Hands-on Art and Language
“In the world, it’s often the case that a Deaf person is expected to read lips, have the accommodations they need, to do the work to hold a conversation, when really it’s hearing people who should be making the effort,” said Madeline Poultridge ’20.
Poultridge’s engagement with the Deaf community stems from a course they took while attending Avanti High School in Olympia, WA.
“Like a lot of things, my interest in sign language started somewhat by accident. I was in high school and needed to take a language class, for which you had to cross-enroll at the local community college,” said Poultridge. “My dad, who used to work there, knew one of the ASL instructors and thought he was great. I enrolled and found that ASL made sense to me; it was an interesting new modality of communication to learn.”
To enhance their language acquisition and gain a deeper understanding of ASL’s cultural significance, students were expected to attend at least one Deaf community event per term. Through their attendance at these events, Poultridge began to make friends and enhance their perspective on a community about which they had previously known little.
“Even when I could barely string a sentence together in ASL, talking and learning from people became important,” said Poultridge. “Sign language is usually thought of as a disability accommodation rather than a language, but I learned about centuries of Deaf oppression and political activism, and that ongoing work is what has kept me involved.”
When Poultridge enrolled at Bennington, Field Work Term presented them the opportunity to continue working with the Deaf community. During their first Field Work Term, Poultridge worked at Seattle-based Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS), which supports transitional housing operated by and for Deaf people.
“ADWAS operates the only shelter in the country where Deaf people can have full access in sign language without needing an interpreter,” said Poultridge.
For this Field Work Term, Poultridge sought out an opportunity that would combine further immersive ASL experience with their love of art. Poultridge reached out to Ellen Mansfield, a De’VIA (Deaf View/Image Art) artist based in Frederick, MD.
The experience...was a great opportunity to develop my language skills because it was full ASL immersion, and it was great to get to work in ceramics everyday with a full-time artist.
Madeline Poultridge '20
Mansfield is an artist best known for her paintings. She also practices ceramics, and her tile murals have been commissioned for the New York School for the Deaf, among other locales.
“Ellen’s painting and ceramic work are centered around her experience as a Deaf woman who grew up without sign language, and then later acquired the language and involved herself in the Deaf community,” said Poultridge. “Her work responds to this history of linguistic oppression, but it also also affirms and preserves the cultural history that is often invisible to those unfamiliar with Deaf culture.”
After an introductory email to and several Facetimed conversations with Mansfield, Poultridge was invited to join Mansfield as her studio assistant over Field Work Term.
“The experience was exactly what I needed in both fields,” said Poultridge. “It was a great opportunity to develop my language skills because it was full ASL immersion, and it was great to get to work in ceramics everyday with a full-time artist.”
Poultridge assisted Mansfield with casting plaster molds to create a mural of the fingerspelled alphabet. Each hand casted was from a different person in the Deaf community, including Deaf people, children of Deaf adults, and interpreters.
While several people joined Mansfield at her studio, she and Poultridge also drove into Washington, DC, to take casts from friends in town for the Indigenous Peoples March.
Poultridge utilized their experience from Yoko Inoue’s Slip Casting Ceramics for Functional Wares course as they cast molds of participants’ hands.The process “starts with an alginate cast—which is kind of like a jelly made out of seaweed—of their hand, and we filled that negative with plaster to create a collection of plaster hands,” said Poultridge. “It was a lot of problem solving because some hand shapes are difficult to cast, so we had to saw apart and reassemble molds from different chunks.”
Mansfield also filmed videos of participants signing about themselves and the letters they selected. As Mansfield worked on projects at her studio and at exhibitions around town, Poultridge had the opportunity to also interpret for her.
“I got lucky with this Field Work Term because I found something that perfectly hit both things I study,” said Poultridge. “I’m interested to see if ceramics and ASL will have such a concrete overlap in my life after Bennington.”
In the meantime, Poultridge is turning their attention to their advanced work, which envisions what sign language courses could look like when taught in a progressive education environment. Poultridge designed curriculum for ASL instruction as part of the course Teaching Languages and Cultures K-6 and also had the opportunity to teach students at Bennington Elementary.
“Over the past 30 years, more Deaf children have been mainstreamed, rather than going to Deaf schools,” said Poultridge. “From a disability advocacy point of view, that’s well intentioned, but it can be socially and linguistically detrimental for kids, since it ignores the linguistic and cultural experiences of Deaf identity. If they don’t have an interpreter, it’s difficult to follow along and make connections. Even with an interpreter, it’s detrimental for students’ social development to have every peer-to-peer interaction filtered through an adult.”
During Poultridge’s lessons at Bennington Elementary, Poultridge worked to impress upon the class of hearing students the capability they have to learn sign language to better communicate with their Deaf peers.
“It’s likely that some of them will eventually have a peer who is Deaf and mainstreamed, but hearing kids often don’t make the effort to learn sign language,” said Poultridge.
However, ensuring clear communication, said Poultridge, should ultimately be the responsibility of hearing people.
“That was my goal with those kids, to instill in them the knowledge that they have the ability to communicate in languages that aren’t spoken,” said Poultridge. “If they have a peer who’s mainstreamed, I wanted them to have the basis to interact and make a connection.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer