Artfully Universal Communication

Martin Wong with a stop sign from his Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired series of public artworks (1990).
Courtesy of Public Art Fund.

Martin Wong lived and breathed New York City. Upon moving to the city, he quickly became a part of an expansive community of artists, poets, musicians and activists. His love for the physical environment and the people of the big metropolis permeate his paintings such as La Vida (see Cityscape and the Personalized Experience).

Wong also contributed his artistic talents to the city’s infrastructure, creating visual signs and symbols that benefit specific populations, and raise overall social and cultural awareness about disability. His Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired (1990) are installed at nearby schools in each of New York City’s five boroughs. The signs, which resemble the familiar aluminum steel design and color of archetypal road signs, feature the words “one way,” “stop” and “school for the Deaf” spelled out using the manual alphabet for the hearing impaired. For his contribution, Wong was awarded the “Very Special Arts Award,” by Mayor David Dinkins in 1992. The annual award was given to an artist who created works of art that reflected inclusiveness and diversity within public spaces.

One of Martin Wong’s Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired (1990) installed next to St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf in the Bronx. Courtesy of Public Art Fund.

The street signs are a way of uniquely representing hearing impaired New Yorkers, while informing and heightening the collective consciousness around physical disability and accessible design. The use of American Sign Language (ASL) is a common motif in Wong’s art. Wong was not hearing impaired, but he was fluent in ASL. In smaller font within the shirt cuffs of the cartoon-esque hands, Wong writes the words in the modern English alphabet; so the signs can be understood by the ASL and non-ASL fluent viewer simultaneously. This serves two profound purposes. First, it is an efficacious affirmation and acknowledgement of an often marginalized community. Furthermore, it prompts non-deaf people to develop an understanding and empathy for the experiences of deaf and hearing impaired individuals.

Art and ASL are both forms of visual communication that rely on expression and gesture. Because art utilizes largely recognizable forms, signs and symbols, it has been a pertinent resource and experience for Deaf and hearing impaired persons to communicate with non-deaf individuals.

David Call, “Talking about Art.”

David Call uses art as a form of activism to narrate and symbolize what it is like to be hearing impaired. Call, who taught at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, incorporates a deaf-centric approach to teaching art to his students. This method is called De’VIA, which stands for Deaf View Image Art. De’VIA is a mode of art that portrays Deaf people’s experiences. As part of the curriculum, Call introduced students to many other De’VIA artists such as Chuck Baird, Susan Dupor, Betty Miller and Nancy Rourke. He reflected that “De’ VIA helped my students analyze and explore their Deafhood experience and express themselves in art.  It was a huge success” (quoted in LaMay, 2012).

Call structured his pedagogy in a manner that transformed traditional artistic appreciation and skill building exercises, in order to make art history and the elements of art relevant to the lives and perceptions of his Deaf students. He designed lesson plans that incorporated the physicality of American Sign Language as an aesthetic medium. Examples of these lessons include Cubist ASL sculptures, ASL action abstract paintings and ASL facial expression papier mache masks.

Call and forty other Deaf teaching artists developed the De’VIA Curriculum project, which is a compendious educational guide with learning segments that can be utilized in K-12 studio art programs. The curriculum goals state that: “The founding principle of the De’VIA Curriculum is that Deaf and Deaf-blind children are entitled to learning about their Deaf heritage, language, struggles and victories, identity and rights via visual arts. With this curriculum they will also learn about traditional elements and principles of art that reinforce national art education standards. This curriculum can be used with Hearing children as more and more public schools are incorporating De’VIA into their American Sign Language (ASL) programs and other subject area curriculum.”

One of the more well known historically Deaf artists is early twentieth-century American sculptor, Douglas Tilden. Tilden asserted that “There is no other field in the struggle of life which can do more for the deaf than art, to secure recognition from the public and through this to bring them upon a common footing” (quoted in Forbes-Robertson, 2005). Due to the strong parallels between the way Deaf people communicate and how art enables widespread understanding, it is important that both education and culture is indicative of their ideas, experiences and identity. We all benefit when we have access to differentiated perspectives that are voiced through the arts.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Rochester Technical Institute (RIT) has an extensive amount of resources for researching Deaf artists and the De’VIA mode of art, which you can explore here:

Additionally, RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf developed a comprehensive Deaf Artists website. This site features over 100 Deaf and hard of hearing artists and numerous resources and materials, which you can find here:

Forbes-Robertson, Amy. “Deaf Art: What For?” Diss. University of Bristol, 2004. Taubenschlag. 2005. 23 Nov. 2005 <~/forbes-robertson.pdf>.

LaMay, Nick. “Beyond Talk: David Call,” Beyond Talk, 9 April 2012.


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