This series of posts is mostly about musicians who had growth spurts after 40, but today I’m posting about a visual artist I read about today thanks to Alastair Galbraith, whose records I very much admire. I consider his album Mass to be among the finest in our genre.
Alastair posted a link to a TV story about the New Zealand artist Susan Te Kahurangi King, who has produced a remarkable body of work over a span of some 50 years while suffering from case of autism which prevents her from speaking. In the piece, the journalists interview the artist’s sister, who reveals that Susan stopped drawing at the age of 24 for a period of 30 years. The cause was the denial of an opportunity to attend art school, an injustice that sent her into a disabling depression for decades.
Her work was spotted in 1970 by a lecturer a nearby art school in New Zealand after it had been used in a fundraising magazine published by a school Susan went to for students with intellectual disabilities. The art school lecturer went to Susan’s school and told them that Susan’s work was amazing, and that he very much wanted her to come study art at his college. Susan’s school refused to let her go because they said she was too valuable to them because she was making mats for them that relied on selling to make money. They proceeded to take all of her drawing materials away from her to prevent her from continuing in her work.
Her family only learned of this offer and its denial years later when a friend of the lecturer ran into Susan’s mother on the street and said it was a shame she hadn’t been able to go to art school. She began making work again in 2007 or 8 and hasn’t stopped since. In the interview, her sister reports her depression has lifted and she has a spring in her step. This TV show calls attention to an exhibition of her work that went up in 2009. She now has a wonderful website you can check out about her work.
October is National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month. In my work as a teacher, I have taught several students with autism who were phenomenally talented in the arts. There are people with all kinds of disabilities – mental and physical, visible and invisible – that do great things if they are given the chance that Susan was cruelly denied at a young age, and then reclaimed years later. Keep an eye out for ways to support them and educate those who overlook their gifts. One aspect of her work that the piece mentions is its exploration of sexuality, which is a beautiful thing given that advocates for people with disabilities raise the denial and suppression of their sexuality as an important issue for society to address.