A Conversation with Phoebe Rohrbacher


Photo by:  Lindsay Saunders

Photo by: Lindsay Saunders

Phoebe Rohrbacher is an artist and former facilitator at The Canvas in Juneau, who is currently living and working in Fairbanks, Alaska. A lifelong Alaskan (born and raised in Juneau), Rohrbacher has a unique perspective on art and disability in rural and remote communities.

Over the past year in Fairbanks, she has begun to introduce concepts of progressive art studios through a group art-making session at the Fairbanks Resource Agency day hab programs. Her groups have already begun to produce impressive works that demonstrate incredible potential, some of which will be exhibited at a Fairbanks gallery next year.

Disparate Minds co-founder Tim Ortiz recently had a conversation with Rohrbacher about her unique experiences working with artists with disabilities, her program’s upcoming exhibition in Fairbanks, and persistence in advocating for progressive ideals through the current, adverse political climate.


Tim Ortiz: It's sort of heroic, what you are doing up there.

Phoebe Rohrbacher: Well thank you, I guess I don't look it as heroic, but it is sometimes challenging, because the idea of progressive art studios is something that a lot of people haven't heard of or considered. Or even if they have heard of them, they might not look at them as something feasible or possible here. When I talk to other artists in town, though, they all think it's a really great idea and they’re really blown away by the work that people are creating.

I’m really proud of the artists that I work with. Over the past year, it’s been really interesting to see the work that’s developed - the developing focus and identities as artists. When I first started facilitating here, some people didn't understand. I said, “Here's a pencil here's a piece of paper, I want to see what you can make.”  Some people didn't understand what I was asking for and would ask what they should draw. I told them, “Anything - you can draw anything.”

 I think a lot of people with disabilities end up hearing from others a lot about how they’re doing things wrong. I don’t think it’s in an overt way, but that's the message that comes across, because if they’re faced with projects that don't make sense to them or that require almost total staff intervention to get the desired product, that affects a person’s self-esteem. If you’re exposed to years and years of that, and in all of your settings you have staff telling you “Don't do that”, “Make sure you push in your chair”, “Say thank you”, “Cut along the line,” etc., it affects them. So, trying to break that idea and let people know that I find the work and choices they’re making on their own valuable and important. This isn't just a free time activity, but takes a lot of focus and attention, and can be rigorous.

It’s an idea that, I think, was new to a lot of the artists and even a lot of the staff. Keeping in mind, for example, that taking breaks is part of making art, and if someone wants to go get a cup of tea, that's fine. People take breaks and don't have to be constantly working every second. They have to be able to make their own informed choices about the next step and not rush. It’s less of a product-based approach and more of a long term project and process.

The day habilitation system, through Medicaid, is always looking at skill building, and so I think, how that translates into art studios sometimes is by teaching them how to draw. I guess that's to satisfy the idea that people might have about what art is and also looking at the art as what the public might find appealing. And it all feeds into itself because part of that is that you have to have community buy-in, especially if you’re relying on donations or have to prove to the Medicaid system that people are building skills.

I’m going to be curating a show of the artists that I've been working with over the past year in Fairbanks. I think my coworkers are really excited about it, but they still have the perception that art valid or worthy of being shown is the representational work.

TO: I think it takes a lot of time and it requires the right context, but the power of the work comes through eventually.

PR: This group exhibition is going to be at a local gallery; to present this art in the larger Fairbanks art scene will be really important. The portfolio that I put together was judged by a panel of about ten local artists. The work was received very well by the panel; they were really impressed by the artwork and interested in this show and we got some of the highest scores. I feel like that just reaffirmed the work that I've been doing with these artists, to know that there was, in fact, a larger community buy in.

TO: Yes, as artists working in progressive art studios we know that there’s tremendous potential. I think you’re seeing in Fairbanks something that Andreana and I have witnessed all over the country. This isn't unique to any particular place, and it's not even a very sophisticated method - it’s just a matter of getting out of the way.  So it really could happen anywhere. There could be progressive art studios in every town in the country

If you get together a group of people with disabilities and support them to create, inevitably many of them start making fantastically interesting and exciting works of art. And over time they will develop and improve in amazing and surprising ways. It's this great solution for the core goals of inclusion and habilitation, and also the core goals of art.

But the elephant in the room with these discussions, I think, is the problem of defining success. It can be very difficult to explain and sell this idea to service providers and to the disability services community. It remains difficult no matter how clear the potential seems to us. Marlon Mullen, for example, just had his second solo show at JTT Gallery in NYC. That's an incredible achievement and statement about what's possible, but it isn’t recognized nearly enough, particularly among the disability rights movement.

Part of the problem is that even if in some utopian future there’s a progressive art studio in every small town in America, there would be so much art being produced; you could never have a significant portion of artists reach success on that level - on the level that our champions, Marlon Mullen, Helen Rae, Judith Scott, and others have. What we think of as a successful art career is someone with prominent gallery representation, who’s able to make their living solely from their art. In reality, that's very rare - only a tiny portion of even neurotypical artists ever achieve that. I think that perception has a lot to do with why people don't take it seriously as a career goal.

