to the studio. These are Christine’s classmates, and they can hear. “Your paintings are rad!” a student writes in turquoise ink on a white notebook page. Christine giggles in response.
Christine, 25, moves confidently between the two groups, pen in hand, notebook ready. She wears a black mini-skirt and silver shoes; her straight black hair is tucked behind her ears. Long, glittery earrings make her look like a movie star. She grabs one of her classmates, a guy with a nose ring, and pulls him by the wrist into the center of the room, which, for tonight, is a gallery where she can share her recent work with her friends.
The back wall of the studio is painted black and decorated with letters cut out of black Velcro. It reads: “Garden Eels live in colonies. 1 colony can hold up to 1000 eels. They live in the sand and burrow down when spooked. They are as long as pencils with big eyes. They rely on sight for food and signs of danger.”
Beneath the lettering are two paintings of garden eels. Christine created the worm-like creatures from cardboard and painted them blue. There is also black yarn stitched onto pieces of wood, through holes that took two days to drill. The yarn is silky smooth.
Christine says that she wants to make her art as interactive as possible. “So that the audience can be more involved with my art by touching it, rather than just looking at it.”
I met Christine through my brother, who is also deaf, and even though I grew up signing, it’s difficult to interview her. She doesn’t sign in linear English order that I can put in my notebook. She speaks in American Sign Language, a system of words, facial expressions and body language. One sign can express an entire phrase.
I ask Christine about growing up deaf, and she begins by signing “mom.” Her five fingers spread apart and her thumb taps her chin. As she does this, the expression on her face changes to mimic the face of her mother — a wrinkled forehead and concerned eyes. And then Christine switches roles, becoming the pastor at her church, who looms above a young Christine and covers her ears with his hands.
“The pastor would put his hands over our ears, and everyone would pray,” she says, describing her early memories of church. Christine’s sister, Jayne, is also deaf, but both their parents are hearing. When the prayers didn’t work, the two girls had acupuncture. “And then I think we had shock therapy,” Christine says half joking as she describes a small metal pen with a battery inside that was held to her head, supposedly to stimulate her nerves.
Christine’s parents realized Christine was deaf when she was 6 months old. “When Christine was asleep in the house, we played loud music and drums. My wife tried to make a lot of noise,” says Christine’s father. “After that, I didn’t know how I could live. I didn’t see any friends; I would stay in the house, drink beer, watch TV. I was going to die. I didn’t speak good English, I understood nothing.” Attending church with his wife and daughters brought him peace of mind.
“I’m not worried about her,” he says about Christine. “My wife did a very good job [with our daughters].”
Christine, who was born in Anaheim, Calif., says that she was raised “in a house of broken English, wrong English,” where her parents spoke a mixture of Korean and English to each other. This complicated Christine’s ability to communicate both at home and outside. “I had a lot of issues with my mom. Her notes to school had mistakes, but I always thought they were right. I still make mistakes.”
Christine’s East Village apartment is tiny with tall ceilings. It doesn’t have a light to indicate when the doorbell rings, or a fire strobe, which is a smoke detector that uses a flashing light instead of sound to alert residents to the presence of smoke. “I asked the landlord,” Christine says, “but he said I wasn’t on the lease. But what if I burned down in a fire?” she says.
New York City human rights law requires that a landlord make reasonable accommodations for a disabled tenant. Although she is not on the lease, Christine is still legally considered a tenant. However, the law is vague enough so that the landlord is not required to buy the $150 fire strobe, or install a light-based doorbell, which can cost up to $100 before installation. However, he cannot object if Christine installs the devices herself.
Christine lives with a roommate who does hear. “At first, I tiptoed all the time, didn’t flush the toilet, tried not to make noise. In the morning, I asked my roommate if she had heard me, but she hadn’t woken up,” says Christine. “I walk loudly, but no one told me that until recently. Someone once told me that I make gagging noises when I brush my teeth.”
“I hear nothing,” Christine says. In her left ear she can register sound at 150 decibels; 95 decibels in her right ear. But even at those levels, it’s an almost imperceptible tone or vibration. She can’t hear the subway screeching around the corner at the Astor Place stop (101 decibels according to a NY Metro article). Nor can she hear the rustling of leaves and chirping birds in Central Park (54 decibels), music, dogs barking, people laughing or the driver’s announcement on the 23rd Street bus that “anytime is pick-pocket time, I’d like to make you aware, hope you take care, ‘cause they won’t even leave you the fare.”
I ask Christine if she thinks there’s a difference between her experience and that of a hearing person. “Not really,” then she pauses thoughtfully. “Maybe I like light more,” she signs, flicking her finger as if a light bulb is being turned on; adding that if she’s at a dark New York City restaurant, she will ask for extra candles to be put on her table.
Christine and I meet in Midtown in front of Christie’s. For homework, her class has to look at the artwork that is up for sale. Christine wears jeans, a red sweatshirt and Converse sneakers, and stands out in the stuffy auction house. A gray-haired couple passes us. “If you look at the Warhols, the prices she quoted us were very bad,” the man says to the woman. These words slip past us, undetected by Christine.
