A Rolling Mona Lisa: Artist, Advocate, Activist

An Artist’s Point of View: Interview with Wendy Elliott-Vandivier by Wendy Crawford

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier
Recently my husband, Peter, generously offered to take in my accessible van for a maintenance check-up. I quickly jumped at the offer given it is one of my least favorite things to do.  

While he was there, I started receiving a series of text messages from him with photos of a beautiful golden retriever, very similar to our beloved one that had passed away. The owner was waiting for her van to be repaired and apparently, Peter struck up a conversation with she and her husband. He then mentioned what a gifted artist that this woman was and that we should connect.

When he returned home, Peter gave me her business card.  It immediately caught my attention because of the vibrant, colorful self-portrait on the front. Not only was it beautifully executed, but the fact that she was wearing several hospital-like alert bracelets stacked on her arm like bangles, looking stylish and chic, peaked my interest. She had an intriguing expression on her face not, unlike the “Mona Lisa” --  almost a smirk --  that made me feel as though she knew something that the rest of us didn’t.

As soon as I looked at her website it immediately became apparent that Wendy Elliott-Vandivier had a voice and a point of view, and she was conveying these important messages through her art. As Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

We at mobileWOMEN.org jumped at the opportunity to get to know this talented woman and find out what is behind that mischievous smirk, in our latest interview:

MW: How did you become interested in art and did you have any formal training?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: I have been making art my whole life. I would always make drawings, paintings and sculpture since I was a small child. It was something that I enjoyed doing and it came easily for me.

As a child, I took classes at the Philadelphia School Art League and Cheltenham Art Center. When it was time to go to college, I won the Philadelphia Board of Education Scholarship in Art and the Philadelphia City Scholarship. These scholarships enabled me to go to college for free.
I graduated with honors (Magna Cum Laude) from Tyler School of Art of Temple University, where I majored in sculpture, and I also dabbled in painting, photography and other areas. I have continued to make art over the past several decades.
MW: What mediums of art do you prefer to work with and why?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: In college, I majored in sculpture, and did a lot of large-scale environmental pieces, conceptual and performance art. One time, I even staged a “funeral” of a disabled poster child to lay stereotypes of pity and helplessness, firmly to rest.

As I have aged with my disability, I found that it is more difficult to physically make large-scale sculpture, and I have focused my efforts of oil painting, cartoons and photography.

My paintings explore issues of family, memory and experiences as a disabled woman.
My autobiographical cartoons focus on attitudinal barriers and stereotypes regarding disabilities, and some of the micro-aggressions that disabled people experience while living normal, un-inspirational lives. 
I am also a photographer of micro-scale monuments in nature, and I am often inspired by close-up images that people often do not notice in daily life – tree bark, dead leaves, flower anatomy, and water.
MW: Do you have any technical tips, equipment or tools that you use when creating from a chair?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: I was born with Spina Bifida, and use a motorized wheelchair 100% of the time for mobility. When I create my cartoons, I use a portable drafting board that sits on top of my dining room table. I can easily roll my wheelchair under the table and comfortably draw from a seated position.

When I do oil painting, I mainly use a large floor easel that I can adjust up and down, depending on the size of the canvas or section of the painting in which I am working. If I am working on a smaller canvas, I have a table-top easel that is also adjustable.

For my photography, I have a small digital camera with a zoom lens. Having a zoom lens makes it a lot easier to photograph things that are hard to reach from a wheelchair.