In the course of championing these artists, and your art group project in Fairbanks, how do you define success and how much is that a hurdle?

PR:  The way I look at is that it's a success currently. For every art group that I facilitate, I’m really excited - people are making such great work!  But also, I think that part of being successful is being valued as an artist within your own community. So I guess a success could also be having people value that artwork locally. I think being able to show it in the community, here in Fairbanks, is really important.

Sometimes others think that success would be defined by “How can we make a business out of this?”, but I would disagree and say that success would be showing the work and having it received and recognized as art. I think that's the first success I would be pleased with.

Lady Girl Woman Green & Blue Fashion Dress, 2016, colored pencil, graphite, and ink on paper, 11” x 14”

TO: Yes, it's true that progressive art studios have something to teach habilitation services at large in terms of how success can and must be detached from money.

PR:  Yeah, I think that...when people with disabilities are looked at as a “drain on society”, and burden on society, people are looking at money.  They believe that by showing that people can earn money, they’re showing that they aren't “draining society”. As if to show that…instead of having society pay for them to get care and housing and medical attention, through earning money they could somehow work their way out of that, thus proving that they have value.  Which is an incredibly problematic idea, because that's not recognizing the inherent value and dignity of each person, just based on being a human being.

Its related to the idea of trying to “cure” people… it's important to work towards independance, but i think that the way our system is setup is as though the goal is make them seem as much like they don't have a disability as possible and fit into societal norms, so that they could somehow prove to society that they’re valuable. That ends up leaving people out, and it reinforces the idea that people are not valuable unless they conform.

TO: I think a lot of people don't realize that these struggles go on, even inside of a progressive art studio environment; there’s still a lot of unresolved philosophy. And one of the ways that focus on money comes through even in progressive environments, is seen in the difficulty to keep in mind that this is a long term project and remembering that sometimes artists may need years to find their voice. It's so difficult to keep selling that. When people who aren't familiar with creative practices see somebody doing something that doesn't seem to make sense over and over and over again, it just looks like failure.

PR: Even, for myself, it's important to keep that in mind, and constantly be sort of checking myself. Sometimes I get jealous of the artists I work with because making art comes to them so naturally. The way that they draw and express…they can't help but work in such a unique way. It isn't academic and they haven't been exposed to the larger art world, but their art fits into the larger art world so well. That's something I think we've discussed before, that is unique about artists with disabilities.

Luis Hernandez, Untitled, marker on vellum, 8.5" x 11" 2015

Untitled (Dentist.Teeth.Change) , 2016, watercolor and ink on paper, 7.5” x 11”

Untitled (Dentist.Teeth.Change), 2016, watercolor and ink on paper, 7.5” x 11”

TO: Has working with artists with disabilities had a big impact on your own work, as an artist?

PR:  Yeah, I’d say so.

My dad is an artist and iconographer. He makes religious russian orthodox style depictions of saints, Christ, and Mary…growing up he was the most influential artist to me, because I was spending so much time in his studio and seeing the way that he worked, so I couldn't help but be influenced by those ideas.

Iconography comes from a very long tradition of doing things in a regimented way - really having a right and wrong way of doing things. There's not a lot of innovation because it's a tradition that you’re maintaining...There are certain symbols, certain saints hold their hand in a certain way, and you always do that, you can't really deviate from that. So growing up with that, I think I had a very strong understanding of what is and what is not art. I didn't realize its influence until I had a show and someone who saw my work said that they were icons. The way that I was depicting figures was very flat, always facing forward, and the processes and colors were all influenced by iconography - I think it still is. That’s hard to break out of, but I think spending time working with artists with disabilities has a large impact. A lot of my artists now, here in Fairbanks, work in very loose ways. That's something I kind of aspire to and want to be able to tap into sometimes. I suppose it has expanded my idea of what art can be.

TO: If you look at outsider art over the past few year years, there has been this narrative of outsider art becoming more mainstream, or being allowed into the mainstream. Our position on this has been that it's not exactly true that Outsider Art is becoming more mainstream. Rather, mainstream art is merging with outsiderism because the pressure to be novel forces contemporary artists to invent art from scratch the way that outsiders do, because there are so few boundaries anymore dictating what art can be.

Recently, it's occurred to me that maybe an even more accurate way to describe that narrative is to recognize that artists who are learning about art are as alienated from art as anyone in their youth. Creative kids aren't really growing up admiring Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, or anyone like this; students in art school are coming from some form of art that is “outside” of mainstream fine art - comic books, pop culture, popular fashion, indigenous work, kitsch, or in your case, iconography. So that movement from outsider to mainstream is also a natural consequence of artists making that movement individually as they strive to bring their own backgrounds and interests into a contemporary fine art practice.

I learned how to really see art in a progressive art studio and I never would have been able to understand iconography outside of historical context, if I hadn't developed that ability to open my mind in a very real way about what art can be, to be able to take these things from history and see them in new ways. In these settings, you also learn about how art speaks across great differences in ways of thinking.

PR:  I think there is a new, really exciting, increasing understanding in the art world that art is not just an academic discipline. More of a valuing of art made by indigenous people and recognizing that a lot of those traditions are taught in people's homes and communities.

