A Conversation on Dysfluent Art
Written by Patrick Campbell
It was a cold and windy day at the end of lockdown three here in the UK when Paul and I set out to record this video. It is an attempt to capture some of the conversations we both enjoyed having about stammering and art. Paul first talks about his own experiences of coming into contact with the idea of stammering pride and then beginning to try drawing himself in the moment of stammering. We discuss the lack of positive representation of stammering in art and why it is important to change this; how it feels to be painted stammering and where Paul hopes this work will lead to next. We later got the graphic designer Conor Foran to help us spruce it up with his awesome stammered font. Paul and I had a blast recording this video. We hope you’ll overlook the amateurish vibe (we did it outside, socially distanced taping a phone to a camera tripod!) and enjoy the video. The script is provided below too for those who prefer to read.
Patrick: Paul, it has been a pleasure to be part of your artistic journey to capture the moment of stammering. I wanted us to have a conversation that goes through some of the ideas and concepts you’ve come across along the way, as well as the personal aspect of the journey. To start, do you want to talk about what sparked your interest in the beginning? How did you end up, slightly out of the blue, deciding to paint yourself stammering and post it on instagram?
Paul: I guess the idea for the paintings started after reading the book you co-authored – Stammering Pride and Prejudice. The ideas inside turned my previous thinking on it’s head. I realised I had internalised a damaging view that my lack of fluency was a shameful failing that needed to be overcome. I knew that to oppose this I had to start off with accepting my stutter as an integral part of what makes me tick.
I find that by drawing something I learn a lot about how it works so I thought, why not draw yourself stammering? I instantly knew this was a powerful idea because it triggered alarm bells in my head and thoughts saying ‘nobody wants to see you like that’ and ‘you just shouldn’t do this – keep it quiet’. To challenge this I tried to paint myself stuttering in a celebratory light, trying to explore the possible idea of a stammering reverie or luxuriating in a stammer. After doing my first preparatory drawing I nervously sent it through to you just to see what you thought.
Patrick: I was struck by the happiness of the drawing. It is not often we see stammering presented artistically with a positive, or even neutral, spin. Sam, Chris and I were pleased to integrate art into Stammering Pride and Prejudice. In particular, your portrait seemed similar to the photographs by the Icelandic Stammering Association on the ‘Stammering Aesthetic’. Did you take any inspiration from them?
I was also interested in the process of getting an image of yourself stammering. As I’d later discover when you tried to photograph me stammering, it is not always easy to capture an authentic stammer. How did you photograph your own stammering? What did you find is part of your stammering aesthetic as you painted?
Paul: Yes, I was very much influenced by the ‘Stammering Aesthetic’ photos. Amazing aren’t they? It was the first time I think I have seen still images of people actively stammering. I tried to take from them that spirit of almost playfulness they have. It also starts to show the diversity of ways that people stammer which is fascinating. It’s one of the things I really enjoy about the local Cambridge stammering network – hearing and experiencing the many ways people stammer and yet there being that shared bond of experience in there too.
I worked both portraits up from photos partly because of the fleeting nature of stammering but also because of that interesting lack of control you have over your body while it is happening. I tried drawing myself pretending to stammer but it didn’t look authentic so I asked my partner Germaine to photograph me and built the image up from a few of those pictures. I had a vague idea of my stammering aesthetic before these photos but was surprised by some of the images that came out. In about half I had my eyes closed which I wasn’t aware of. They also all had lots of tension around my jaw and lips. I wanted to involve my hands as I enjoy using them when I speak to emphasise points and also to add a visual flow while I talk. It is a peculiar feeling being photographed stammering. I don’t know how you found it but it felt exposing, interesting in an exploratory way and liberating.
As the painter of a self portrait you are judge, jury and executioner so you have ultimate say in how you choose to be represented. How was it being photographed and painted for you?
Patrick: I was excited at the prospect of exploring my stammering aesthetic with you. When being photographed and painted, I was pleased it was a fellow stammerer behind the lens and holding the paintbrush, if you had been fluent I wouldn’t have agreed to it. There is something important to me about people who stammer taking control of how we are represented and portrayed. I often feel unsettled when fluent people talk or write about stammerers – this extends to fluent professionals, even speech and language therapists. The power should lie with people who stammer when we are portrayed and talked about. That is what really appealed in your project.
I enjoyed our discussion of ‘male gaze’ in cinema and perhaps that stammerers are similarly effected by a ‘fluent gaze’. That’s why I called the painting ‘Stammered Gaze’. Here, stammerers were in control of the process of depicting ourselves. The process of capturing my own stammering aesthetic itself, however, proved more complicated than I thought it would be. I don’t stammer as much these days and I’m also aware that I’ve had speech therapy, which has changed my stammer. My stammer has been ’cleaned’ of its edges and tension for ‘ease’ of speech. We only had a couple of shots where I was stammering but even then I was unsure which best represented me. I crowd-sourced feedback from friends and relatives to help get the right one.
The whole process left me pondering what stammering is… the moment of anticipation of a block (when the stammer radar pings an oncoming word)? The brain glitch, the neurones misfiring in that moment of inertia as you come up against block? Or the classic stammering repetition itself?
