(Background art piece by Nancy Rourke / Graphic by Meera Hatangadi)
University High School

Deaf History Month series: Arts

In light of Deaf History Month, which runs from March 13 to April 15, members of the Deaf community have been celebrating their rich culture and history.

Deaf history is filled with accomplishments, advancements and celebrations of Deaf culture — an integral part of which can be found in the arts. This first installment of High School Insider’s Deaf History Month series will cover advancements in Deaf art history and their importance to Deaf culture.

Deaf arts history is expansive, much too detailed to be included in one article. So in this article, we will explore some of the biggest milestones in American Deaf visual art history and Deaf literary art history, as well as its significance to members of the DHH community.


Early Deaf art history

A picture paints a thousand words signs.

The concept of a distinct art movement specifically for Deaf artists first came around in the late 1960s when Ann Silver, a Deaf artist, co-founded the Deaf Art Movement. This movement was revolutionary at the time, as it sought to create a distinct genre of art that encompassed the obstacles that Deaf individuals face while also celebrating Deaf culture.

This movement sparked the rise in popularity of further Deaf Art pieces. An example of this can be seen in the “Silent World” exhibition of artist Dr. Betty G. Miller. This exhibition was the artist’s first show that was centered completely on the Deaf experience.

An illustration of this focus can be seen in the pièce de résistance of the show — “Ameslan Prohibited.” Ameslan was a term used for American Sign Language until the 1970s when the term “ASL” came into use.

“Ameslan Prohibited” by Dr. Betty G Miller. (Illustration by Dr. Betty G Miller; Image courtesy of deaf-art.org / Nancy Creighton)

As expressed by Michelle Jay, an author at Start Aslin “Ameslan Prohibited,” the “handcuffs represent how forbidding sign language feels like enslavement to the Deaf. And the broken fingers are a violent illustration of the repeated slapping of knuckles with a ruler when Deaf children were caught using sign language.” 

This piece of art gained much popularity in the art world and continued to open up the floodgate of building a truly distinct genre of art dedicated to the experiences of the Deaf. Other important exhibitions that featured Deaf art were the “Spectrum: Focus on Deaf Artists” in the mid-1970s as well as the “Deaf Way” that took place in 1989.

As the years progressed, Deaf artists continued to exhibit their experiences and culture through their own distinct art. However, although this movement had gained some popularity, it was still widely unknown within the artistic world. 

It was only in the 1980s that a movement very similar to the Deaf Art Movement arose, it’s name: De’VIA.

De’VIA: Deaf View Image Art

At the Deaf way exhibition of Deaf art, a new era of Deaf art began — the De’VIA era. De’VIA, which stands for “Deaf View Image Art” was first coined in 1989 by Deaf artists at “Deaf Way” exhibition, and it refers to art inspired by the unique experience of members of the DHH community, largely including the experience of being born deaf.

As stated in an article by the Silent Voice, this art focuses on the physical and cultural characteristics of being Deaf. It can also include metaphors and perspectives along with Deaf insights into environments, spiritual life and everyday life. 

De’VIA stands out among other genres of art as it often contains nuanced concepts and situations that are relatable and understandable to Deaf audiences — building upon shared experiences, hardships, and the celebration of a common culture. Furthermore, this genre of art often also uses distinct imagery and visualizations to express the emotions contained in its pieces.

De’VIA art usually incorporates bold, contrasting colors and textures. It also often uses a strong central image and facial features, according to the Silent Voice. 

One of the most famous De’VIA artists is Chuck Baird (1947-2012). Baird was a Deaf artist and one of the most notable artists of the De’VIA genre of art. De’VIA held specific importance to him as he saw it as a way to express the triumphs as well as the tribulations of members of the DHH community to other Deaf individuals, as well as to hearing individuals. In his view, the meaning of De’VIA pieces transcended one-dimensional messages into a conduit for understanding and appreciation between the Deaf and hearing communities

Chuck Baird was a Deaf artist and one of the founders of the De’VIA art movement. (Photo courtesy of deaf-art.org / Jim Van Manen)

“Deaf art expresses the values of Deaf culture — the beauty of sign language and its painful oppression, the joys of Deaf bonding, communication breakdowns between signers and non-signers, the discovery of language and community, and the history of Deaf people,” Chuck Baird said in 2002, according to an article on Kendall Demonstration Elementary School.

Other famous De’VIA artists include Dr. Betty G. Miller, Ann Silver, Mary J Thornly and Nancy Rourke. The works of these artists display the varying styles of art that are blanketed under De’VIA, as their paintings exhibit wildly unique styles of art.

For example, Baird generally created more figurative art, availing of bright colors with dark contrasts, sometimes even including elements of fantasy and imagination. His pieces focused on explaining Deaf hardships and bridging the gap between Deaf and hearing individuals. 

In contrast to Baird’s style of art, Nancy Rourke, an internationally known Deaf artist, exhibits a more contemporary style of art. Her art style encompasses a trichromatic color scheme, the idea of which has come from her experience as a member of the DHH community.

“I decided to stick to red, yellow, and blue colors because I want to challenge myself with very limited use of colors and I wanted the audience to recognize who I am, using three colors,” Rourke said. “Each color has a meaning. Red means empowerment. Yellow means HOPE and light Deaf people need to see each other. Blue means AUDISM.”