Something that's pretty special about Fairbanks is that there's an amazing native art program in the university (UAF).  A lot of people going into the art program are interested in learning more about traditional ways of making art, ways that people and their families have made art for generations.

I have a friend, Norma Charlie Runfola, from Scammon Bay (a Yupik community in Alaska) and she’s an incredible artist making traditional Yupik art. She’s able to sew parkas and use many traditional processes, which she learned that from her grandmother, her mother, and her family.  She then ended up going to the UAF and was able to study art at the university. And I suppose, being able to have society, western society, value that as equal and not just looking at art from a western perspective.

TO: That's true and progressive art studios are uniquely in a position to champion the idea that the contributions of people with disabilities to our culture are valuable independent of the societal norms in a similar way, and that’s really what it comes down to ultimately. Progressive art studios are paragons of inclusion that support that idea in a profound and important way, providing a new perspective about diversity in art in a broad sense.

But at the same time, even if a progressive art studio is not integrated with neurotypical artists, it's often a very diverse setting in every other sense.  Our recent exhibition at LAND in Brooklyn, for example, included Miranda Delgai, a Navajo artist, who makes traditional weavings. And of course The Canvas in Juneau supports several Tlingit artists. In Fairbanks I imagine you must have some of that influence in your art groups

PR: There are a lot of artists who come from indigenous backgrounds and villages around Alaska who I imagine saw a lot of traditional art and practices growing up, so they can't help but be influenced by that.

One woman I work with is from a Tlingit village in Southeast Alaska, but she moved from that community at a young age and was in an institutional setting. So she had been so removed from her village, physically and culturally. When I met her, I learned a bit about where she was from and asked her if she was Tlingit and she told me that she was and which village she was from. We were able to connect through that because it turned out that I knew some of her family members. She kept talking about her family and one person she would talk about was Jennie Thlunaut, who was a very important Chilkat weaver; she’s known as one of the people who maintained the tradition of Chilkat weaving and taught many, many people. In my understanding, most of the current Chilkat weavers’ knowledge can be traced back to her. Like Ricky Tagaban, who was taught by Clarissa Rizal, who was taught by Jennie Thlunaut. I printed out a picture of Jennie Thlunaut, and gave it to her. She became very interested and started drawing her and other family members…it seems like she was able to kind of connect to her roots and those people she’d lost contact with or hadn’t seen since she left the village. So I suppose in that way, her work is very much a contemporary way of making Tlingit art.

Another artist I work with loves masks and part of his practice is that everyday before he starts drawing he makes a mask out of paper, have me tie string to the side of it, and he wears it while he’s drawing. I imagine that is also influenced by his culture in some way as well.

 Untitled (Coyotes  ) , 2016, ink and marker on paper, 11” x 14”

 Untitled (Coyotes), 2016, ink and marker on paper, 11” x 14”

Cleopatra The Golden Queen of Neli, Crown Egypt, Greatest Woman,  2016, colored pencil, graphite, ink on paper, 11” x 14”

Cleopatra The Golden Queen of Neli, Crown Egypt, Greatest Woman, 2016, colored pencil, graphite, ink on paper, 11” x 14”

TO:  Hanging on all of these long term ideals and principles of progressive art studios we’ve been discussing is crucial, but seems so difficult in 2017. The discussion seems to have shifted a lot as society has, in the past year really changed. Ari Ne’eman expressed hope that Trumpism would awaken a stronger disability rights movement, the way that the Bush presidency catalyzed a stronger LGBTQ movement.

PR: It’s interesting because I think within discussions about intersectionality nowadays, ableism has become a concern, and a word that is more mainstream. I feel like I hear a lot more people talking about it and the idea of ableism.

I worry that often people with developmental disabilities still aren't included. I think when people think of disability, a often they’re thinking of physical disabilities, so ableism may mean making things more accessible for those individuals. Developmental or intellectual disability is sometimes not considered in the same way. So in some ways, I look at progressive art studios as still a very radical idea - to say that all people with disabilities have value, can be a part of society, and can be integrated into society through the avenue of art.

But...just trying to maintain (even the status quo) and having to devote so much energy to keeping services that already exist is difficult. So it's hard to look at improving the system when you’re trying to just hang on to what there is. I think that's part of the struggle with presenting the idea of an art studio. People are kind of like “That would be great, but how on earth are we supposed to fund that, when day habilitation hours are being cut, and we’re trying to keep the programs open.”

At the same time though, an integrated progressive art studio could be a solution to that problem, where you can have a place where disabled artists come to make art and they can be with peers who are neurotypical and also artists; they can all work in that setting together.  This new cultural climate (and when I say new, I think it's always been there, it's just been pushed to the forefront) is discouraging...there have been times when I felt really discouraged. But, the more I do it, the more people recognize it as valuable.

When people come in and see the work that people are making and how people act in the progressive art studio setting, where they are are getting autonomy and choice…it's hard to argue with. I’ve been saving all the art created over the past year and can show the progress being made, and it's hard to argue with that.