MW: Did you start to create cartoons to convey a message or did that organically fall into place?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: I get inspiration for new cartoons by just getting out in public and doing normal things like going to work, getting out of my van, eating at restaurants, going to the doctor’s office and traveling to new places.
Sometimes, I am unable to think of a good response at the time to the insensitive remarks or conduct of others. So, I started writing down the remarks on a “note pad” app on my cell phone. Eventually, after a few days or weeks, I get an idea for a cartoon. I start to make rough sketches of the ideas at first, and then refine them into detailed pen and ink drawings and then apply color with colored pencils.
I often use animals in my cartoons, especially my service dog, as a kind of “alter ego” or “comic insult dog” to communicate things that are sometimes difficult to say in public.
The color in my cartoons is very bright, happy and sweet, although the subject matter is not. I use humor and color to make it easier to communicate my thoughts – I use a light touch to educate people about my experiences living with a disability and some of the attitudinal barriers that I face on a daily basis.
MW: What are the primary messages do you want others to learn from your art?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: I want to convey the message that disabled people are strong, powerful and beautiful people. Respect, recognize, celebrate and value disabled people for who they are and what they bring to the table. Disability is part of our identity – it’s not something to overcome, cure, pity, and it is not a vehicle for inspiration.

We are proud of our disabilities and deserve to be fully included in all aspects of society – education, the workplace, housing, transportation, health care, religious institutions and recreational activities. Inclusion is nothing special – it is just a seat at the table, to have a voice and access to what everyone else has! 

MW: You are also “a photographer of micro-scale monuments in nature, and is often inspired by close-up images that people often do not notice in daily life – tree bark, dead leaves, flower anatomy, and water.”  Why have you focused on this perspective and do you feel that your disability had any influence on this choice?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: I always joke with my non-disabled husband, who also likes photography, that when we go to photograph a park or garden, and we later compare our photos, it looks like we were in totally different places. He focuses on panoramic views, while I am intrigued by small, close-up objects that are close to the ground. I believe that my view from the wheelchair has given me a strong and unique perspective with my photography. I enjoy changing the viewer’s perspective, making tiny things look gigantic, sometimes to the point that they are not sure what they are viewing.

MW: What advice would you offer to other mobileWOMEN that are considering becoming an artist?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: Art is a great outlet, whether you are pursuing it as a profession or a hobby. I create because I have to. It is like eating and breathing for me. It’s just something I must do to survive. It is a great outlet for me to communicate my ideas, experiences and my unique view of the world around me.
MW: What goals do you hope to achieve with your art?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: I often use my art to educate others and try to make the world a better place. I would like to continue this through a variety of venues. My work has three main areas of focus: storytelling of my lived experiences to fight attitudinal barriers and misconceptions, bringing art as a means of expression to the disabled community through workshops, dialogue, and teaching, and activism to bring about social change through exhibiting my work to the nondisabled community.
At first, the process of creating art is cathartic for myself, portraying otherwise dark and painful experiences with humor and freeing myself to begin the work of helping others. I then focus on sharing these experiences to as wide an audience as possible, to make disabled people less invisible and emphasize the importance of the struggle for disability justice. I also aim to give disabled people a voice through the visual arts by teaching them how to create their own works.
MW: Lastly, will you share your thoughts behind the smirk in your self-portrait?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: I painted my self-portrait, “Medical Bling” after I had to spend four months in bed (2 of which were in a rehab hospital) recovering from surgery for a pressure sore. (At the time, I joked that I “wore my butt off” by working 53 hours a week!) While in the hospital, I had to wear multiple wrist band labels for falling, allergy, etc. My tongue-in-cheek, detailed self-portrait shows me as an artist with my medical bling or labels that do not describe my essence and beauty as a woman. I believe that the medical profession needs to see disabled people as full human beings, and not just as objects that need to be treated or cured.
MW: Any other comments or thoughts that you would like to share?

Wendy Elliott-Vandivier: Most non-disabled people who view my cartoons really like them, and they are often surprised at some of the things that I have experienced. Sometimes they feel sad that people say these things to me. Other people may wonder if they had inadvertently made remarks that were inappropriate.
Most disabled people who view my cartoons love the “disability positive” message that I am delivering, especially in the cartoon about terminology used by society to describe disabled folks. They have experienced similar things when they are just out there, going about their business and trying to live normal, “un-inspirational” lives.
To view more of Wendy’s art, visit her website at www.wendyevart.com
© 2020 Wendy Elliott-Vandivier All rights reserved.