Nancy Rourke is an artist with a focus in oil painting. (Nancy Rourke)

This limitation of color by Rourke has created a wildly unique style that nevertheless expresses the deep and nuanced messages she wishes to portray. Similar to Baird, Rourke aims to create art that has an emotional impact on its admirers.

Additionally, she wished for her art to express the realities of the Deaf experience, especially to the hearing community who often do not have an accurate perception of the Deaf experience.

“I feel like these elements (restrictions on the color palette) make art so powerful to the Deaf and Hearing society,” Rourke said. “I [aim to] make a political statement, to capture today’s society that needed attention because it is long overdue. Part of it is to educate and part of it is a wake-up call.”

Rourke’s art’s impact endures today as she continues to highlight the Deaf experience, and aims to make changes in society as well as an active ARTivist.


Deaf literary history

Dead Deaf poet’s society

Deaf literary history is unique in that it is a form of literary works passed down through generations — that is to say oral-literary pieces. In this section, we will explore a few historical developments in American Deaf literary history, as well as various types of storytelling and poetry in ASL.

Features of Deaf Literary Art

Literary art in ASL is incredibly unique and versatile as the use of body language, expressions, and subtlety in movement are used to express nuanced ideas and emotions.

According to Start ASL, ASL poetry uses movement to create spoken/written rhyme and rhythm. The same way your voice shows mood and emotion in English is how your facial expressions express your mood and emotion in ASL poetry.

Due to its use of expressive cues, Deaf poetry and literary arts are universal as they can reach an audience of not only those who know ASL but also those who do not. Nevertheless, due to the complex nature of ASL poetry and literary arts, without knowing ASL, one might not truly understand the beauty and impact of the piece.

Another interesting feature of Deaf Literary Arts is the following.

ASL poetry has unique characteristics that distinguish it from spoken poetry. According to Start ASL, in ASL poetry, you can sign with your left and right hand at the same time to express two different ideas at once. 

These features of ASL literary arts greatly contribute to the importance and significance of forms of storytelling and poetry as they pass down through generations.

Deaf Poetry

For a large portion of history, Deaf Poetry was recorded through translations into English in order to preserve it. However, the 1980s brought about the revolutionization of Deaf poetry as famous poets such as Ella Mae Lentz and Clayton Valli began composing their poetry in ASL, according to the University of California Press.

This revolutionization brought about a distinct literary culture within ASL, one that did not depend on spoken languages such as English to continue on its legacy. As time progressed, Deaf Poetry continued to gain popularity, especially at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in New York, which held several performances for Deaf poets over the years.

Prominent features in the scene of Deaf poetry include Clayton Valli, Ella Mae Lentz and Partick Graybill.

The first National Deaf Poetry Conference was held in 1987 in New York. Performing poets featured Clayton Valli, as well as Peter Cook, Patrick Graybill, Ella May Lentz, Debbie A. Rennie. According to PoetsPath, the conference focused on the “evolution of Deaf Poetry and the Deaf Poet inside and beyond Deaf culture.”

Since the first National Deaf Poetry Conference, Deaf poets have continued to perform poetry, especially slam poetry. An organization specifically dedicated to this expression is ASL Slam.

Established in 2005, ASL Slam holds monthly events to highlight the work of prominent ASL poets to New York audiences. Even now, ASL poetry and slam continue to grow in popularity and provide a safe space for members of the DHH community to express themselves and celebrate their culture.

Storytelling

“A storyteller or poet tells a story or poem using a handshape-based sequence and a rhyme in numbers. For example, handshapes from 1 to 10 or higher, from 1 to 5 and backward to 1 again, or other different sequences, ” according to HandSpeak.

In ASL, stories are told and made unique via variations in rhythm and sequencing. In history, one of the most popular types of storytelling has been Handshape stories. A Handshape story is a story in which a certain handshape or sign is used in repetition or in specific patterns

Two prominent types of handshape stories are ABC stories and Number stories. In ABC stories, only the handshapes of the alphabet are used in storytelling, and number stories are the same but with numbers. ABC stories, number stories and other handshape stories can be found all over the internet due to their popularity in the DHH community.

Deaf Jokes

Lastly, another pertinent part of Deaf literary history can be seen in the spreading and passing down of Deaf Jokes. Since these jokes are mostly oral, they are passed down through generations and have therefore accumulated a great significance in the preservation of Deaf history. Deaf jokes allow for a deeper sense of togetherness within those who speak ASL and further enrich the connectedness in the Deaf community

According to HandSpeak, there are two types of Deaf jokes: 

“The first type is a joke which favors Deaf culture and the Deaf way of life. The second type is a joke related to the linguistics of ASL. For example, the production or mid-production of a sign can be humorous in certain situations.”

Deaf jokes allow for a deeper sense of togetherness within those who speak ASL and further enrich the connectedness in the Deaf community.


Deaf History month brings about the celebration of a rich, honed, and nuanced culture that has been enriched by various forms of art. Moreover, a common link between all of these arts and their historical impacts can be seen in their emotional impact on their viewers.

All these forms of art contain deep messages about Deaf culture, the trials, and tribulations of being Deaf, as well as the distinct experiences that many members of the DHH community go through.

Ultimately, these messages transcend all boundaries to accomplish its most primal goal- to reach its audience.

After all, as stated by Helen Keller, a famous Deaf American author,

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched — they must be felt with the heart.”