“We are all on our own ultimately, and that is where my work comes from.” Meet Deaf artist and author Louise Stern

Posted on October 21, 2014

You are an artist and an author – how much were you exposed to art and literature in your younger years?

My folks always had books around the house and Dad would read to us every night or make up wild stories for us.

My sister, brother and I always looked forward to story time. My mother carefully selected the things we had in the house – she is a visual person – and we would occasionally go to museums. I would read every label and look at every piece – my family would have to wait ages for me.

You first came to London to study art, after studying Art History at Gallaudet. Tell me about your work and about your early years in the UK?

My work is an effort to make sense of deafness and the experience of language and communication that I and my community have. These first years in the UK though, I was just trying to understand what I needed to live a fulfilling life.

One of the first times I heard about you was the magazine you created for young people, called Maurice. Tell us about that – were you disappointed that it didn’t go on for longer?

It was a huge disappointment at the time, and I am still sad that we didn’t find a way to continue to publish it.

But now I’m glad that I had the time and space to make the work that I do now, and who knows what will happen in the future? With Maurice, we were trying to use contemporary art as a visual language to process everyday experience with.

Your first book was called Chattering: Stories. It’s about people who are often quite individual, somehow separate from the people around them. How much does it reflect your artistic focus on communication and language?

We are all on our own ultimately, and that is where my work comes from. I want to examine how we each use the various forms of language and communication to understand and to block out ourselves and the world.

unnamed-1You then went to Mexico to write your new book in a place a bit like Martha’s Vineyard, where everyone knows how to sign! What was that like?

A very natural and beautiful feeling.

What else did you discover in Mexico?

Surfing, romance, the village children, tiritas, Bictoria, a hammock, sunsets over the beach…… It’s where I work best too. I was able to think about my work in a way that I’m not always able to in London and put myself on a steady writing schedule also.

What else have you been working on?

I’m writing a play in which I’m trying to push the ideas in my next book, “Ismael and His Sisters”, by making them visual.

I think that’s faithful to the deaf experience, although the play doesn’t have any deaf characters. It focuses on three people who in their different ways struggle with communicating themselves.

It uses projected written notes and a mixture of sign and mime (more easily accessible to a general audience than sign, but more emotionally nuanced and physical than mime) in addition to spoken dialogue. I’m also working on a new body of photographs and a few smaller art/writing projects.

When communicating with hearing people you often use written notes. How does that change the balance of the conversation?

It forces more attention to the conversation from both people – for better or for worse!

And then you also have a record of what was said, so you can’t embroider the words themselves with your emotions and memories. There are other things too, but these are the things that come to mind first.

Your sister is an actress and your brother teaches at Gallaudet . What did your parents do right to have three creative and successful children?

My brother is also the head basketball coach for the men’s team at Gallaudet, and he has a 2-year old deaf daughter now. My mom and dad, and all of my grandparents as well, are strong, imaginative and passionate people in their different ways, and they are deeply committed to being parents and grandparents.

What is next for you?

A somewhat steadier way to pay the rent I hope !

Louise Stern’s next book will be published in early February 2015.

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Posted in: interviews