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Sketchbook


Erika Fricke


Portrait of an Imperfect World

Lin Wei-Lee pulls tubes of white, green, and yellow out of plastic bins jammed with paint supplies. She mixes the colors and tests them on a pair of blue jeans, every inch covered in different shapes and shades. She enjoys the moment because she doesn’t get to paint as often as she’d like. The pain that leaves her walking slowly, sometimes with a cane, also stops her from making the broad movements she needs to spread color across a large canvas.

Wei-Lee is a graduate student in English at Pitt, focusing on cultural studies and women’s studies. For her, art is one way to tell people what it feels like to have a disability.

The Social Security Administration defines disabled as a substantial impairment that will last for a year or end in death and prohibits “substantial, gainful activity.” But Wei-Lee doesn’t agree with official definitions; as far as she’s concerned, anyone whose body isn’t working well enough to get things done is disabled. And most people, at some point in their lives, will be living with a disability, whether that’s Lou Gehrig’s disease, arthritis, or mononucleosis.

For the 40-year-old graduate student that means having periods of pain so severe that she can’t move, bones that can pop out of joint when she uses a paper cutter. Doctors have diagnosed her as having ligament laxity, diabetes, thyroiditis, and three auto-immune disorders. Her illnesses are chronic, and she has come to realize she will never be completely well.

Today, though, is a good day. Standing in the middle of her small apartment in Pittsburgh, which looks like a combination art gallery and thrift shop, she drops and smoothes paint with tiny, graceful motions.

Most of the art in her apartment is hers—images to help her work out her ideas about bodies and the way doctors define them. There is some artwork stacked against the wall that comes from an art exhibition, Under Our Skins: Living Disability, which she helped organize. That exhibition, sponsored by Pitt’s Disabled Student Services, featured the work of self-described “disabled artists,” many of whom are Pitt students, faculty members, or staffers. Their art, displayed in the offices of the United Cerebral Palsy of Pittsburgh, depicts what it feels like to live with disabilities.

“You get really angry at your body, as if it were someone who had betrayed you,” admits Wei-Lee. “When I walk with a cane I become invisible; people who know you, they don't recognize you.”

The painting she is working on right now is that of a flower, stretched across a bright yellow canvas.


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