BETTY G. MILLER: DEAF PAINTER
The work speaks volumes. It speaks of the oppression of deaf people, their struggles, the strength of their community and the beauty of their language. It speaks through the brush of one deaf woman who, by showing her own experience through color and line on canvas, has inspired multitudes ranging from other professional deaf artists (including her own father) to deaf schoolchildren.
Betty G. Miller was born hard of hearing to deaf parents who already had two hearing sons. As with her older brothers, her first language is American Sign Language (ASL). Because she was hard of hearing and picked up speech and English from hearing family members, her hearing loss wasn't discovered until she started Kindergarten. The revelation threw her whole family into disorder. Her parents, having suffered through their own experiences of oppression, didn't want the same for their daughter and were determined that she would make the best use of what hearing she had. That's why she was first sent to an oral school for the deaf called Bell School in Chicago, instead of a deaf residential school, the Illinois School for the Deaf which was her father's school. She was later sent to a regular school with hearing classmates but continued with speech lessons in yet another school-which required a taxi ride paid for by the school district every day.
It wasn't until she entered Gallaudet College as a freshman in 1953 that she entered a community of signers who were her age-her true peers. That in itself was a culture shock because to Betty, sign language was for her parents' generation. She could talk and lipread. Her years at Gallaudet began her transformation from a naive hard of hearing girl to a proud deaf rebel who was years ahead of others in embracing signs as a true and natural language, and deafness as a difference, not a handicap.
Betty's art reflects her life and the changes she's lived through.
Bell School, 1944 shows students sitting dutifully, some with their hands folded, and shows lines around their mouths as if they are puppets.
Untitled clearly shows the feeling of being seen only as a large ear, needing to be fixed instead of as a person. Blossom, in contrast, shows a hand signing "GROW" intertwined with a blossoming rose.
Trees shows the strength of community as trees standing together in a forest. The deaf people in the drawing are each signing "TREE."
Now 75, Betty's current challenge is her gradual loss of memory and cognition. It is no longer easy to plan a painting which leads to smaller works of art and more spontaneous works. It also means a challenge in coming up with new ideas. I'm confident that as with the other challenges she's faced, Betty will find her way through this maze--this haze, and that both she and her work will become even stronger.
More information about Betty G. Miller can be found on her website at http://bettigee.purple-swirl.com.