Riva Lehrer


Disability is the fuel of my work and the engine of my career.

Disability has formed nearly every significant aspect of my life. My early education began at Condon School for Handicapped Children in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I went to school from 1963 to 1972. Condon (founded in 1921) was a very unusual place. It was among the first schools in the United States to give disabled children a standardized education. Before this many had simply been institutionalized in nursing homes, with the assumption that they had no chance at a productive life, or, at best, taught a rudimentary trade. Condon School was considered innovative in its attempt to give us a shot at some independence through education. At Condon I was surrounded by children with a wide range of disabilities. It was the only place I did not feel "different," which was an early experience of disability community and its complexities. The school was a very insular and tight-knit world, a place that gave us, paradoxically, both a sense of our individual possibilities and an anxious distance from the world at large.

Growing up aware of being judged for my appearance was in part what drew me to figuration, combined with a strong interest in biology, anatomy, and the natural world. From early on, my work investigated the ways that people's physical bodies influence the course of their lives. However, I was uncomfortable addressing my own experience, as a person with a disability, due to consistently negative reactions from the art world. Professors, galleries, collectors, viewers and critics made it clear to me that they would not accept or be interested in such imagery, on the rare occasion that I made explicit representations. Certainly I knew of no other professional artist at the time making work about disability. As a result, my work became very encoded and oblique.

The direction of my career changed radically in 1997, when I met a community of performers, writers, visual artists and academic theorists, based in Chicago, where I live. All were disabled, and each one was engaged in creating a new, radical framework in which to view the body and impairment. I had never encountered such a self-assured, adult population of disabled people. I responded on all levels: aesthetically, intellectually, politically, and emotionally. Memories of Condon reverberated and gave me the desire to explore this new universe.

My career has become deeply involved with the field of Disability Culture, which is the aesthetic expression of the theory, scholarship, politics and personal narratives that make up Disability Studies. Chicago is one of the two most influential centers of Disability Studies in the United States. The most important figures in this field regularly come through Chicago, which has allowed me to collaborate internationally.

I have also changed tremendously as a person in the last ten years. When I was the only disabled person that I knew, I felt that I had to prove myself as a "universal" artist in order to be "allowed" to work on the ideas that really mattered to me. It seemed that I should apologize for being a cripple, to make up for it by distancing myself, or I would be trapped in a ghetto of the despised. In addition, finding the work of other disabled visual artists has given me a context and a challenge I could only have imagined so many years ago.

Circle Story #4: Riva Lehrer - 1998 Circle Story #4: SusanNussbaum - 1998 Family: Douglas & Nathan Lehrer - 2004 Circle Story #9: Rebecca Maskos - 2001
Circle Story #4: Riva Lehrer (top panel of 2)
mixed media on paper
14" x 14"
Circle Story #3: Susan Nussbaum
acrylic on panel
16" x 26"
Family: Douglas & Nathan Lehrer
graphite on paper
30" x 44"
Circle Story #9: Rebecca Maskos
acrylic on panel
24" x 18"
Circle Story #6: Tekki Lomnicki - 1999 Matt Fraser (detail) -2006 Family: Jan Carmichael - 2001 Circle Story #1: Jeff Carpenter - 1997
Circle Story #6: Tekki Lomnicki
acrylic on panel
48" x 36"
Matt Fraser (in progress)
charcoal on paper
30" x 44"
Family: Jan Carmichael
graphite on paper
13" x 8"
Circle Story #1: Jeff Carpenter
acrylic on panel
18" x 24"