An Artist's TouchLatitude works to help blind and deaf artist find his place in art
by Kendra Ratliff
Lexington, KY - As he cleans off his worktable, artist Jessie Dunahoo, 78, feels around for any trace of dirt or plastic bag left behind. His balance is impeccable for his age, and as he maneuvers his body around the corners of the wooden table, one can't help but be impressed with his agility and patience, especially considering he is blind and deaf.
Although Dunahoo was born deaf and lost his sight long ago, his remaining senses are unfailing. Using creativity, imagination and a strong work ethic, Dunahoo has made a name for himself as a successful visual artist creating sculptures that are functional and beautiful.
For the past decade, Dunahoo has been a part of Latitude Artist Community, founded by Bruce Burris and Crystal Bader.
"He is his own guardian, and it's difficult to say that yes, he wanted to come here, but he did make it clear that he wanted to continue to make art. And when we started Latitude, we offered the invitation for him to come, and he did accept," said Bader.
Dunahoo spends three days a week in his studio, where he works independently, setting up, working and cleaning his space. Dunahoo typically works for six hours a day and will often work on different projects simultaneously, according to Bader.
"I do believe what he is creating is functional for him. Sometimes it is an ascetically pleasing sculpture or piece of work, like a quilt, but still that's functional. He has created housing that you can get into, he has created tents, and when he shows us how it's supposed to be used, it's obvious what it's supposed to do," said Bader.
Keeping that functional purpose in mind, Dunahoo is also resourceful, using recycled materials like plastic bags to create his art. Underneath his worktable, there are bags and boxes full of materials like shopping bags from various stores, empty plastic containers and thread. Dunahoo also has access to paper, paint, tools and many other supplies provided by Latitude.
Dunahoo uses needle and thread to stitch plastic bags together with uncanny precision to create whatever he feels compelled to do. "I have seen him use yarn as well," said Bader, who describes the various techniques Dunahoo uses when stitching bags together.
Dunahoo stitches one line at a time by using his legs or bagging up bricks to use as an anchor so he can spread out on the table. "He feels and searches around for structures to pin his work too," said Bader.
Dunahoo is always working. "He creates these installations constantly," said Burris. In June, Dunahoo created a rain slicker inspired by a rainy day. He spent about three studio days creating the rain jacket and when he finished he modeled the jacket to show how it worked, according to Burris.
Although Dunahoo's exact purpose for his work is unclear, it seems functionality is a priority.
"His mission is to create in a way that he is doing right now," said Burris. "His bedroom is organized with plastic bags hanging from the wall, instead of chests. They have pockets in them for storage."
Dunahoo's artistic creations not only have function, but there's a lot of passion behind the work.
"I think it's a passion for him because he's driven to do it; for what reason, we don't know, but he's definitely driven to do it, and if it wasn't a passion, he wouldn't be doing it," said Bader.
Dunahoo has had numerous installations and exhibits in the Lexington area, as well as a solo exhibit in 2008 at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York City.
Burris and Bader have been very cautious about selling Dunahoo's work, not because there hasn't been interest, but because Latitude doesn't try to push it.
"There would be no point in allowing him to exhibit if there wasn't potential to sell," said Burris. "But we're really working, and we have been over the past 12 years to just kind of get his space right."
Burris explained that there are other issues to consider with Dunahoo.
"Because he is supported in the way that he is, and though he is self-sufficient and can cut a path in the world in a marvelous way ... he doesn't have any real control or understanding of the art world beyond the creation," said Burris.
Latitude's focus has been to create a history and a legacy for Dunahoo. "We are really more interested in getting the writing that needs to be done on him, the documentation, the archiving of all of his work," said Burris, who feels that despite how old Dunahoo is, he has a lot of time to nurture the process.
Latitude has been trying to figure out where Dunahoo lives within the realm of art history. "Our thing has been to really place him within a historical context," said Burris.
Despite Dunahoo's dependence on different services and people, he is "his own unit," said Burris. Keeping that in mind, Latitude's primary objective is to put Dunahoo's work in a community environment, keeping it positive and exclusive in a way that brings attention to the work itself, as well as to the artist. In Dunahoo's case, those works of art are unique and meticulous creations that demonstrate how passion and dedication can bring out the best in an artist.