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Before 2014, only one artist residency program in the world was considered “deaf-friendly,” an opportunity available at the Siena Art Institute in Siena, Italy.

However, thanks to the diligent efforts of Cynthia Weitzel E-’88, the Deaf Artist Residency Program at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota began in June 2014, becoming the first deaf artist residency program in the United States.

This year, the month-long residency accepted five deaf students for the summer of 2016, including Gallaudet English professor Jennifer Nelson, who applied by submitting photos of her art portfolio compiled over several years.

Nelson saw joining the residency as “a honor” and applauds the Anderson Center and Weitzel for the creation this program, which she believes has monumental impacts on the deaf community.

“It was a full-access residency, not one where a deaf artist has to work with hearing people via interpreters and so forth for the most part,” Nelson said.

Weitzel, a full-time studio artist at the Anderson Center, began the program in 2014 as a multidisciplinary effort fully accessible to deaf artists through shared language and culture. Currently, the program accepts artists biannually, but due to high interest, Weitzel hopes the program can happen yearly.

In an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts “Arts Blog, Weitzel called the program a “rare chance to identify, connect, influence, and engage” with other fellow artists who are deaf.

“Our hope is that each deaf resident coming through the program is able to benefit from the gift of uninterrupted time and space in which to create,” Weitzel said. “Also, we want them to benefit from the rich cultural exchange that occurs during shared time or activities among residents, especially at meal times around the dinner table. The new perspectives or knowledge gained often influences their work or how they go about their work.”

Nelson experienced this shift in artistic perspective as well throughout her experience in the residency program. For her project, Nelson painted portraits of all of the other deaf residents in the residency program for the summer of 2016. While her artistic focus since college shifted away from portrait art to three-dimensional art in the form of clay sculptures and figure drawing, the residency became an opportunity for her to refocus on portrait painting.

“This month allowed me the chance to get back into my desire for art, and to focus on developing my techniques again in terms of two-dimensional portrait painting,” said Nelson.

Nelson also credits the program for bringing together deaf artists for a month of personal artistic growth as well as group bonding.

“It was a full month of self-analysis and interaction with the other deaf artists,” said Nelson. “Our little community was incredibly supportive of each other and our work.”

For Weitzel, Nelson’s outcomes from the residency reflect the program’s initial mission.

“[Deaf artists] are given the gift of being themselves, being able to focus on their work, and feeling productive without the distractions of having to problem-solve or go without equal access communication,” said Weitzel.

Visit the Arts Blog site to read the full interview with Weitzel.

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