To mark International Women’s Month, we celebrate these diverse women who have been transformed – and have transformed others – by the power of their art.
1. Yayoi Kusama
“My nets grew beyond myself and beyond the canvases I was covering with them… They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe.”
Celebrated Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, known for her bright and cheery works of art, has experienced mental health issues such as obsessive compulsive disorder and hallucinations all her life – a result of having grown up in a chaotic home in which she was physically abused.
Kusama developed her abstract motif (“infinity net”) which features simple, repetitive shapes and forms in primary colors as a form of meditation. Her beguiling work beckons viewers in, leaving them also in a meditative state. The simple vocabulary of Kusama’s work broadens its appeal, so that more people – even those outside of the “art world” – can appreciate it.
Kusama, now 92, is one of the most successful living artists today. She has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric asylum in Tokyo since 1977.
2. Ali Stroker
“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena—you are!”
You might remember Ali Stroker as Betty Pillsbury in the hit TV show Glee. The American actress and singer was also the first wheelchair user actress to appear on a Broadway stage, and to clinch a Tony Award (2019).
At the age of 2, Stroker was involved in a car accident which left her paralyzed from the chest down. She began performing at age 7 and went on to star in high school musical productions.
After being the first student in a wheelchair to graduate with a degree in Fine Art from the New York University (NYU) Tisch drama program in 2009, Stroker won a guest role on Glee. In 2015, she made history as the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway when she played Anna in Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening. She also starred as Ado Annie in a production of Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Stroker has performed in world-renowned venues and appeared in many other TV shows including Lethal Weapon and Instinct.
Source: Disability Horizons, NBC
3. Alice Sheppard
“My life changed when, in 2004, I saw disabled dancer Homer Avila take the stage. That performance and a conversation in which he dared me to take a dance class led me from my world as a Medieval Studies professor to a life of dance.”
British dancer Alice Sheppard loved moving so much that she resigned from her academic professorship to pursue a career in dance. She studied ballet and modern with Kitty Lunn, also a wheelchair user, and made her debut with Infinity Dance Theater. After an apprenticeship, Alice joined AXIS Dance Company where she toured nationally and taught in the company’s education and outreach programs.
Since becoming an independent artist, Alice has danced in projects with Ballet Cymru, GDance, and Marc Brew in the United Kingdom. In the US, she has worked with Full Radius Dance, Marjani Forté, MBDance, Infinity Dance Theater, and Steve Paxton.
As an emerging and Bessie award-winning choreographer, Sheppard creates movement that challenges conventional understandings of bodies with disabilities that dance. Engaging disability arts, culture, and history, she is intrigued by the intersections of disability, gender, and race. In addition to performance and choreography, Sheppard is also a sought-after speaker on topics related to disability arts, race and dance. Her writing has appeared in the The New York Times and academic journals.
Source: Alice Sheppard Official
4. Francesca Martinez
“Is disability purely physical or medical-based or can we say that a lack of love or care can create different kinds of disabilities?”
Wobbly. That’s how British comedian Francesca Martinez describes her experience with cerebral palsy.
In 2000, Martinez became the first female comic to win the prestigious Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award at the Edinburgh Festival, the world’s largest arts festival. Since then she has toured the world and appeared on TV shows such as Live at the Apollo, The Jonathan Ross Show and Extras. Her first book What The **** Is Normal?! was published in 2014 to critical acclaim and was nominated for two national book awards.
She has supported Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle on his UK tour, and is currently working on several TV and theatre commissions. Her play, All of Us, was meant to debut at the National Theatre in May 2021, but all shows have been canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The silver lining is that copies of her play will also be published sometime this year, so stay tuned. An active campaigner, she regularly speaks out on many of the most pressing issues of our times.
Source: Francesca Martinez Official
5. Mira Mariah
” I realized that [tattooing] combined so many of my loves. I love illustrating. I love sewing, and in a way, tattooing is like sewing with ink. I love collaborating with people. A lot of people talk about the way tattoos transform their relationship with their body, and I have a constantly changing relationship with my body.”
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Tattoo artist Mira Mariah lost one of her legs age at 17 when she contracted a staph infection from surgery to correct a birth defect. The decision to have her leg amputated was made after multiple surgeries, years of chronic pain and complications.
Over time, Mariah found that tattooing was a way to marry her passion for illustrating and sewing, and collaborating with people. In 2014, she began apprenticing at a studio and hasn’t looked back. Today, the celebrated New York-based artist counts the likes of Ariana Grande as clientele.
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Mariah’s style is where fine art references meet fashion illustrations. She champions diversity through her art and is committed to ensuring that her work represents real body types and shapes.
“That seems really important and appropriate as we normalize ‘normal’ body types [like plus-size and disabled women]. This is what I see when I walk down the street. It’s women of all different styles and flavors. That should be in tattoos, too. We want to see tattoos of women we love, as they actually are,” she said in an interview with Refinery29.