Paul: I liked the way you asked your friends and relations which photo best depicted your stutter. It highlighted that our stutters exist in the shared experience between a person who stammers and their listener.
Representation is never simple is it – there are always power relations in any depiction. You introduced me to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s essay ‘Staring at the Other’ which raised a lot of these issues around what she describes as ‘exceptional bodies’ and how science, superstition and charity have all framed disability as abnormal and as a way of establishing the ‘normality’ of the ‘standard body’. I really liked your ‘fluent gaze’ idea and the importance of being in control of your depiction but I am also aware of the dearth of images of people stuttering in the world.
I searched for any painting in the history of art depicting a person actively stuttering and drew a blank. I found one sculpture of ‘the Stuttering Philosopher’ by Stanislav Szukalski Cecor – an interesting depiction but I think the title frames it in the old cliche of stuttering being synonymous with doubt. With no visual precedents except recent photographic ones I did feel in uncharted waters while painting these pictures. We need many more strong images of people stuttering in art and in our daily lives. It’s so important to see yourself represented positively in the world.
Patrick: Stammering is a communal activity, isn’t it? I recently listened to an episode of This American Life about stammering called Time Bandit. In it, JJJJJerome Ellis, a poet who stammers, explains how he sees his stammer as shared experience and frames it as the stutter rather than my stutter. Because as he says “stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I’m speaking to.” I think that is a great sentiment to carry forward in art about stammering.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work on staring at the disabled is very interesting. She wrote a whole book about it. She also puts forward a positive case for staring, where the stared at can teach the staree how to look: how to appreciate their rare beauty. She highlights the power of visual activism – when people publicly put themselves forward to be stared at to raise awareness and advocate for a disability.
I think you felt your own portrait was partly influenced by gay rights protesters of the 1990s that perhaps also weaponised visual activism to help gain equality? What was that story again? In terms of stammering, I think you are in uncharted waters, along with a few other pioneering artists beginning to conceptualise stammering through art. It is exciting times! How have the responses to the piece been? Do you think you have achieved your aims for the paintings?
Paul: Jerome Ellis’s performance that night was such a clever and powerful use of the stutter to expose the casual presumption of fluency that time limited slots produce. I’d have loved to have been there to experience the reaction in the hall.
You will remember that I wrote a blog post for the Stammering Pride and Prejudice site where I talked about how surprised I was by how my portrait ended up. It felt like I had found a strange unexpected beauty in my stutter that I hadn’t known before which chimes with the ‘rare beauty’ thoughts of Garland Thomson. I must borrow that book off you! Visual activism is such a powerful thing and there are so many models out there to learn from.
I remember in the late 80s the demonstrations against clause 28 when the Thatcher government passed laws to prohibit the promotion of homosexuality. The Pride demonstrations in response to the Stonewall riots in 1969 meant that there was already a sophisticated and visually fun language to tap into for the anti Clause 28 demonstrators to work with.
I hope that being visibly proud of our stutters will help even in a small way to push back against the societal pressure to be fluent. You ask about the responses to the painting? So far they have all been positive. Many talked about the honesty in it and how it provides a new narrative about stammering. Lots of re-posts and messages from all over the world and it has prompted so many discussions especially with work colleagues. I guess it has been a good excuse to ask me about what having a stutter is like so I guess the picture has done what I wanted it to. I think my favourite comment was from someone I used to work with who said ‘I miss your stutter and I miss working with you’. How’s that for positivity about stuttering!
Patrick: I think the parallels to the LGBTQI+ rights movement are powerful to draw upon. There has been quite a bit of thinking around the idea of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. That heterosexuality is the presumed and natural sexuality in society and breaking away from this is deviant. People who stammer suffer from ‘compulsory fluency’. Society expects us to be fluent and punishes us when we are not. The way LGBTQI+ have challenged ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ has been in part through showing off their sexuality and playing with stereotypes. I like to think your portraits are trying to capture fabulous stammers and stammerers that highlight our most unique and original features of our speech, to challenge the fluent norm.
I suppose that’s a very academic way of saying being ‘visibly proud of our stutters will help to push back against the societal pressure to be fluent’. It is lovely to hear about the response to your painting. I worry that sometimes people who stammer are simply held up as ‘inspiration porn’ when we do something daring to challenge ableist norms. Where to next, Paul?
Paul: I like your idea of a fabulous stammer. I had been trying to produce an image of your ideal stammer but, perhaps in future projects, I’ll try to focus on the sitter’s fabulous one. I’m planning to paint more portraits of people in the act of stammering with the aim of getting them shown together in an exhibition. Someone has got in touch to volunteer to have her portrait painted which I’m very excited about but the current pandemic and social distancing means I’ll have to wait a while before we can meet up. If any readers of this blog post are interested in a stammering portrait collaboration I would love to hear from you. My instagram account is #paulastonpainter if you would like to get in touch.
Can I just say Patrick what a pleasure it has been doing this portrait with you. I hope we will collaborate on more projects in the future.