I was introduced to Kathryn Sherwood’s work by my friend, the painter Sarah Cain, early last year when I told her about my recent struggles with chronic illness and how I had turned to disabled artists to help me make meaning of it. She urged me to look at Sherwood’s paintings. What I found there were images that felt simultaneously disruptive and generous, offering intimate attention to lives frequently neglected.
In the series Venuses of the Yelling Clinic, Sherwood bases her works on paintings of women that loom large in the art historical canon. While her paintings refer to reclining nudes by the likes of Ingres, Manet, and Titian, Sherwood pointedly departs from these vaunted depictions in one significant way: her subjects all have disabilities. They wear prosthetic limbs or braces, and some have a mobility aid within reach. The women’s heads take on a more startling and surreal difference, as their faces are collaged from detailed images of brain scans. They are, in fact, images of the artist’s own brain. In 1997, Sherwood experienced a cerebral hemorrhage that left her with paralysis of the right side of her body.
“Love letter” is the perfect term for what I want to write to Sherwood. Love, when it’s at its best, is transformative. It cultivates connection and care, giving us a tool for settling deeper into ourselves and often changing our conceptions of self for the better. While people with disabilities must navigate a world bereft of care for them, Sherwood offers a place for those with disabilities to gather, to commune, to see themselves represented with care. These disabled women occupy their own canon, and in the act of asserting their embodiment, work to reconstruct the larger cultural conversation around disability into one of love.