My Dearest Friends: Oaklee Thiele in conversation with Amanda Cachia
The world has been gripped with a deadly and unprecedented pandemic that has disabled much of the population. Artists with disabilities, chronic illnesses, autoimmune diseases, or respiratory issues are feeling more vulnerable and anxious than ever given their extreme risk for infection. Forced to go into medical quarantine, many of these artists also face financial hardship and loss. By the same token, they are able to observe how the general population has responded to the merits of virtual access and isolation in order to instill safe hygiene practices – practices that chronically ill artists have been soliciting for decades, and which are typically ignored by the mainstream. It seems that the temporary pandemonium over a health crisis can have contradictory, chronic, and generative applications for marginalized artists. I have been watching with interest at how disabled artists have responded through their art practices. One young artist caught my attention: Oaklee Thiele, based in Springfield, Illinois, has been working on a powerful project entitled My Dearest Friends in collaboration with DisArt in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read our interview below to learn more.
AC: Why don’t we begin by you telling me what this project is all about?
OT: Well, at the start of the pandemic, there was this odd week where, in the U.S., there was a transition into social distancing. I am a freelance artist and I ended up losing all of my income in less than a week. All of the speeches that I had lined up and any exhibitions were completely gone. I was really struggling to find a way to support myself. And I was also struggling with the treatment of our disabled community. A lot of people were saying, you know, it’s fine because only the sick and disabled will die from this, which was really upsetting. They didn’t seem to care that this is life and death for some of us.
I ended up making some educational posts about the pandemic. I am a service dog handler, so I was specifically writing about how can you help service dog handlers at that time. This organization called DisArt reached out to me because of those posts. They also wanted to create some sort of educational content, something where we could raise awareness about our disabled community and the pandemic, and tell those stories.
We ended up partnering together and they sent me off to my studio. I was brainstorming, trying to figure out what to do. I tried to process things. I ended up writing this open letter or a poem titled My Dearest Friends. It was my way of addressing my disabled community and begging them not to forget this moment in history. I vowed to them that at the end of all of this I would work to make the world more accessible for us. DisArt saw the poem and it became the foundation for this project. We ended up publishing it and asking other people within the disabled community to write and respond to it. Everybody can use the same format when they send in a submission. You start off with “My Dearest Friends” and you write about your thoughts, your feelings, your experiences, whatever you have going on with this pandemic. And then you sign it with your first name. That’s it.
We’ve gotten submissions from all across the globe, which has been really cool. Whenever we receive a submission, it goes into this chart, which I then get and I end up illustrating every single submission that we’ve gotten. I’ve made over two hundred illustrations so far. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. But that’s been really cool because it’s a way of responding to their experiences. We do hear you, we do see you and, each one is custom made, it’s for them. When we publish these illustrations, it’s our way of documenting disabled experiences and making sure that it’s heard during the pandemic.
AC: Can you tell me more about the illustrations? How do you go about developing an image that is based on a submission? What kind of submissions are they?
OT: The best way to see the illustrations is actually on our Instagram. This feeds into my website and also onto the DisArt page as well. We also have a dedicated Facebook page. Sometimes when I read the submissions, I will see different images floating in my head and those are typically the ones I end up using. Sometimes there’ll be really powerful things said within the submission, and I want to make sure that I can write that out so that it stands out. As far as creating illustrations, I used materials that I could find within my home. I was not going to go out on an unnecessary trip to buy art supplies. I took the social distancing very seriously. All of my disabled friends and chronically ill friends were relying on social distancing to help protect their lives. Every illustration is made out of an 8 by 10 piece of computer paper and a single charcoal stick, which I’m really hoping doesn’t run out before the pandemic is over.
AC: And what are the black square images?
OT: If you read the little description under the black squares, that’s actually our sister project: the My Dearest Friends DisTopia Podcast. We have had artists, advocates, and all these amazing people from across the globe enter submissions. There were some people that we just had to continue this conversation with because they had an interesting point of view. So we created interviews and some of the participants are in a podcast which is also published. All of the podcasts can be found on Spotify or iTunes, or you can go to the DisArt website and find them there as well.
AC: If any folks out there want to submit, how can they get this to you?
OT: You can find the guidelines on the DisArt website, as well as on the Instagram page.
AC: What are the guidelines for submission?
