Sign Language

M. assessing her work.M. assessing her work.

The collaborative work that my five year old hard of hearing daughter and I are doing is the most interesting and challenging work I have done in a long time. I’ve decided to title the exhibit “Sign Language“, as it refers not only to the ASL we are learning, but more about how people can communicate non-verbally. This give-and-take (okay, more “take” in my kid’s case) relationship is a different way of working for me. I want to respect and keep a lot of her mark making and imagery, but at the same time often I have to alter or remove them for the sake of the whole piece. There is a part of my heart that is crushed every time I make a decision like this, to “erase” a precious part of her childhood. To her, she doesn’t really care. It’s just another drawing.

We are using all sorts of materials, such as acrylic, tempera, crayon, watercolour pencils, gouache. Our latest addition to our media vocabulary is pink and purple sparkly paint! M. doesn’t like the way it’s translucent; she prefers her colours bold and punchy. And sparkly.

I am finding that our use of bird imagery is especially pertinent, because before she was aided at almost four, she couldn’t hear birds at all.


Swimming lessons–actual and metaphorical

Swimming is one of those things that people should know how to do, because say, you’re stranded on a ship in the high seas and the ship starts sinking and there are no life jackets. Or pool noodles. And then you’re outta luck.

However, I’m one of those people that despite lessons both in my childhood and adulthood, never could quite get the hang of it. Don’t get me wrong–I love water and I can spend hours in it “swimming” if I have a safety net like a noodle. I don’t know what it is that I’m afraid to let go.

I tried to take my daughter to a group swimming class. I informed the instructor that she was hard of hearing and can’t wear her hearing aids in the water. I told him that he must be at arm’s length away or closer when talking to her, and facing her. Of course that’s hard to do when there are four other classes happening in the pool simultaneously. It’s echoey enough as a hearing person! My kid said afterwards, “I can’t understand him”. So, I’ll look into private lessons.

Back to safety nets (or noodles)–as a parent it’s really hard to let your kid go off without the noodle, to watch him or her struggle. Intellectually I know it’s important as a learning strategy, but emotionally I just want to catch her, hold her hand, give her a noodle. However as she grows up in this world she needs to learn to ask for what she needs. In her special Deaf and Hard of Hearing Kindergarten Program, they are taught to say, “Could you say that again, please?” or, when asked what “those things” are in her ears, she says, “Oh they’re to help me hear better!” Usually the response is, “Cool!”

So, I have to let go of the noodle, bit by bit and watch this amazing little person advocate for herself.



Sometimes I get “stuck”. When I’m teaching a lot, grading, taking my daughter to appointments and not in my studio, I get stuck. I stare at a blank canvas (well, actually I don’t use a lot of canvas, but you know what I mean). But I have to practice what I preach: “It’s just a canvas”, I tell my students. “You are making the painting, the painting is not making you.” How much power that empty canvas can have over an artist is pretty incredible. It’s because it represents a multitude of possibilities that you don’t know where it’s going to lead. Yes. Terrifying.

I love drawing. Drawing is so immediate and almost primal. I love watching kids draw because they are so engaged in watching the mark take place on the paper. They are not thinking if critics and curators are going to see it. To them, it’s almost magical that this line is coming out of the crayon. It really is a collaboration between the mind, the crayon, the eyes and the brain.

So. To unstick myself and get back to what I love, I bought a huge sheet of heavy drawing paper. Four feet by eight feet. I put it up on my studio wall. And I let my kid draw on it. And then I draw in response to her marks. It takes all of my being not to say, “Oh don’t mix those complementary colours together, sweetie. You’ll make mud.” Or, “Um, I wouldn’t put a line there, it kinda ruins the composition.”

We are collaborating on this large scale drawing –her lines upon my scribbles, wide arches of muddy paint colours over my washes. I realize that because my kid is so much part of my life, and much of my life in the last year has been about dealing with her hearing issues, that I should involve her–really involve her, in my art and in a visual way.

The in-between world

Usually, when people discover (through noticing the hearing aids) that my kid is hard of hearing, the first question they as is: “Does she know Sign Language?” I always answer in a fumbly way, “Uh, no, um she doesn’t have to but she’s interested in it, so we’re looking into it.” And then it occurred to me the other day that her situation is so similar to my being Chinese-Canadian! People always ask, because I’m of Chinese descent, if I speak Chinese. There’s this assumption that it should come naturally to me. To which I always respond, “How’s your Gaelic?

This life in dual worlds is the central theme in my own artwork, of feeling partly of one culture, partly of another, and not sure where we fit. It’s becoming the way of the contemporary world as it plummets towards globalisation. In terms of Hard of Hearing people, this world is aptly described in this article (THANKS to HearMe Hear Me Not wordpress blog!!)

In terms of learning ASL, it’s a language that we’re really interested in and not just because my daughter is hard of hearing. She had the opportunity to go into a French Immersion program next year of Senior Kindergarten, but after much stress and consideration, my husband and I decided against it. Before we knew she was hard of hearing, I just assumed that she would go into French immersion. There was no question about it. However, since she was identified late at almost four years old and catching up on those years of lost access to full hearing, we decided we would wait. And maybe our second language would be ASL!

However, finding an ASL class that was not “Baby Sign” (she’s too old for that! And so are we!) and that was not full-on ASL classes for adults, we’ve been having a tricky time finding a good fit for all three of us.

My daughter loves loves loves singing. She’s singing all of the time: washing her hands, drawing, tying knots in string. We would like to find a class that incorporated learning ASL vocabulary through song and movement. I contacted Silent Voice Canada’s amazing Family Communication program

and they sent us Craig, a very funny and kind Deaf man. But my daughter didn’t understand Deafness. In her aided world, her experience is quite different than Craig’s. In fact, despite me telling her that he can’t hear at all, she kept yelling at him louder and louder! How mortifying. Fortunately Craig was so graceful and understanding.

Anyway, we found that it was very hard to keep a four year old’s attention engaged for a full hour in full ASL immersion. We needed to find a way that, as I mentioned above, bridged both worlds. And a class that taught all three of us as a family. We’re in this together.

I know I’ll probably never be fluent in ASL,but the very very very few signs I know have been helpful in noisy places, when she’s in the bath. when she’s just a little to far to hear me well. “Do you need to pee?” is a common one. And, “Don’t do that.” or “Stop.” Hopefully she won’t associate ASL with negative commands!

This weekend we are going to a weekend camp through VOICE: for Hearing Impaired Children.

It’s a group that encourages and promotes Auditory Verbal therapy and auditory -oral language development, not ASL so much (if at all?)  We’re really excited to meet other parents of hearing impaired kids, and as it’s part of my kid’s new culture, I want her to experience all ends of the spectrum.

Especially the in-between parts.