She walks briskly through the galleries containing post-World War II and contemporary art. She stops in front of Andy Warhol’s “Mustard Race Riot 1963,” a wall-sized, mustard-yellow canvas imprinted with photographs of police dogs, men in riot gear and protestors. She brushes the palms of her hands down the sides of her face, signifying “sad.” Another bit of conversation floats by: “It’s just too important a picture.”
We pass a picture of Matthew Barney as a goat from the “Cremaster Cycle.” “Do you think any artists would be recognized on the street today?” Christine asks.
We head downstairs, where a life-sized elephant stands, draped in a white sheet, like some kind of hybrid of the GOP and the KKK.
A photograph of this elephant is being projected onto the wall in the ninth floor lounge of SVA, where Christine has class. Jerry Saltz is an art critic for the Village Voice. He’s balding and wears a plaid shirt and gold-framed glasses. He’s casually professorial.
“What’s it about?” he asks. “What’s a white elephant?” he continues, pronouncing each word as if it’s precious.
Underneath where the slides are being projected sits Mia, Christine’s interpreter. She is 27 and grew up in New York. Her grandmother was deaf, so Mia grew up signing other people’s words and “voicing” her grandmother’s signs. “I try to match signs of the person, the language of the person. The gift of gab helps,” Mia says, describing how she takes the time to chat with her clients before she has to interpret. “I’m chatting and picking up their language.”
“It’s a wild goose chase,” says a male classmate, who’s easily able to identify the artist behind every slide.
“It’s a house that’s too big so you can’t sell it,” says one girl who spends the entire class twiddling her dark brown hair between her fingers.
A student next to me is recording the class; his tape recorder makes clicking sounds. Behind us, there’s a bang in the elevator.
Christine sits hunched, resting her chin on her fists and watching Mia intently. She likes this class and pays attention.
“This is the Impressionism auction,” Jerry says, but stops after pronouncing “Impressionism” and turns to Mia. “It’s a long word,” he says. Mia finger-spells it. The 13-letter word takes longer to spell than it does to pronounce.
One student describes the art as dusty and mishung, as if it were dead.
“I didn’t think the art seems dead, it’s just at a different stage,” counters another student.
There’s a 9-second delay between the first part of the sentence and Mia’s signs.
“I was really angry last night,” Christine says, explaining that something got mixed up and there wasn’t an interpreter for an artist who was giving a lecture at SVA. She asks Mia to call the Office of Campus Life to rectify this. Mia asks what kind of mood she should speak in, but Christine doesn’t have time to answer before someone picks up the phone.
“I don’t want to miss any more lectures,” Mia says pleadingly, but with a hint of anger into the phone. Christine looks worried.
The school is required by law to ensure that courses and course materials are accessible to Christine. These services are paid for out of the college’s operating budget. The cost varies each month, depending on the number and length of classes and evening lectures. The interpreter is $60 per hour and must “understand the content,” says Ellen Clinesmith, the school’s disability coordinator and director of campus life, adding that the interpreter must “interpret art in some sense.” Christine is the only physically disabled student currently in the master’s of fine arts program.
After class, a friendly Goth girl with dyed black hair gives Christine notes from the class. She’s paid by SVA to do this. Christine asks her if she went to the previous night’s lecture, but she hadn’t.
It’s dusk and the windows of the buildings glow yellow as the sky begins to darken. Christine is taking me to the Elga Wimmer Gallery in Chelsea to see an exhibit that incorporates sign language. It is an homage to the artist’s mother who lost her hearing, forcing the family to learn sign language in order to communicate.
In front of a long wall, a video projector rests on wheels that roll down two elevated tracks. It throws the image of a typewriter onto the white wall facing it. The projected image types words, accompanied by the clicking sounds of typing.
“I am moving quickly to the end of what is called me. 12 Words.” It types as it rolls down the track. “I am moving quickly to the end of what is called. 11 words. I am moving quickly to the end of what is. 10 words.” And so on.
Plaster hands forming sign language letters are attached to the wall in a row. “A E I S U” stick out from the wall above a hand signing the letter “Y.” Christine explains that it was too difficult for the artist to create a plaster cast of an O, so he settled for S, formed by making a fist.
Christine finds the whole exhibit a bit cheesy. “I don’t want to be a ‘deaf’ artist,” she says, referring to art created by deaf artists that incorporates sign language. Instead, she says she wants to be an “artist that does everything: installation, performance art, public art, crafts and paintings.”
Christine says she wants to transform her own studio space into a different world. She wants to cover the ceiling, the floor and all four walls with fabrics and bright colors. Her teacher suggests that she leave the ceiling the way it is, but the freedom makes Christine giddy.
“I can do whatever I want,” she tells me, “I can even remove the dry-wall.”
Photographs by Alice Park