OT: You start off with “My Dearest Friends” and then you share your thoughts, feelings, experiences with COVID. We prefer 280 characters maximum, but you can send multiple submissions. We can edit it down whenever you’d like. You sign up with your first name or a pseudonym, and you email it to email@example.com. One of our team members will personally email you back, and then typically, it takes me a few days or a week or so to end up illustrating it and publishing it, but you’ll eventually see it online and public.
AC: Do you ever run anything past the person who submitted work? Or do you go ahead and keep it as a surprise?
OT: It’s always a surprise. They never see the illustrations first. The only time we might run it past them is if we end up needing to edit it because of length or something like that.
AC: What has the response been like, both from the people who have submitted and also just in general?
OT: It’s been really, really positive. Actually, it’s been quite incredible because, you know, I’ve had people actually contact me through the account. And we’ve had some late night talks and even bonding with strangers about what is happening. It is all very stressful. I’ve been able to talk to nurses who are working on the front lines in New York City. And then I’ve talked to disabled advocates all the way over in Australia. It’s been incredible to get to connect with people on a global scale. But mostly, the most common thing that I’ve heard is that people just find a lot of comfort in this project, like to know that their anxieties and their fears and experiences are being acknowledged in some way. It becomes a shared experience.
AC: How long do you think that this project will last?
OT: We’re letting it unfold very organically, which how it started and how we’re planning on continuing it. As long as the world is experiencing these troubles with COVID we definitely plan on continuing the illustrations. We also have talked about displaying the images at the end of the project. We have discussed publishing or posting them in a book, or having them in an exhibition. So, we’re not sure, but the plan is to keep going until the end of the pandemic.
AC: What other observations can you share with us about your project? What has it brought for you personally and for your development as an artist?
OT: I think at the start of this, at the start of the pandemic, I definitely experienced this horrible artist’s block. But through the pandemic and this project, it has really allowed me to connect with people on a very human level. I don’t often do projects that are such on a big scale like this. And I don’t often have projects that are, I guess, interactive. So, it’s been interesting to have so many participants and to be able to have this large number of people involved in the making of this project.
AC: You’ve had to be quite the coordinator.
OT: Yes, we’ve got a great team at DisArt that involves Jill Vyn and Chris Smit. And then we have Calvin Otto on social media. I’m just the one doing the illustrations.
AC: Do you need to identify as disabled to submit to this project?
OT: We really encourage people to discuss disability and their experiences, and we’re specifically looking for disabled people to enter. But we have had others who don’t necessarily identify as disabled.
AC: What do you think of doing all of this virtually? What’s your experience of it? Is the online environment and social media more conducive to access, especially for folks with disabilities?
OT: Yes. I’ve definitely found it a lot more accessible, at least for myself. I do deal with very severe chronic fatigue, so being able to have all my meetings all at once at the same table has been incredibly helpful. On top of that, we’ve been able to have online meetings and call in interpreters for my friends who use ASL. We’ve been able to have closed captioning, and so far, it’s been very easy for everyone.
AC: What do you think about the accessibility of My Dearest Friends? Do you think it’s accessible?
OT: I would say so. We do invite people to send in audio files, so there are alternative ways to submit if you are unable to type it out. You can actually send a video of you talking, if that’s easier for you.
AC: I think it’s great that you don’t need to go to a physical space to see it. All you need to do is go on this account, and you can see it from anywhere in the world for free (more or less).
OT: Yes, I’ve loved that part as well.
AC: I hope you keep the Instagram account active for a really long time so that you have an archive that we can always draw from and look back on. How can folks with visual impairments access the My Dearest Friends project?
OT: My grandpa is completely blind and so accessibility for him (and other folks) was really important for me, because I wanted him to be able to experience this project as well. So, with each post that I make, I write an image description as well. If you go to the DisArt website, you will see that with every image, there is a recorded audio description.
For more information and to make a submission to the My Dearest Friends project, visit https://www.disartnow.org/projects/dearest-friends-project/
Amanda Cachia is an independent curator and critic from Sydney, Australia. She received her PhD in Art History, Theory & Criticism from the University of California San Diego in 2017. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art; curatorial studies and activism; exhibition design and access; decolonizing the museum; and the politics of disability in visual culture. Cachia has curated approximately forty exhibitions, many of which contain social justice themes and content.